HOMEPLACE TO BURAS
We ran from the Homeplace watertower to Fort Jackson, Louisiana. It was a breezy day again, but we soaked up the blue sky and sun. Knowing we’d be out on a boat all afternoon, we rode up Hwy 11 to Lucky Ryan Authentic Vietnamese Cuisine for a Bahn Mi before heading back to Patty’s Place to meet up with our guide Richie Blink. He was already waiting for us in the driveway as we pulled up, ready for us to hop in his truck and get over to the dock.
Richie’s boat is something of a retro skiff—white with sea foam green accents, outfitted with a hard-top canopy and a sea foam green YETI cooler, perfect for the 6 to 8 hour ecotours he usually takes people out on. Our outing would only be around 3 hours, but I don’t think he skimped too much on the substance. Before we could get into any deep conversation, though, we jetted out across the wide stretch of the Mississippi River here, crossing from West Bank to East Bank, tucking into a sort of natural opening and floating into what Richie calls the “uncontrolled side of the river.” Here, over the last fifteen years, the ecosystem has swapped over from a saltwater marsh to a freshwater wetland with willow trees popping up and a general increase in biodiversity. Talk about through the looking glass, and here we go….
Backing up a bit, Richie Blink, our tour guide, is not just any old tour guide. First off, he’s not old. Richie is about my age, closing in on 40. He was born and raised, and still lives, in Empire, Louisiana. His father is a commercial fisherman, a shrimper. Richie wanted nothing more than to have a seventy foot version of his sorbet skiff and just shrimp for a living as well, but he realized when he was in grade school that the industry was changing. Between globalization driving the price of shrimp down and diesel being very high, even his father eventually converted his boats with swimming pool pumps and blowers so he could run a bait operation instead of bringing shrimp to market.
Richie didn’t trade in those dreams for dreams of eco-tourism. When Richie left for college in 2005, it was just two weeks later that his entire community was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. “It was one heck of a turning point,” he tells us, “you know you just kinda leave the nest and shoop! it’s gone. There’s no going back.” And yet being in exile in Baton Rouge only fueled the passion inside of Richie Blink. There was a huge void in his life and he wanted to be the guy that saved his town, so after two and a half years in Baton Rouge, he went home to Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana.
Now Plaquemines Parish is a bastion of Coastal Restoration people, so you’d think Richie could just call a few folks up and get started on that saving his town thing. Well, apparently coastal folks are pretty difficult to sit down with. As Richie explains, “folks are just uber-educated and never from here, they’re either engineers or ecologists and things like that, and you know, I found I was frustrated by a lot of the processes because local knowledge often didn’t make it into the projects. It seemed like things were built in a very arbitrary way, or if they were built in that way, it wasn’t really well communicated why they were being built in that way.”
So, Richie got a job in the oil and gas industry, starting out as a deck hand and working his way up to Captain, bringing crew boats out to the oil rigs in the Gulf. He navigated the passes of the Mississippi River, got in deep with the waters, the people, the community. The idea hit him while driving this oil field boat back and forth from the platforms in the Gulf to the harbor in Venice, and it was Christmas, he was alone, family and friends out of town, and he thought to himself, “I can’t be living this life.” He knew he needed to catch some attention.
Richie started organizing a tree planting project down at the Mouth of the river where ultimately he and volunteers from the local 4-H Club ended up planting 1,500 trees in a morning. The river pilots brought them down there, and the state Ag and Forestry Department hooked them up with the trees for free. After getting his feet wet with that little project, Richie immediately started organizing to do a project for the next year where he planted 5,000 trees. Within days of finishing the 5,000, the Deep Water Horizon oil spill happened, and as Richie tells it, “seemed like everybody and their brother was all of a sudden doing environmental work down here, it was kind of frustrating….” But he kept doing restoration projects on his own, buying trees for dirt cheap from the state and planting them in different places outside the levee system.
He got noticed. Richie was eventually appointed to the Coastal Zone Advisory Committee, then he was hired by the parish to be the coastal manager for a short time before he started working for the National Wildlife Federation doing outreach and engagement around some of the big controversial projects in the parish.
“It cost me a lot of friendships, Richie explains. “The thing is, on a longer term time frame, that maybe is a little bit intangible to most folks here, the diversions are gonna maybe work to an extent or buy us some time—y’all I’m not sure if that’s a log or an alligator right there on the bank, can you tell?” …and yes, our serious exchanges were often interrupted for alligator, nutria, or other wildlife sightings—not to mention the hum of the boat motor and the whorl of the wind.
Richie no longer works for the Wildlife Federation either though. He was elected to the Plaquemines Parish Council in 2018 to represent District 8 and that, in addition to his eco-tour business, Delta Discovery Tours, take up his working hours these days. From the sounds of it, he is still planting trees now and again, although tree planting is not so much a part of the Coastal Master Plan down in Plaquemines he tells us. The trees would slow down storm surge before it gets to his community across the river, but the complex equations run by the state to determine who needs what projects and where… As Richie says, “it makes you feel really small when your community falls outside of some obscure cost benefit ratio that nobody can really articulate to you, but tells you exists… or it’s just you can find it in some appendices, a 600-page appendices of the master plan.”
As a Parish Council Member, Richie is working on saving his town in the most gerrymandered district, he says. There are three-quarter million McMansions in the northern part of the district that will likely not be able to get flood insurance in the next decade, and there’s a hand-to-mouth fishing village on the other side of the district. At the end of the day, Richie tells us, a lot of the people have the same issues—they don’t want to flood, they want the place to look nice, they want to keep working.
Richie represents Empire, the very community of oyster farmers that are fighting against the diversions. And yet Richie supports the diversions, but he has a theory about what all the fuss is about—and it’s not salinity levels. According to Richie, “commercial fishing is this sort of open source job that you don’t need an education to do. You don’t have a boss looking over your shoulder. You are out in the wild with your wits making it happen, and it’s not a salinity envelope that people care about. What they care about [is] this sort of threat to their independence….”
There’s a phrase, Richie tells us, that always comes up about the people who settled here, that they had this really intense “pioneering spirit.” They were forced off of their continent or out of their country for whatever reason on to this “miserable strip of land,” as it’s called by some first hand accounts. People were eking out an existence here, living in stilt houses and coming together as a society and a community. Before that, when the native people and the first nations people were building the mounds along the river, one basket of mud and shell at time, over hundreds of years, they were pooling their labor to live in these exceedingly productive places.
“The whole nature of the Delta is to change,” Richie extols, “and I think it makes for really good humans to kind of roll along with that. It seems like for whatever reason we’ve gotten into a rut, like we, we can’t, we can’t change.” It’s like the people have lost their pioneering spirt from the way Richie tells it. He goes on to imagine Plaquemines in the year 2034 where a driver’s ed class ends up with Captain’s Licenses instead, and we go back to how it was before there were levees. Sadly, though, he’s afraid they’re just going to continue to fight it, retreat, and end up ceding it all back to the sea instead of trying to live in a sustainable way.
Victoria: How do those cows get out here?
Richie: You know there used to be cattle grazing out here and they were harvested up until Katrina—you wanna, you wanna take a look at something?
Tom: A kingfisher—I just saw it go through. I’m watching your birds There goes another cow.
Victoria: Oh yeah there’s a cow.
Tom: Delta cow.
Richie: Anyway, they haven’t rounded them up since Katrina, so I mean they gotta be the happiest cows ever because nobody really bothers them much.
Tom: They just kinda live out here and graze?
Richie: They do. I can’t imagine it tastes very good. But they, the thing is, you know, like we had that very, very high river this year, and this just perfectly naturally goes down to where the water goes over it about two millimeters over it at any given moment in time, and as the river falls, it just, the the water starts overtopping it further and further back. What’ll happen is, in a sense, it keeps up the elevation, from the sky it’s a classic little, you know, sub delta, different channels start coming on line at different heights, this one’s plugged in all the time, the other one that we came out of is the same, —I will get to your conversation, I will get to your question.
Victoria: Oh I know, I’m not worried.
Richie: It’s just a—I’m sorry. It isn’t around a corner. I should’ve said a couple miles.
More delta cows and several miles later, we arrived at Fort St. Philip. Richie asked if we had a few minutes to watch a video—a few minutes? We are in his boat in the middle of the marsh, what kind of hurry could we be in? The video featured former Parish President Luke Petrovich from the 1980s giving a journalist a tour of the fort, discussing Judge Leander Perez’s use of it as a prison for Black citizens of the parish. “I want to be intentional with my language,” Richie prefaces, “the video is titled Civil Rights Jail in the Swamp, but this was a concentration camp that was never used, thank God.”
Obviously a dark time in Plaquemines Parish past, I asked Richie where are those segregationist sentiments today in the parish? Richie responded, “you know, I’ve got so many things going on through my head right now. I’ve just never seen the country like it is right now. I’ve never seen it ok for folks to be acting like their acting right now….” But he goes on to reminisce about his time at Buras High School where it seemed like a balance of white, Black and Asian students, where everybody got along fairly well.
Richie recognizes the privilege he’s had as a young, white male, and that he likely cannot see the world’s injustice the same as those being exploited. There’s not a lot of minority representation in political office, he says, but he worked very hard to campaign in those communities, to honestly secure their votes and now represent them.
From the Fort over to Grove’s Bay to see a restoration project that was built in 2006. Over the course of the last 14 years, land has been building up between about 9,000 feet of linear terraces that are about 250 feet long and 50 feet wide. Richie showed us an under construction photo, as well as progress photos from 2014, 2017, 2018, and October of 2019. You can really see in the last year or two how it’s starting to hit its stride.
While the project is just called “delta management,” Richie refers to it as a good example of a somewhat managed diversion project. It was relatively inexpensive, and now willows are springing up, and delta duck potato, sagittaria, cattail, giant cut grass as well. In the time between when this was built and the time where it filled in, the area transferred from a bay bottom to a fresh water marsh, so for a specific time it served as a really good essential fish habitat for shrimp, crabs, and fish. As for the land development, different areas are consolidating at different rates. Some places are more like pudding but other places are more walkable.
Despite the success of Grove’s Bay, Richie doesn’t think we need to do 200 linear terraces. In his view, if we just dug three channels that look like a classic three-pass delta, like the “birdfoot delta,” and we just strategically gap the banks, it would do the same thing just with a lot less work. It would also look more natural.
As Richie explains, “this was like super pleasing to an engineer, you know, to see all these linear dashes, and it’s something that the people that are responsible for the permitting can kind of grip there teeth on and understand but ecologically it just kind of looks like a chess board or something. It just doesn’t make any sense. Water doesn’t really follow straight lines.”
And from there, we too didn’t really follow a straight line back to land, where Mr. Sullivan helped Richie load the boat back on his trailer. We hoped we weren’t his typical tourists, but even if we seemed so, Richie Blink gave us an in depth look inside his passion—this place and his calling to participate.