By: Matthew White
Lone Dog, Venice, LA 4/02
The above photograph was taken at the end of Tidewater Road just below Venice in Plaquemines Parish -- the southernmost point in Louisiana accessible by car; this is the end of the line on the so-called Great River Road.
This was taken in early April of 2002; I was standing in the flatbed of my pickup truck with the camera on the tripod. There were some stray dogs wandering around, and one casually walked into the frame. I whistled, he looked at me, and I clicked the shutter. A lot has changed in this location since the shot was taken. The brush line in the background was cut away a year later, and soon the boathouse at left was torn down, which revealed a clear view down Red Pass, which circumnavigates the Wagon Wheel, an oil and gas field in which the canals are dredged in circles with spokes that is roughly two miles across.
By the time the summer of 2005 had passed, the end of Tidewater Road was closed off to public access and was under armed guard, perhaps to protect the oil and gas operations. Lower Plaquemines Parish had suffered a double blow that summer. Katrina made its first landfall at Buras, with sustained 145 m.p.h. winds, plus a storm surge which breached bay levees and caused the Mississippi River to reverse course, topping riverside levees and "filling the bowl," much like what happened in downtown New Orleans. The difference here is that in most of Buras, the width of inhabited land between river and bay is only one third of a mile, compared to the width of 5-8 miles in New Orleans. The surge did its work quickly. One month after Katrina, the passing of Hurricane Rita pushed sea water back through the breached levees in Plaquemines, flooding it once again, and ruining whatever recovery work that had already been done.
Maps of Plaquemines Parish are deceptive. Jutting out into the Gulf of Mexico like an arm, most maps show the area to be a peninsula roughly 10 miles wide, but in the past 50 years the wetlands have withered away inward, to the extent where the total inhabited area in the parish's southern half is a strip of land not much more than a relative thread, only 1200 yards wide, running some 75 miles out into the Gulf. When facing Katrina, there was no contest; everything was completely wiped out.
After the storm, most Lower Plaqueminians had crowded into Belle Chasse, the parish seat, located up north, close to New Orleans. Driving through there in April 2006, I thought it looked fine, except for the aggravating traffic and some here-and-there roof damage. But when I continued driving south, away from Belle Chasse and into Port Sulphur, everything suddenly changed. There were no orange groves, no fruit stands, no salty air, no boats going by and no Cajun Kitchen on the highway. There was instead the smell of mud and garbage, gutted buildings, pile after mountainous pile of debris, and houses sitting on the side of the highway, having been carried and dropped there by the flood. The surge water had reached 15 feet in Port Sulphur, a town which had never flooded before, even in past hurricanes.
House On Highway, Port Sulphur, LA 4/06
There were people around, but not many were locals; most were relief workers, scurrying to the only open grocery store, which had been flooded out and was now operating out of a trailer. Anything that was open in any fashion was now a trailer perched on cinder blocks in front of a wasted former storefront. No one (and I mean zero) had a house. Everyone was clustered into tightly packed FEMA villages, surrounded by barbed-wire fences, set up just off Highway 23, some near groves of oak trees which had all been killed by saltwater shock. I could not imagine a more bleak, which-casket-do-we-live-in existence, and yet some locals were obviously there, picking away at the ruins of their houses, tending to a former lot, or running up to buy supplies in Belle Chasse. There was still no running water or electricity in former residential areas. Most used generators, and convenient-yet-nauseating portable toilets were on the roadside, everywhere.
Below Venice, LA 7/06
Although I didn't plan it as such, this shot, a tangent across an outer edge of the Wagon Wheel, manages to compress Louisiana's predicament into a single frame: a dying, saltwater-inundated cypress swamp reveals capsized boats carried there by Katrina's winds, while an oil refinery chugs away in the background. Known for its citrus crop, its mega-supply of offshore oil and gas, its strategic location and for its history, the industry of lower Plaquemines is essential to the nation's economy, and yet is has suffered decades of environmental neglect, as well as federal indifference to its inhabitants, who have lived here for generations. Marshes were left to slowly die as oil industry increased, while efforts at wetlands renewal were underfunded and deemed to be experimental, rather than imperative. Post-Katrina funding for rebuilding breached levees hit a very large snag when Washington suggested that living in places like Buras or Venice was pointless and dangerous. Eventually, it was agreed that the levees would be restored to pre-Katrina levels, and perhaps a bit more in some spots, but those wanting to rebuild homes face insurmountable red tape in the form of FEMA guidelines and utilities insisting residents pay a fair share of the cost to restore service, to the tune of hundreds of extra dollars per month...for 10 years. And yet those who have lived here or visited here and know its worth will not hesitate to tell you that if any place needs "Levee 5 To Survive", it's here.
Coming back again in July 2006, I noticed that although things were a bit cleaner, not much had changed. I made my photo-rounds while noticing not too many people were actually rebuilding houses, but their old ones were now gone; rows of empty slabs could now be seen from the highway. I suppose I got tired of seeing this rather quickly, and looked elsewhere for a few good shots -- under the bridge at Empire; the further dwindling-away of Tidewater Road; people coming and going at a now-open but bare-bones grocery in Venice.
Buras, LA 7/06
I stopped along Highway 23 and spent the last part of my day walking on top of the western levee at various places, first in Buras. Off in the distance sat Joshua's Marina, which was now operational (in a trailer, of course), and still loaded with boats. I tried to imagine the 145 m.p.h. winds hitting here in August 2005, and it still seemed like it wasn't possible, but it had happened. By early evening the sun began going down and ducked behind some incoming clouds, where I grabbed the last shot of a crane sitting near the Empire Lock, which was under repair. Standing on top of the levee, the smell of mud finally gave way to the smooth salty air coming in from the bay, and for a short while the mood and the light were exquisite. There were no cars on the highway, and Plaquemines Parish was silent.
Empire, LA 7/06
Matthew White is a native New Yorker who made Louisiana his home and his artistic focus in 2000. For five years he photographed nearly every notable location on the Louisiana coast. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita changed the landscape, but not Matthew’s vision and desire to show Louisiana’s unique beauty. While hundreds of others have documented the tragedy wrought by the storms, Matthew’s body of work captures the beauty that the storms of 2005 could not erase. Rather than clichéd incongruity and depressing devastation, Matthew’s photos capture a landscape touched by and triumphing over catastrophe. Matthew shares the same vision as blogger Margaret Saizan, looking “Beyond Katrina,” and lending a silent voice to disaster and recovery.
All Images are property of M.W. and may not be linked to another website, copied, or reproduced without permission. To see more photographs visit his website at http://rigolets.blogspot.com/. To view more of his photo-essays at Beyond Katrina, go here. Matthew White’s fine prints are available through firstname.lastname@example.org.