VIOLET TO BELLE CHASSE
Another ferry ride at Scarsdale, Louisiana—not our first nor our last—bringing us over to Belle Chasse, Louisiana. We marked our landing spot there at the docks and drove on to the Government Complex nestled deep within the town.
Stepping out of the rain into the Plaquemines Parish Government Office, we were immediately greeted by James Madere, our gracious organizing partner and Special Projects Coordinator at the Parish. He took us right in to meet Parish President Kirk Lepine along with his Director of Administration Crystal Taylor, Director of Public Service Todd Eppley, Director of Economic Development Keith Espadron, Jr., and Public Information Officer Jade Duplessis.
We started out with an introduction of ourselves and what the project was all about before President Lepine gave us an introduction to Plaquemines. After a bit of focus on Belle Chasse and communities connecting to the mouth of the river, the President checked himself. He explained that Plaquemines is divided by the Mississippi River, creating East and West Banks, as well as “up the road” and “down the road” on the West Bank. Where you are from, very literally and specifically, even on this narrow strip of very new land, is important to the people of Plaquemines, and it makes them unique, says President Lepine.
We got out of our seats eager to get to know these people right in our midst, shaking hands, exchanging cards, and now being shuttled into another room with a large conference table, bowls of satsuma oranges, bags of gifts for us to take with us, and more conversation. Tom seized the moment, telling everyone we always ask folks why they make a place home—quick around the room, why is this home?
Keith was the first to chime in. He has family roots in Plaquemines going back to 1825. He sees a dearth of young people staying in the community, and recently having graduated from college himself, he’s excited to seize the opportunity to come home and give back. He says that through his work at the parish, he’s trying to change perceptions around outmigration and create better opportunities so people can come back home and stay home.
Crystal grew up in Port Sulphur on a “strip”—her whole family was there, she said. Now a little back story on strips of land which are common in southern Louisiana because Spanish and French settlers typically divided land into argents along rivers and other waterways. They would be 2 to 8 arpents wide (depending if French or Spanish) and 40 to 60 arpents deep, such that more landowners had access to the waterway.
Back to Crystal… “Plaquemines Parish,” she said, “ I think truly understands the term it takes a village,” and she went on, “where I come from everybody was mama, everybody was grandma, everybody was grandpa….” She even said President Lepine is her cousin by her great great great great grandma, which elicited a roar of laughter in the room!
As we sat down at the table we had been joined by two others, Scott Russelle, Director of Operations and John Helmers, Director of Coastal Restoration. Scott grew up in Port Sulphur and has family ties to the sulphur mining industry that has long been prevalent in Plaquemines. He says he doesn’t know if any of his family are out of the Parish, and that’s why it’s home to him.
Up to now, we’ve heard entirely from West Bank-ers, but Todd Epply helped rebalance things being from Braithwaite on the East Bank. His family are Italian immigrants from Sicily that made their way in farming the rich soils of Plaquemines. Hunting, fishing, trapping, he could never leave the marsh, he could never leave, he said. From all accounts, the way of life just gets in the marrow of your bones the way these people tell it.
Finally, John upended the narrative telling us that he’s not even from Plaquemines but he still considers it his home. Now he’s not from far away—St. Bernard born and raised, but he did also spend some time away, fourteen years. He says now, being back, it’s like those fourteen years never happened.
Our conversation had to close, however, because these folks had to get to an important meeting, and Tom and I had to get back out in the pouring rain for a driving tour of the parish with Rod Lincoln from the Plaquemines Historical Association. Rod is originally from Nairn, Louisiana, a town along LA Highway 23 just south of Port Sulphur, Louisiana. Rod’s father worked for Freeport Sulphur, but the family also had orange groves in Nairn.
Much like we learned in St Bernard Parish, Rod retold the origin story of this very new land, how over time as the river continued coming through the parish, it put silt on top of natural levees and so Plaquemines was born. Here you have top soil from every place else, one of the newest pieces of land in the entire country that is incredibly fertile. According to Rod, you can grow virtually anything here and for many years they led the country in growing lots of different things in terms of rice, sugar, easter lilies, citrus, lots of things. The topsoil maybe reach five or ten feet beneath the surface in Plaquemines verses inches in other places.
Besides the fertile soil, there’s the mineral wealth beneath the surface, primarily sulphur and oil, which made the parish one of the richest parishes in the country back in the 50’s and 60’s. During that time, the parish even gave college scholarships to every kid graduating from high school. Unfortunately, says Rod, once they graduated from college, they didn’t return to Plaquemines because the only jobs down here were in manual labor—working in the sulphur mines, oil and gas, fishing, transportation, farming, etc. Professionals tended to go elsewhere.
Rod himself went elsewhere. After college he stated in Baton Rouge working with the Boy Scout organization for several years before ending up in personnel and organizational development for major corporations—actually back home, though, for Freeport Sulphur, the same company his dad worked for. Eventually he changed companies, becoming more and more adept at managing companies in change, always staying near to Plaquemines—New Orleans headquarters mostly, but companies whose work really happened down the river.
“We’re gonna make a real quick trip through here,” Rod says as he interrupts his own story, “because very, very seldom do people go through here and—“ And I quip in, “and it says keep out.” Everyone exchanges knowing glances. As Rod continues telling us his backstory, he’s driving us through the pouring down rain through an area just across the river from the “English Turn”—apparently this was an old fortification called Fort St. Leon that was abandoned after the Civil War then used by the CIA during the Cuban Crisis as well as home to New Orleans mob boss Carlos Marcello once upon a time. If we kept driving straight, we’d get to the Coast Guard Communications Center, which is right at English Turn itself Rod tells us, but we really don’t have time to see the whole area. It’s huge.
Now when I rode from Violet on the East Bank of the river, that’s where I saw the historical marker for English Turn, Louisiana, and I’m wondering now about what and where this place actually is. Rod explains that English Turn is both sides. The big thing about English Turn is the sailing ships couldn’t get passed it easily because it’s such a radical turn that they would lose the wind as they were traveling it. The ships needed the wind to make a major change in order for them to complete the turn. Fort St. Leon and Fort St. Marie on the other side were built there to capture these waylaid ships.
We got out on LA 23, continuing our education on the historic fortifications of Plaquemines. Rod explained about the Fort de Plaquemines where the persimmons grew and sailors refueled their vitamin C to fight off disease, also bestowing the name of persimmon or “plaquemines” on the region. Then Rod started talking about the mouth of the river at Fort Jackson, which initially had me very confused. However, he clarified that the river has moved farther down, so there’s a “new” mouth of the river. Most people don’t even know the old mouth of the river was at Fort Jackson, he said, and geologically there’s a lot of things happening at Fort Jackson, Louisiana that you’d never see any place else in the world. And then he clarifies, “there’s a lot of things in Plaquemines that you’ll never see any place else in the world.”
How can a place have so many cultural, geological, historical riches, and it just be washing away? Rod says part of the problem has been that most of the people who live in Plaquemines did manual work. They were hunters, fisherman, trappers, miners, and they didn’t want to get into politics. Most of them weren’t very well educated, and so a bunch of really well educated people came in from the outside and said they said “hey, we can make a lot of money down here.” They did just that, and Rod says it drove a lot of the people who were the hunters and trappers even farther into the woods to where they never really got involved with government. “And so the area was pretty well raped,” Rod capitulated, saying, “I hate to use that term, but it’s basically what happened… If you look at Plaquemines now verses what it looked like fifty years ago, it’s three hours after the party when everything’s just kind of thrown around and the only ones left are the ones cleaning up.”
No doubt, Rod feels like this is a real shame, and that’s why he keeps coming home and investing in the history of the place. He feels Plaquemines has a lot of potential, but besides the politics, the weather has to leave them alone, and the hurricanes too.
The weather is a big deal here in Plaquemines. Fifty years ago, the highway we were riding on wouldn’t have been there, he told us. It would have been over by the river, and it would have had tons of houses on it. Since then, levees have been built up higher and higher, front levees and back levees, flood walls cordoning off whole sections of the parish—leaving some exposed to the storms and flooding and protecting others. Those neighborhoods flanking these flood walls are in dispute about getting on the safe side, moving the wall just enough.
The levees have historical significance too because during the Great Flood of 1927, “somebody” suggested breaking the levees in Plaquemines to protect New Orleans from flooding. “They” said they’d pay for whatever damage, Rod explained, but in the end they blew up one side and ran a boat into the other side, breaking both levees and paying no one anything. It resulted in legal suits, and the parish got completely flooded. The levees across the roads are in response to that 1927 event, according to Rod, and then the back levees came in about fifteen years ago exacerbating the problems. Now the parish turns into a big retention pond when you get a hurricane, so dealing with as many hurricanes as have been happening lately is unsustainable.
As storm damage and subsidence continue to rail on this parish, the population is shifting northward and westward. The communities of Pilottown, Venice, Boothville, Buras, Empire, even Port Sulphur and Jesuit Bend, these are slowly dying off. On the East Bank of the River there’s been even more loss, with communities like Braithwaite, Carlisle, Pheonix, Pointe a la Hache, Bohemia with residents in the single digits for the most part.
Interestingly, the way Plaquemines got settled was in the reverse of how it’s becoming unsettled. Rod shared that it started over on the north side, East Bank, at English Turn, and that was more or less a warehousing place. Ships would come up the river and get to English Turn, and rather than waiting for the winds to shift, they would drop their materials and have them carried on land. Next Pointe a la Hache, Louisiana was established as a kind of mid-point between New Orleans and the mouth of the river, a place sailors could get food. So then the population just went that way on the East Bank all the way to the mouth of the river by the early 1900’s, then around to the West Bank and back up north.
Rod drove us around, pointing out plantation homes and sites—places where plantations used to be. He’d go in depth about who the owners were, what role they played in Plaquemines history. And yet, history was peppered with present day, as we saw an oil pumping rig bringing us to discuss the ins and outs of the oil industry in Plaquemines. We also spotted an enormous grain elevator along the river in the distance, and Rod explained the decontaminating process that goes on there before the grain goes out to sea. Vestiges of cultures that make Plaquemines so unique, such as the Village of Grand Bayou, were also stops along our drive, and perhaps deserve a story in their own right. We capped our driving tour off with the summit of the Empire High Rise Bridge, catching a view of the vast expanse of water with dwindling wetlands.
Funny enough, as we drove back to Belle Chasse, Rod offered to get us lunch at the Subway Sandwich Shop in Port Sulphur. Perhaps it was the only place around or nearby, but Tom and I politely refused, feeling how could we eat Subway when we are in a place with some of the best food—seafood, sausage, fried everything! We would save our stomachs for dinner. Thanks, Rod!
After fetching our van from the Plaquemines Parish Government Complex, Tom and I headed over to the home of Judge Michael Kirby to meet with he and his wife Micheline. It was an easy going conversation about family, food, politics, and hurricanes. We also learned the very unique love story of Mike and Micheline. It turns out Micheline’s mother was running for Parish council and Mike was aligned with a group of others who were opposing her. They didn’t know each other yet, so no harm, no foul—other than perhaps the opposition wasn’t very nice. Now down the road a bit, Mike decides to run for judge and needs some help for his campaign, and a friend suggests Micheline for the job. The short story, then, is he came into her life and “opposites attract,” according to Mike! But Micheline’s brothers and sisters still throw it up to him every now and then because her mother beat the opposition two to one!
The Kirby’s live in Belle Chasse now, but Mike is from Port Sulphur and Micheline is from Empire. The whole family, Mike, Micheline, and their three kids, all lived in Empire for quite a while until well… Micheline always said, “the only two ways you gonna get me out of Empire is that I go behind St. Patrick’s Church in Port Sulphur (which is a cemetery) or if there’s a toilet on the slab. Well we moved to Belle Chasse because there’s a toilet on the slab, you know, that’s all we were left with.” That was after Katrina.
We drove almost to Empire, Louisiana earlier today with Rod, as I mentioned before. When you go over that High Rise Bridge, you are looking at the bayou and the bays on one side and the river on the other. Katrina really took out that community from all accounts down in Plaquemines. Even the oystering community has suffered from what we’ve heard. Micheline says she still has friends and family that live down there, though. They could move up to Belle Chasse, she says, but they love the tranquility down there.
Is Belle Chasse really safer though, we ask? Will the water encroach on this land eventually, just like it’s coming in upon Empire and Buras? Micheline thinks so, eventually. And it’s not just about that eventually land loss, according to Mike. Belle Chasse is already in danger from that just right storm, that storm coming at just the right angle—like Gustav almost did in 2008. They were expecting eighteen feet of water right in Belle Chasse because the way that Plaquemines sticks out into the Gulf, the storm surge can come up on the west side too, and attack.
The Kirby’s were full of evacuation stories and opinions about the oil industry and politics over time, but most important were their opinions about food in the area. They tried to send us into New Orleans to Galatoire’s or Commander’s Palace, but we insisted on something a little bit more local. They offered up the Sun Ray Grill Gretna, and we took it! We were not disappointed, especially after saving room by ditching Subway earlier. Wonderful seafood and a delightfully surprising atmosphere. A great first day in Plaquemines on all accounts—one down, five more to go!