Of hurricanes and hand grenades

“Take the only tree that’s left and stuff it up the hole in your culture.”
–Leonard Cohen, “The Future”

“Some people think of swamps as unpleasant places that smell rank,” said Red as he guided our flat-bottomed boat along tall grasses and under branches drooping with French moss. “A healthy swamp is the freshest-smelling place in the world. A whole lot better than Bourbon Street on Saturday night.”

I inhaled the moist Louisiana air, rich with a thick muddy organic flavor. Red’s love for bayous and swamps and his concern over the impending doom of wetlands was contagious. I envisioned myself moving into one of the shack-like homes, accessible only by boat, catching crawdads and learning to make gumbo, living simply like Thoreau at Walden Pond.

“I went into the swamp because I wished to live deliberately … to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”

My husband and I went to New Orleans in January 2004, the same week that President Bush was campaigning there. For the past week, as I’ve watched the apocalyptic footage from the southern United States and considered the thousands of lives lost and the estimated $100 billion worth of damage, I’ve been thinking about my own visit to the area—and wishing that Bush had toured a Louisiana swamp, not just Bourbon Street.

We went to Bourbon Street, too, enjoying live jazz and zydeco bands. But it’s no accident that tourists are served drinks named after destructive forces, the Hurricane (fruit juice and four ounces of liquor) and the Hand Grenade (five ounces of booze with grain-alcohol floater).

When I told our hotel valet that I wanted to get out of the city and “see nature,” he suggested a swamp tour. The brochure he handed us looked like a poster for a low-budget monster flick, with drippy red letters and gator photos. Kitschy enough to be fun. We called for directions and headed out, across Lake Pontchartrain—on a highway over water.

I don’t remember our tour guide’s name. He identified himself as Cajun, had bushy red hair and beard, and kept a baby gator as a pet. Let’s call him “Red.”

Red’s chatter was geared to tourists, but he’d worked in plenty of info about wetland protection and restoration as he navigated us through part of the Nature Conservancy’s Louisiana Nature Preserve. By the end of the trip, we shared his frustration and fears over human hubris—especially the attempts to control the natural tendencies of a river like the Mighty Mississippi.

Levees, built to keep the river from flooding, can save lives and property, when working. But they also channel the Mississippi’s rich, fertile mud away from natural wetlands. Without the influx of mud, hundreds of acres of wetlands annually slide into the sea.

That’s bad because, among other things, the wetlands provide a buffer from floods and storms, like hurricanes.

To compound the problem, Red said, below-sea-level New Orleans was sinking faster than ever. Every time a swamp was drained to build a residential or commercial development, the land compacted and sank. Then there was the hand-grenade-like impact of oil exploration in the area and the more widespread problem of rising sea levels, receding coastlines.

Red spoke of the dangers facing Louisiana the way scientists warn about global warming. “Here are the facts. Here’s what can and will likely happen if we don’t change behaviors that endanger life and land.”

So who is to blame when prophecies come true?

I rode through the bayou that afternoon wishing that someone with some lawmaking clout were taking Red’s boat through the swamp.

“If the right kind of storm comes,” Red predicted, “New Orleans will be like a great big soup bowl.”