Leaf Litter

The Resilience of New Orleans

Senior Ecologist Terry Doss draws a parallel between the people and wetlands of The Big Easy.

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Way down in New Orleans

In the land of dreamy scenes

There’s a garden of Eden

You know what I mean

– Louis Armstrong

From our roots we gain strength for the future, and nowhere is this better exemplified than in New Orleans – in both its people and its surrounding wetlands.

The world watched as Hurricane Katrina and the failed levee system drowned New Orleans. Thousands were killed, tens of thousands fled, and conditions became increasingly squalid. But the most valuable part of New Orleans—it’s “who dat” spirit— could not be held down long.

This spirit of New Orleans grows from the grassroots of the community – its culture and traditions that celebrate life and connect it with the bayou landscape. It resonates in the music, food, and architecture of New Orleans and is what persistently draws and haunts tourists.

These grassroots are evident in organizations like Common Ground Relief, which is based in the Lower 9th Ward and builds new homes, provides a free legal clinic, develops community gardens, and restores wetlands. In pure New Orleans fashion, the nonprofit Environment America started a campaign called “Gumbo for the Gulf.” The Louisiana based Abita Brewing Co. is donating a portion of sales of its new “Save Our Shores” pilsner to Gulf relief. The community-based organizations that have developed to support New Orleans have grown from the soil of people’s hard necessities, which generally makes their roots deeper and stronger.

Like its people, New Orleans’ wetlands have taken some hard hits over time. If given enough soil to sink their roots into, however, they can continue to thrive.

These wetlands were built up over time by the sediments brought down by the Mississippi River, with twice-a-day tides acting as the lifeblood of these marshes, continually supplying new sediment and nutrients. But decades of building canals, levees and dams to control flooding, ease navigation and facilitate oil and gas exploration have choked off this flow of Mississippi sediments and nutrients, causing erosion, subsidence and overall loss of acreage. Most recently, the BP Gulf oil spill added insult to injury, with oil starting to cover the wetlands and its inhabitants. The most severe impacts to the local ecology from the dispersants used by BP to hide the floating oil are yet unknown and may never be fully known.

But the grasses that reside in these marshes are incredibly resilient, and new shoots of Spartina grass have already been observed in the coastal marshes. Oil may saturate grasses growing above ground, but as long as the oil doesn’t get to the roots, the marsh will grow back.

As with the New Orleans community, what is most important is protecting the roots to ensure the marshes will survive and sustain well into the future. To help protect the roots of New Orleans’ marsh grasses, a unique approach was recently put forward to help build up the marsh soils. National Geographic reports that the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans, the St. Bernard Parish, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, together with a number of other community non-profit organizations, have come up with a plan to restore Bayou Bienvenue, a 30,000-acre wetland, by pumping in partially treated sewage. The Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans plans to use $10 million to direct semi-treated wastewater biosolids into Bienvenue to fertilize the areas and build up the soil.

Katrina managed to wash away the rickety supports that folks had managed to build up over time and has thrown a huge magnifying glass on the problems which still plague New Orleans—poverty, crime, corruption—but the City and its people have proved to be resilient, slowly rebuilding those supports, stronger and deeper than they were before.

New Orleans will also need its marshy fortresses to help secure and protect its vital communities, industries and way of life. As long as we protect its roots, they know how to do the rest.

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