Still unseasonably cool, but under a brilliant, nearly cloudless sky, we drove toward the coast of Louisiana, excited about the prospect of spending time in the state’s famed swamplands. As we crossed through the southeast side of New Orleans, we passed through both the Upper and Lower Ninth Wards; areas that suffered catastrophic flooding and damage from the stormsurge that breached the levees as a result of hurricane Katrina. Driving on, we went through St. Bernard Parish, where the storm damaged virtually every structure in the parish (what every other state except Alaska calls a county). The storm’s aftermath is still visible everywhere you look. However, the resurgence of these areas is equally obvious. Progress has been slow, but rebuilding entire cities and towns isn’t common practice. There is no blueprint. Restored buildings, new buildings, new roads, and construction teams at every turn, serve as a testament to the resolve of the communities and the people living with the daily reminders of what happened over a decade ago, and what could happen again. So why rebuild? As Leon, a lifelong resident of coastal Louisiana put it, “I tried living other places. But this is home.”
So it is with so many thousands of others. This is their home.
In the years since Katrina, defenses against flooding have been improved. Better flood walls and gates. Repaired levees. Elevated houses and buildings. These man-made constructs will no doubt help lessen the impact of a future weather event. But as with so many other things, humanity’s hubris and belief in its creations can be its undoing. Fortunately, there are those that recognize that there is another line of defense available: nature.
Per the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana (CRCL), “We put levees along the Mississippi River that stopped the flow of freshwater and sediments into the marshes. We changed the water patterns and lost the historic location of the fresh, intermediate, brackish and salt marshes. Our land is eroding away. Wetland plants are dying. Land is disappearing. Habitats are in decline.” These wetlands can serve as a sponge, soaking up water and energy from massive storms.
Our morning drive ended at an industrial boat launch in Braithwaite, Louisiana. Led by Molly and Kacie, two CRCL employees who love the swamp and ABBA in equal parts, we loaded over 700 native trees onto airboats and then took a ride into the marshes that alligators, pelicans, and so many other plants and animals call home. After getting instructions on how to transplant the trees from pot to swamp, we got to work with a handful of other volunteers. Molly and Kacie also assigned us one other task: Come up with lyrics based on the the tune of ABBA’s Dancing Queen. Proudly, they said they had already started the song. It went “We are the Planting Queens” and that’s all they had done so far.
So with that song stuck in our heads, and with the smell of swamp gas wafting our way with each new hole dug, we got to work doing our part to restore the land and protect the communities of coastal Louisiana. The trees being planted are part of the Ten Thousand Trees for Louisiana initiative. But what can ten thousand trees do against a category 4 hurricane? It turns out, quite a lot. By planting in this area of new land, it will help increase soil retention and promote more land growth. The additional land growth with be home to future trees, spawned from the ones going into the ground today. It’s a snowball effect, but one that takes time, patience, and commitment. The results will help increase storm surge protection and improve forest resiliency for future storm events, and will provide increased natural habitat for our swamp friends.
We never made much progress on the song, but what we lacked in musical creativity, we made up for in horticultural prowess.
At the end of the day, we were muddy, smelly, had sore arms and legs, and as Kacie liked to say, our “face[s] were sore from smiling so much.”
As a group. For a purpose. With nature as an ally. This is how you should rebuild. Everything.