‘Our culture is dying’: Rising waters menace more than land in Louisiana
Louise St Pierre paints pictures of shacks and swamps on the insides of oyster shells - tiny scenes of Cajun culture she sees washing away amid the rising saltwater and periodic floods inundating southern Louisiana. “Our culture is dying,” said St. Pierre, who lives in Lafourche Parish, where cypress trees are hung with lacy strands of Spanish moss and alligators lurk in bayous, the region’s slow-moving swamp waterways. “It’s not like it was.”
People are moving away from the parish, or county, some 60 miles (97 km) southwest of New Orleans, faced with growing flood risks and unable to pay for insurance, which can reach thousands of dollars and is required by mortgage banks in high-risk areas. Since Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, nearly 10 percent of Lafourche’s population has left its southernmost end that is floodprone and vulnerable to storm surges.
Attrition due to soaring insurance premiums is visible from the proliferation of “For Sale” signs on houses and boats, said Gary LaFleur, a biologist and faculty member at the Center for Bayou Studies at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux. “No government is coming in and kicking people out, but all of a sudden the insurance rates are going up so high that it’s like a slow economic way of leading to a ghost town,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “Within 50 years the town is gone.”
Lafourche has been home for centuries to Cajuns who are descended from Frenchspeaking settlers expelled in the 18th century from what is now Canada. Cajun culture is renowned for its spicy cuisine and lively traditional music. “It’s a lifestyle, people, language - just the way you were brought up by your parents and grandparents,” said St. Pierre. Traditions such as the blessing of the fleets in the bayous - once an annual ceremony for shrimpers and others - are dimming as the ranks of familyowned fishing boats dwindle, he said.
“When you see one shrimp boat and it’s followed by five party boats, you think, aww, this isn’t as cool as it used to be,” he said. St Pierre, known as Ms. Louise, sells her miniature Cajun paintings to customers at craft shows. “They can send them to their nephew in New York and say, ‘Hey, that is a part of our culture. Don’t forget’,” she said.
St Pierre, 65, learned French from her grandparents and meets each Tuesday night with fellow francophones, whose numbers are falling. Fewer than 14,000 people in Lafourche are native French speakers, according to the latest census figures, down from some 16,000 a decade earlier. And St Pierre cooks a mean Cajun meal. “I can make you gumbo and jambalaya, and do your etouffees and of course boiled shrimp and crawfish, fried oysters,” she said. “And I love alligator tails.” — AP