BELLE CHASSE TO CARLISLE
It was a cold morning. Not quite 50 degrees even, and I am in shorts. I started my run on top of the levee at the Belle Chasse Ferry Landing on the Scarsdale side. Maybe a mile in, though, I was stripping off my quarter zip and going sleeveless. The cool air was fueling my run, and I had found some speed. Tom ran second and we threw in a bit of cycling at the end to push us just past Carlisle, Louisiana all the way to Phoenix, Louisiana.
Back to Carlisle a few miles to meet Albertine, have lunch, and get a tour of the swamp—all in a day’s work. We climbed up the enormous flight of stairs to her home, and Albertine graciously welcomed us in. Before we could really introduce ourselves, Albertine broke into a story about the “tin can” we were now standing in—that is, her trailer lofted high above the east bank of the Mississippi River, tucked into a hollow of cypress trees, perched on the edge of marshland leading out to the Gulf. Albertine is one of the few residents here in Plaquemines with no back levee, and she’s glad for that fact. “You’re gonna get water here,” she says, “because you’re outside the levee. I don’t want a back levee,” she goes on. “I know I’m gonna flood. The water’s coming in and out. If I could just get rid of that levee”—and she motions dramatically to the Mississippi River banks—“I would be good.”
Now you can already tell, perhaps, that Albertine Kimble is not afraid of water. In fact, to circle back to her “tin can,” Albertine initiated this line of thought with the story of a storm. “The dog woke me up…” she tells us, explaining how she usually sleeps through bad weather, but her sister was staying with her, and had a dog in tow. After Albertine woke up, her sister asks, “What’s going on?” Albertine says simply, “Olga. Tropical Storm Olga.” And of course, in the trailer you could literally feel the wind of the storm, but Albertine wasn’t worried, she told her sister, “Don’t worry, Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ike, Tropical Storm Lee, Hurricane Isaac, I’ve made it through everything, I mean this trailer never lost a window, tin, nothing—tucked in the trees… and when I’m telling you them trees were bowed out, they were bowed out. Those cypress trees. So you could feel it.”
There’s a reason Albertine is so welcoming of these storms, and the water of the Mississippi overtopping its levees. She’s looking for the marshland to rebuild, the habitat for her beloved duck hunting ground. But it’s more than hunting, she’s passionate about the future of Louisiana—“You gotta put back on your resource when you rob it,” she says. “And if you don’t do that, you have nothing. It’s just like oil and gas. Everybody’s going, ‘I wonder why everything’s sinking.’ Well first thing,” she carries on, “you’re sucking all the sulphur and oil and gas out of this place, and you’re not putting them back. What’s going back in is water. What happens? She sinks.”
“She’s going down like the titanic,” Albertine prophesies. “You can start singing the song. She’s going down.”
Albertine is a proponent of taking every method possible to restore the land, and talking about the controversial topic of sediment diversions, she references a historical project that her father was involved in. Apparently in the days of Judge Perez, in the 60’s and 70’s, the Parish was piping river water out to the marshes and bayous. The way she explained it sounded like a managed diversion, letting the water flow when the river was high and shutting it down when the river was low, keeping salinity levels right for fishing—whether oyster or shrimping, etc. Albertine explains, “Why try to force something if it’s not supposed to be? If you put too much river water, it’s like doing too much cocaine—you gonna die! And that’s what happens to oysters. So you need to have some control with it if you want to have oysters over here. We haven’t had oysters over here since Katrina. The biggest oyster growing area in the United States is in Black Bay, for Louisiana, right here. None. Done and done.”
Albertine knows she is just one perspective on all this—the “Duck Queen” of the East Bank, and she was very excited that we’d also be speaking to a man she referred to as the “Oyster King” of the West Bank—Mitch Jurisich. While Albertine gave brief credit to Mitch getting to have his say, that was for another day. Today was still for Albertine, and she made sure to let us know that Mitch’s home turf in Empire, Louisiana is struggling as compared to her East Bank: “[Did you get] over the Empire Bridge so you can see all the land they don’t have on that side of the river?” Albertine taunted. “But if you look on my side they got land over there—I wonder why that is.” She went on to explain how as the levee has broken up past Bohemia on the East Bank, river water (and the sediment that comes with it) has been passing through to the marshes causing “miracle grow” as Albertine calls it. Now you have sustainability and new growth of marsh, trees, ridges, and more.
Our whole afternoon was spent with Albertine. She made us shrimp stew with rice, green beans and warm bread. The ice tea was unsweetened with lemon and just perfect. I was told before the visit that one day would not be enough, and this was probably correct. As I now sift through the hours and hours of footage from our encounter, it’s hard to know what’s the most important to share—her feelings about dredging and dumping as a “bipolar” activity of the Corps, the fact that she’s dated three wildlife agents but never married because she’ll always break a date for a shotgun, that the word she most often uses to describe the landscape of cypress and ferns around her lofted trailer is “pretty.”
“It’s pretty isn’t it? …Look how pretty this is when you look at it,” she affirms again and again as we walk through the back of her property toward where the ridge meets the marsh.
Albertine is one unique woman. She played the flute in the LSU Tiger Band, and left college to come home and take care of her father after he suffered a stroke. Yet she also served as an engineer deck hand on the Mississippi River and got her Captain’s license, something very few women accomplish. She tells a story about the men on the boat having pictures of naked women plastered up on the walls, and that she went to the Pilot and said she was going to put pictures of naked men as well. Apparently that cleared that up.
She’s outspoken, and she’s a woman, and perhaps that’s why she’s not running for Parish President despite her plethora of ideas and years of experience in some of the major issues the parish is facing. Albertine’s the same age as current President Kirk Lepine, but as Albertine reminds me in a very demonstrative way, she has the wrong anatomy to pursue that position. It’s still that way down here, she says. Instead she gets to serve on some coastal boards, and that’s good. She and Mr. Earl will keep trying to save the world, sending their voices aloft every chance they get, and doing the hard work in the marsh as well.
With the river just a stone’s throw away, Albertine is ready to knock down the levee, or build those diversions with her own bare hands, anything to get some river water to her back yard and make that ground less squishy and more firm like her batture. She recognizes, though, that she has the miracle grow right there in front of her whereas places like Cameron Parish, LaFourche and Terrebonne, they are really struggling because they don’t have that source of fresh water. “So I was thinking,” said Albertine, “my crazy scheme—why can’t we pump water to them, give them a little miracle grow. We’ve got oil and gas lines. Let’s suck it to them. Let’s save our state! I think outside the box. Nobody thinks like me, I can tell you. They don’t.”
And she might be right. Put that in the Master Plan. “Suck it to them. Let’s save our state!”