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Louisiana Islander: Water Is ‘Closing in on Us’

On Friday, the NewsHour will report on how subsidence, rising seas and storms have battered coastal Louisiana’s Isle de Jean Charles, an island that has been home to Native tribes since the 1800s.

As a preview to the report, Hari spoke with Doris Naquin, a member of the Biloxi-Chitimacha tribe and a lifelong resident of the island. They discuss what saltwater intrusion into the island has done to its trees, grass and gardens, how much the manmade levees have helped, and what the loss of land means for the Native American tribes who call the island their home.

For some background, the Mississippi River and the ocean spent thousands of years building and shaping the Louisiana coastline by washing layers of sediment into place, moving marshes and reshaping land. As the river changed course, the shape of the delta changed too.

While a levee system diverted stormwater away from homes, it kept land-forming, nutrient-rich sediment away from the wetlands, contributing erosion, said Brady Couvillion, geographer with the USGS National Wetland Research Center. In the 1950s, the bayous experienced a boom in development. Coastal development permits were readily granted and people dug channels and canals through the marshes to make room for boats, which tore up plants whose roots helped keep the soil stable.

An oil and natural gas rush on the Gulf Coast in the 1970s further upset the sinking shores. Pulling oil out of the ground pulled another layer out from underneath the heavy marsh mud, and the land sank further.

The disappearing wetlands also bear the brunt of the tropical storms and hurricanes that blow through Louisiana. Rising seas make the storm surges larger, cutting through the weakened marshlands and washing more water through homes, like the ones on Isle de Jean Charles.

Between 1932 and 2010, Couvillion estimated that the Terrebonne Basin lost more than 500 square miles- enough land to cover San Antonio, Texas.

Some of the footage in this video is courtesy of documentary filmmakers Rebecca Ferris and Jason Ferris. They have been working on a film about the island called “Can’t Stop the Water.” For further information about the history and culture of Isle de Jean Charles, you can check out their website.

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