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Louisiana oysters, Cajuns and the flood

Man tries his best to assert control.

In the end, though, nature triumphs.

We learn that lesson anew as the Great Flood of 2011 continues to roll south.

If we watch, listen and study, there’s much we can learn during and after a historic flood such as this one.

Take Louisiana oysters, for instance, without a doubt one of my favorite things to consume (how I wish I was sitting at the oyster bar at Pascal’s Manale — circa 1913 — in uptown New Orleans on this spring Friday).

Bob Marshall of New Orleans is among the nation’s finest outdoors writers. In 1997, Marshall was a member of a three-person team at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans that won a Pulitzer Prize for a series that examined the plight of the world’s fisheries.

Marshall’s 2005 investigations into the Corps of Engineers’ work on New Orleans levees and floodwalls was part of a package that won the newspaper yet another Pulitzer Prize.

Marshall also is an expert on Louisiana’s coastal erosion crisis.

In an article in Thursday’s Times-Picayune, Marshall outlined the effect on Louisiana oysters from the opening of the Morganza Floodway (which will begin Saturday) and the Bonnet Carre Spillway.

“When the planet acts in ways that prompt humans to claim natural disaster, ecologists calmly point out there are no disasters in nature, only events,” Marshall wrote. “Louisiana’s oyster industry is about to be the next example.

“Opening spillways to divert the rising floods of the Mississippi River away from cities and across local wetlands will almost certainly kill a significant portion of the nation’s richest oyster grounds, bringing immediate financial disaster to fishing families from Lake Borgne to Vermilion Bay still recovering from the BP oil spill, state biologists said.

“But the event is also good long-term news for the oysters, beginning as early as this fall.”

Here’s what Patrick Banks, the biologist in charge of the oyster program for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, told Marshall: “This will be a terrible blow to the industry, to the fishermen, no question. But we know from records that these large freshwater events usually result in greatly improved conditions for production in the future.

“You have to remember that floods of water from the rivers originally were part of the natural cycle that helped Louisiana develop the incredible oyster resource it has. The impact of every opening is different and depends largely on the length of the opening and the (stage of an oyster’s life cycle) that they occur. Judging from these other events, we could see 100 percent mortality in some of these oysters.”

In other words, it’s going to be hard to find Louisiana oysters this summer, just as was the case last summer following the BP spill. The 2010 Louisiana oyster harvest was down 50 percent from 2009.

Marshall, however, supplies the rest of the story: “Louisiana’s oyster resource evolved not only to handle these frequent river floods but to prosper from them, thanks to a two-tiered population of estuary reefs, which grow inside the bays, and intertidal reefs, which grow along and just inside the coast.

“Estuary reefs killed by the fresh water open their shells, which become ideal attachment points for the next crop of spawn — which is provided by those intertidal reefs that are not affected by the flood.”

Banks put it this way: “The experience has been reefs that suffer mortality from these openings come back stronger than ever. The impact on the fishermen is not good, but the long-term impact for the animals is actually a positive.”

The Corps will open the Morganza Floodway north of Baton Rouge this weekend for the first time since 1973, relieving pressure on Baton Rouge and New Orleans but flooding large parts of the Cajun country of south Louisiana.

“Some 25,000 people in an area known for small farms, fish camps, crawfish and a drawling French dialect are hurriedly packing their things and worrying that their homes and way of life might soon be drowned. … Opening the gates for the first time in 38 years will unleash the Mississippi on a wild ride south to the Gulf of Mexico through the Atchafalaya River and divert floodwater from the river into the basin’s swamplands, backwater lakes and bayous,” The Associated Press reported today. “Several thousand homes will be at risk of flooding. … No one seems to doubt that a major flood is bound for Butte LaRose, Krotz Springs, the oil-and-seafood hub of Morgan City and other swampland communities in the Atchafalaya Basin.”

The story described a public meeting Thursday at the volunteer fire department at Butte LaRose.

Col. Ed Fleming, the head of the Corps’ New Orleans District, warned of a wall of water 15 feet high.

“From the ground?” one resident asked incredulously.

“From the ground,” Fleming immediately replied.

In “Rising Tide,” the classic account of the Great Flood of 1927, John Barry described the fight to save a levee on the east bank of the Atchafalaya at McCrea, a town that no longer exists.

“Now 2,500 men worked at McCrea in shifts,” he wrote. “They used every technique, shielding the levee with lumber, backing it up with sandbags, revetting it with rocks. Repeatedly, some small part of the levee crumbled into the river, but each time hundreds of men rushed to the spot with timber, rocks and sandbags.

“‘They are soldiers, every one, heroes, too,’ Herbert Hoover said of them. But at 3:30 in the morning of May 24, muddy water suddenly appeared behind the levee. A few moments later a stretch of levee 700 feet long crashed into the river. The river had just ripped open the last crevasse of the 1927 flood.

“The current near the crevasse roared past at 30 miles an hour. An Associated Press report said: ‘A wall of water 40 feet high and almost 20 miles wide tonight was … cutting a path of desolation across the length of Louisiana. … Immediately behind the advancing waters scores of residents of the lower Atchafalya were being rescued by tiny boats, which ploughed precariously through the raging current to remove them from housetops. … Further back, along the Bayou des Glaises sector, only the swishing of the water could be heard.’

“The image of a 20-mile-wide, 40-foot-high wall of water was hyperbole, but the Atchafalaya had breached levees on both its banks and was spreading still another sea across central Louisiana. The flood rose to 42 feet above sea level, while the land through which it flowed had an elevation of less than 10 feet. Another 150,000 people became refugees.”

Fast forward to 2011.

Today’s AP story described how a man named Maxim Doucet in Butte LaRose has deployed a team to erect a six-foot levee around his home on the banks of the Atchafalaya. Doucet owns a construction company called Monster Heavy Haulers.

“I figured I’d give Mother Nature a run for her money,” he said.

Down the street, Russell Calais sipped on a beer as his children loaded his possessions into trucks.

“I made up my mind I wasn’t going to leave,” he said. “After I sat down and drank about 10 or 12 Coors, I said, ‘Well, it’s time.'”

The AP story noted, “Water may drive these families out of their homes, but it’s also what will bring them back to repair and rebuild. Five generations of Pamela Guidry’s family have called Butte LaRose home. Her father was a commercial fisherman. Her brothers catch crawfish for money. She worked at a seafood-packing business.

“‘I didn’t want my kids growing up in a city. I wanted them to learn how to live the hard way,’ she said. ‘They had to learn how to survive on their own down here. Once you’re out of Butte LaRose, you’re out in society, out of our own little world.’

“Guidry said her family weathered the 1973 floods and the Great Flood of 1927 without any thought of leaving town for good.

“‘The water receded. They cleaned up. Their lives went on,’ she said.”

Indeed, in the summer that lies ahead, the waters from the Great Flood of 2011 will recede.

People from Illinois to Missouri to Tennessee to Arkansas to Mississippi to Louisiana will rebuild.

Yes, even the oysters will come back strong.

The Corps will make repairs.

And then we’ll wait. We’ll wait for the next great Mississippi River flood that inevitably will come in our lifetime, our children’s lifetimes or our grandchildren’s lifetimes.

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