'Where The Land Used To Be,' Photos Show Louisiana Coast 10 Years After BP Oil Spill
The last time I visited Cat Island, it was three feet under water.
As a freelance photographer, I had been returning to the now-submerged island on assignments for almost a decade, since the vulnerable island was hit by the 2010 BP oil spill. PJ Hahn, former director of Coastal Zone Management for Plaquemines Parish, and I had to find the location using GPS coordinates, maneuvering over what looked like a sandbar on the boat's depth finder.
We took turns slipping out of the boat to stand in the water, digging our feet into the dying island. With the water of Cat Bay lapping at our waists, we posed with photos that we made when the island was above the water line, when it still had mangrove trees and nesting brown pelicans.
Ten years ago, the BP oil spill began with a rig explosion that killed 11 workers. Four million barrels of oil spewed into the the Gulf of Mexico. The oil killed marine mammals and birdlife, and shut down the fishing grounds and the seafood economy. The oil also damaged the fragile coastal marshes protecting the state from hurricane storm surges.
One of the regions hardest hit was Louisiana's southeastern coastal area — Grand Isle and Cat Bay, where Cat Island stands. The oil coated the area, invading and choking the mangroves and marsh grasses.
Oil booms placed around the islands and along shorelines did little to stop the oil. They ending up tangled in the very vegetation they were meant to protect.
The timing of the spill could not have been worse; the oil reached the area during the nesting season for pelicans and an active time for other coastal and migratory birds. Some estimates put the bird fatalities from the oil spill at 1 million across the Gulf of Mexico.
Long before the oil spill, Louisiana's wetlands had been in trouble. Multiple factors have contributed to this, starting with levees built to control the Mississippi River. This protected people and homes from flooding, but also starved the surrounding marshes of land-building sediment from those floodwaters.
For decades oil and gas companies dug exploration canals in the marshlands, which allowed for saltwater intrusion and blocked the hydrological flow of the wetlands. These factors caused the land to erode, subside and disappear at some of the highest rates in the world. Add sea level rise to this, and "we are sinking like a rock," Hahn said.
"You hear all the time, 'Louisiana is losing a football field every 45 minutes.' And when you are with these old timers, they're like: 'This used to be marsh, this used to be land.' You don't get your mind wrapped around it till you get out there."
Talking about Cat Island, Hahn said, "I saw it, not only in my lifetime ... it was only a couple of years ... you could actually see this piece of land shrinking until it was finally gone and became open water."
The oil from the 2010 disaster dramatically worsened the threat to coastal Louisiana. Researchers from LSU found that the BP oil spill accelerated land loss by almost 300% in the first six months after the spill.
From the vantage point of a helicopter, I could see where the oil had covered the edge of the marshes, killed the grass, and left a "burned" looking fringe around miles of coastland. This was marsh mud exposed, without plants to hold it together, ready to slough off into the water.
Hahn brought me to see the island for the first time in 2011, about a year after the spill had ended. The mangroves, once thick and almost impenetrable, were already decimated and barely hanging on in clumps at the edges of an island melting away.
We returned to the island in April of 2012 to photograph the pelicans during nesting season. Featherless chicks poked their heads out of nests crowded into the remaining mangroves. The work felt urgent. We were documenting the life on Cat Island before it vanished.
We didn't know it while we were working, but that was the last time the brown pelicans nested on Cat Island.
By 2013, the once bushy mangroves were leafless branches. The next year, the island was barely a ridge of sand poking above the waves. PJ said that when he periodically checked on the island, he would see pelicans circling and landing on the water nearby.
"Birds imprint when they are born on these islands," Hahn said, referring to a Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries study. "They'll return every year and nest in that same spot. When they come back and the land is gone, it's not like they fly somewhere else and ... nest somewhere else. They simply stop nesting and mating. So you are losing generations and generations of birds."
A portion of the $20 billion oil spill settlement of 2016 goes to funding wetlands projects that are part of Louisiana's master plan for the coast.
For example, the state just spent $18.7 million to rebuild Queen Bess, another bird island not too far from Cat Island. Queen Bess had shrunk to just a couple of acres. Its newly reconstructed 36 acres will provide critical habitat for pelicans and the other local and migratory bird species.
PJ is still trying to rebuild Cat Island, even though it's underwater. In 2015, he got the owners of the land, Apache Oil, to donate Cat Island to Plaquemines Parish. He raised half of the $6 million needed for the project, but the state pulled the plug on the other half.
He remains convinced that a project utilizing dredge material from the Mississippi River is viable.
"I am not giving up," Hahn said. "We only have six bird islands left in Louisiana, and they all have the same problem. They're disappearing. If we don't maintain and build new islands, we are going to lose out."
Tyrone Turner is a staff photographer at member station WAMU. You can also find him on Instagram @tyronefoto.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.