Happy Anniversary

I awoke this morning (29 August 2015) about 6 A.M. even though I’d set my alarm for an hour later to take advantage of a restful weekend. As my eyes opened memories flooded in and I could not help being a bit overwhelmed by the thoughts of this same day ten years ago.

On that morning I sat before a television screen at the home of some friends hundreds of miles from my southeast Louisiana home having evacuated two days before. I watched transfixed as a computer generated symbol of a hurricane touched the shore of the peninsula on which my hometown stood and knew that for myself, my family, my community, life would never be the same.

It was not a new experience for me; I had been through it as a child in 1969 when hurricane Camille made her landfall. Of course back then the television images were grainier and the storm plotting was done with markers on a weather map by our local meteorologist. There was also a significant dynamic at play back then that my seven year old sensibilities were not cognizant of.

Growing up in an Indigenous community, the son of a Houma Indian fisherman and trapper my life revolved around the seasonal patterns of our coastal ecosystem. The brackish marshlands and freshwater bayous were as normal to me as the streets and sidewalks are to an urban adolescent. What I did not comprehend then but became abundantly clear after hurricane Katrina for so many was the relationship between that ecosystem, the seasonal hurricanes, and the survivability of our communities.

Hurricanes are nothing new for my people or for the other ethnic communities along the gulf coast. My experience in 1969 was similar to, as I vaguely remember it, my experience with hurricane Betsy in 1965. So too were my father experiences, my grandfather’s, and on back through the centuries of our existence along the bayous of south Louisiana. The constant in our story is the lands that surrounded and sustained us. Modern science tells us that two and a half miles of healthy wetlands can absorb a foot of storm surge, a fact that has protected Louisiana communities for as long as they have existed.

Which brings us to that fateful day in August of 2005 when hurricane Katrina made her initial landfall about twenty miles north of my home bringing with it a storm surge topping 25 feet or more. The relatively healthy marshlands of my early childhood were gone, devoured by the forces of coastal erosion and subsidence that has taken over 2000 square miles of Louisiana coast since the mid-1930s.

Think of it as a sort of immune deficiency disorder in a child, the healthy marshlands like the human immune system are meant to protect the host body. The hurricane is not an unnatural event but rather it is like the flu that would beset us, not pleasant but definitely survivable when everything works as it is designed to. But when our immune systems fail a common cold can prove fatal in the end. A century of unchecked economic development has destroyed our coastal immune system and now every tropical system has the potential for catastrophic devastation.

In recent days the same science that tracks the most minute movements and developments of those dangerous hurricanes warns us of more threats to coastal community survival. NASA scientists have stated that global sea levels could rise over three feet in the coming decades potentially overwhelming the current moderate attempts to restore damaged and destroyed coastal ecosystems. These findings portend a foreboding future not just for Louisiana but for coastal peoples around the globe.

Here in Louisiana our governor cautioned the President, who came to New Orleans for the 10th anniversary of Katrina, not to talk about “climate change politics.” We can discuss the disasters we survived but not those on the horizon. Back to that immune deficiency illustration; this would like be facing a potentially fatal infection with an incapacitated immune system and your friend telling you it won’t be that bad, I have a bottle of NyQuil if you need it.

Michael "T. Mayheart" Dardar was born in the Houma Indian settlement below Golden Meadow, Louisiana. He served for 16 years on the United Houma Nation Tribal Council, retiring in 2010. He currently works with community-based groups advocating for the needs of coastal indigenous communities in south Louisiana. He is the author of Istrouma: A Houma Manifesto. Read other articles by T. Mayheart Dardar, or visit T. Mayheart Dardar's website.