Driving the Sunken Coast
I am again driving through the moon-flecked summer night, the hot dead bugs against my windshield summer night, the benzene-sulfur-streaked chemical stacks streaming into the gleaming Gulf summer night. It is so damn hot down here, so sultry, but I don’t want to turn the air-conditioning on in my little red fuel-efficient rental vehicle; I want to breathe in the heat, bathe in the heat, dance with it! And I happen to find a watering hole where I can do just that, in the belly of the belly of the belly of the beast. The Neon Moon Saloon, a cement-floor biker bar in industrial Houston. There’s a lively game at the billiard table, rough red-faced men at the wooden bar, a glowing neon cabinet of booze. It is an end-of-the-world type of place, and this is the end of the world. The bartender in a pink cowboy hat leans across the bar to passionately kiss her young lover, a mustached man with one arm in a sling. Someone starts yelling. I order another beer and ask the lover if the bar flooded in Hurricane Harvey. It didn’t. And what does it matter if it did? The night dings on, and we all get drunk. We will all always get drunk, and then we will rebuild. I stumble out of the bar, weave around the strip malls in the dimmed-down starlight. Our ancestors crawled from the sea, now we crawl back to it, now it crawls back to us.
But we here in our glimmer age are not what we used to be. In the morning I meet a large man with a shiny head, shiny black leather shoes, shiny business tie, and massive gleaming ring. He is like a golden trophy come to life, and he tells me everything is going to be okay. Michel Bechtel is a wildcatter originally from Chalmette, Louisiana. He’s now mayor of Morgan’s Point, a three-hundred-forty-person city within the greater megalopolis of Houston, strategically located at the entrance to the Houston Ship Channel. We meet at his self-curated museum of Texas history because his town hall flooded in Harvey, which the month before dropped fifty-two inches of rain, killing fifty people across Houston, most of them drowned, and causing an estimated $75 billion in damage. Yet here is Bechtel telling me the megalopolis is booming, and that the boom cannot be stopped or slowed or stymied by the weather or climate or seas, which at a quarter inch a year are rising faster in this part of Texas than virtually anywhere else on the planet. Plastics, says Bechtel, will buoy us into the future.
As in the material that composes our coffee cup lids, yogurt containers, car dashboards, baby diapers, doll parts, lunch baggies, thermal underwear, bulletproof vests, lifesaving medical devices, foams, and paints. It doesn’t matter what you want, says the American Chemistry Council, “plastics can probably satisfy your needs.” America consumes more plastic than just about any other nation on earth, which is not necessarily surprising; we love cheap stuff and have plentiful access to oil and natural gas, from which most plastics are made. The naphtha in oil or ethane in natural gas is cooked into ethylene, which is processed into polyethylene pellets, which are molded into the plastic products we know and love. And this is where it gets interesting for Houston.
America’s fracking boom, which began in earnest around 2000, has created a glut of cheap natural gas, which has enabled a corresponding boom in plastics. Because most of the pipelines and fuel trains carrying fracked natural gas end along the Gulf Coast, which also contains a considerable amount of oil and gas itself, this is where the nation’s petrochemical industry is centered, and continues to grow from. Chevron Phillips’s new plastics plant in Baytown, on the east side of Houston, will be able to produce 1.5 million metric tons of ethylene a year. ExxonMobil recently completed a pair of plants at its Mont Belvieu facility that will make tiny plastic resin balls “to be shipped overseas,” reports the Houston Chronicle, “to meet the rapidly growing demand in nation’s [sic] with expanding middle classes like China and India.” They are “basically entering the consumer class,” says Ron Corn of Chevron Phillips, and, as the Chronicle notes, “demanding products like single-serve shampoo packets for the first time.”
From Bechtel’s perch in Morgan’s Point one can see the oily arc of the world. Soon enough these foreign lands shall be plasticized, just like our own. “Cost-wise, there is no place in the world that can compete,” boasts Bechtel. “This is the number one petrochemical complex in the United States, and it is soon to be the biggest petrochemical plant complex in the world—we’re going to surpass Rotterdam.”
In the fuel-swabbed, post-storm skies it is clear to me now: There is nothing that can stop Texas. It will smash everything in its path to bits, even the earth itself. And as Bechtel speaks, my mind’s eye wanders out over the once coastal wetlands, the sinking terrain from which the petrochemical plants grow like strange beautiful metal trees. I ponder the cordgrass, the bird flocks, the low scraggled oaks, the sunken salt domes, the bleeding bayous, this rich, rich, rich, rich land once occupied by the Karankawa people—“They were cannibals,” says Bechtel—that is now greater Houston, that just over a hundred years ago had a population of seventy-nine thousand and now holds 2.3 million, hosting a spiderweb of petroleum refineries and thousands of miles of pipelines, and five thousand energy firms, and five hundred chemical plants that make not just plastics but rubber, solvents, pesticides, toilet paper. “Southeast Harris County is the economic engine of the United States,” Bechtel says. “Period, no questions asked.”
But if this is our engine, what the hell are we engineering? Slumped like a shipwreck in an office on Pelican Island, part of Texas A&M University’s Galveston campus, is a man with answers. Bill Merrell is a distinguished oceanographer and publisher of historical fiction. He stayed in Galveston back in September 2008 during Hurricane Ike, a devastating Category 2 storm with a boggling twenty-two-foot storm surge. “We didn’t anticipate the fore-surge,” says Merrell, referring to a pulse of high water that hit nearly a day before the storm and prevented him from evacuating low-lying Galveston Island. He survived, in the second story of a nineteenth-century office building, drinking an aged bottle of wine while listening to the wind roar and the ocean come in. Apparently, somewhere in the storm, an eighty-five-year-old friend of his named Fletcher Harris, who had lost a hand at the Battle of Normandy, was found clinging to a pole with his remaining hand. Seventy-five percent of Galveston Island was submerged, and Merrell vowed to never let it happen again.
So he originated a plan called the Ike Dike, a sixty-mile chain of sea walls, armored sand dunes, and floodgates that would drape across the mouth of Galveston Bay and its adjacent barrier islands. The aim is to prevent a hurricane storm surge from entering the bay, funneling up the Houston Ship Channel, and decimating the vast array of petrochemical plants, refineries, and human beings that lie beyond. It’s a grand idea, and makes perfect sense, but the bulldozers remain idle. “The U.S. relies on a policy of failure,” sighs Merrell. “We encourage building on the coast, fail to protect people from storms, then whine when someone gets hit and we have to pay a whole bunch of money—but we’ll help you rebuild.”
Or not. There are winners and losers in every storm, notes Merrell. The elderly and poor always lose. “You take fragile lives,” he says, “people who are just trying to get by. You hit them down with a storm, you bus them out, then while they’re gone you take their homes.” And their shops, too. Owners of independent mom and pops are left sweeping out their stores by themselves, inventory ruined, waiting on an insurance check. Meanwhile, big-box stores are already back up and running, because they have the resources, they have the money at corporate headquarters. “The mom and pops figure, Why fight the big boxes?” says Merrell. “So they just leave.”
One doesn’t have to go far beyond the bounds of his office in Galveston to see just what Merrell is talking about. The western end of the island is coming back. New homes on tall handsome pilings. The Galveston Country Cub, the oldest in Texas, has blossoming membership and recently redid its pool area. Meanwhile, the eastern end of the island looks as if a project was begun, then abandoned. “When Hurricane Ike hit this island, we all were even, we all were equal,” explains Leon Phillips, of the Galveston County Coalition for Justice, in a 2016 Greenpeace documentary about hurricane gentrification. But certain communities receive resources to rebuild, he says, and others don’t. Nightclubs, churches, restaurants, homes, entire housing projects may have survived the hurricane, but are nonetheless washed away with the waves of a different sort of storm. “African Americans and minorities are always going to feel the brunt,” says Phillips, “no matter what it is.”
Yet on a balmy September evening, with whitecaps running in the Gulf and an invigorating breeze rising off the sea, the night city of Galveston is hopping. The fish shacks are jumping, the boardwalk lively. The city saunters on. Why, I had asked Merrell, are Americans moving to the coast in larger and larger numbers, even as the coast is being subsumed? The answer to him was simple: Human beings want to be at the coast; this is the natural truth we must begin with. But their jobs are often not at the coast, so they can’t all live there. Which means they live near their work, then build summer homes and cabins and condos along the coast and commute there as often as they can. “It is time that matters to people,” said Merrell. “Time is the only criterion, nothing else really matters.” You go to work to get a paycheck to take a vacation to spend a month or a week or at least a single day on the ocean, eating a fish.
That night, sprawled on my back in a tent, sweating, I trace all the paths necessary to bring me here, mother to utero, collision of dust and rock ice to form the protoplanets, General Andrew Jackson and his bloody sword. I feel queasy, overwhelmed by the volume of all which lies before me, but thoughts are awkward in the humid predawn, and with first light I spring forth. Later that morning I make a peanut butter sandwich on the beach and call a friend in New Orleans, then take a ferry across a channel where the Asia-bound plastics ships pass. I am deposited on the Bolivar Peninsula, where I continue east through Crystal Beach and Gilchrist, both communities flattened in 2008 by Ike.
Weather Underground meteorologist Jeff Masters notes that the “storm surge knocked 99.5 percent of the one thousand buildings in Gilchrist off their foundations.” The town, on an exceptionally low and narrow part of the Bolivar, got hit by a fourteen-foot storm surge that carried on top of it twenty-foot breaking waves. As the hurricane passed, the wind swung back around from the north and pushed water from Galveston Bay across the peninsula, re-inundating the community. “Building a town in Gilchrist’s location,” says Masters, “makes as much sense as building a town on the side of an active volcano.” But, of course, the town has been rebuilt.
I pass peachy new homes on spindly stilts and the new Fantasea BBQ & Grill, where one can eat brisket on a balcony that overlooks the ocean, and then, when I am almost out of road, I meet Randy. He is guarding some sort of hobo encampment on a desolate stretch of beach near High Island, just before Highway 87 becomes Highway 124 and turns away from the coast. It is quite a setup. A horse trailer stacked with kitchen provisions that also serves as a bedroom. Powerful floodlights gleaned from an Air Force surplus sale. A diesel generator. A carton of Taaka vodka. A clothesline billowing in the blue-sky breeze. And Randy Ivey from the Smoky Mountains in the driver’s seat of a Toyota truck, sitting under a blanket, keeping watch.
He and his Smoky Mountains crew have journeyed out of the hollers and down to the Texas coast to search for hurricane cleanup jobs, which can pay well depending on the severity of the storm and how quickly the FEMA money starts flowing. Right now, everyone else is back near Houston trying to sniff out a job in the flooded neighborhoods where mildewed homes are being torn up. But, says Randy, “I’m on disability. I’m looking for work where I don’t have to move much.” Which he seems to have found, sitting in this truck in the sand guarding the encampment. “I ain’t never done something like this,” he says, and the sun shines on the warm camp, and the Gulf’s little brown waves roll to shore, and Randy smiles. “And I may never get to do this again. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime deal, an adventure, something different, you know what I mean?”
I know exactly what he means, and am suddenly racing off to the store to buy a case of beer. By the time I return, it is twilight and the whole gang is here. I am given Taaka and orange soda in a gigantic Styrofoam cup. The seats are drawn in a circle. The crew didn’t find work that day, but everyone is jubilant, talking at once. Randy has reeled in a fine catch, a freelance magazine journalist, i.e., someone living out of a car filled with maps and scraps of paper, kind of like themselves. In a way, we are fellow vagabonds, frantically roving the land for our work, but all we really want is a patch of sand where we can lay down our heads and look at the sky.
The leader of the little gang is an older man with a white mustache and strong bony legs sporting leather sandals, cutoff jean shorts, and a partially buttoned safari shirt. This is the Mailman, known as such because he was one for thirty-three years back in Sevierville, Tennessee, having received a plaque for driving more than a million miles. “We been to Port Arthur,” nods the Mailman. “We been to Beaumont; it’s tore up real bad. But this today is about as bad as we’ve seen.”
Another man, Patrick, originally from Santa Cruz, California, is barefoot, with a polo shirt and badly sunburned face. He is both giddy with joy and brilliantly sad, and has been going through tough times of late, homeless, living out of his car, but the Mailman pulled him along for the journey. “I grew up surfing on the beach,” Patrick tells me. “I lived all over Florida, Denmark, Sweden. My brother got killed by a drunk driver, so I went up to Tennessee. But the best part was growing up on the beach in California—you could buy a joint for a dollar!”
To my right is Gene, with a grizzled beard. He leans over to tell me that he lives on a mountain without power, running water, or a vehicle, just an oil lamp.
“That’s the real McCoy right there, a real mountain man,” says a big guy named Mississippi Joe.
“The last of the bloodline,” adds the Mailman. “We brought him down here to breed.”
“I’m a tracker,” Gene tells me. “Snap a twig. Walk through the woods. Follow an animal. I done it for forty years. I like it like that. This is the first time I ever seen the ocean.”
“What did you think?” I ask Gene.
He leans forward to whisper, “It freaked me out!”
And Gene starts laughing uproariously, and we all are laughing uproariously, and the Taaka flows like wine. Introductions continue. Angie Lane has on a pink tank-top and is drinking coffee, not booze. “I’m the cook,” she says, “the mother, the secretary, the nurse.”
“She’s the one who scrapes us out of the sand,” says Mississippi Joe.
“Puts the Band-Aids on,” says Patrick.
Angie Lane is smiling. “Most people couldn’t handle living like this—they’d miss their TVs, all their luxuries,” she says, and stares off at the sea. “There were five shrimper boats out there last night; it was like five moons.”
My new friends grow plaintive. “What kind of setting can beat this?” roars Mississippi Joe. “You’d get a million people to give a million dollars just to see this, just to live like this—everybody wish they could do something like this, but they can’t.”
The twilight-glow becomes night-glow, and the Air Force floodlights are switched on, and the beach becomes its own glowing moon. We are like insects caught in the porch lamp, our movements like the moths, one big shadow-puppet troupe, putting on a show for no one but the stars.
The moon may control the water, our moods, and bathe the land in light, but what of when there is no more land, when it gets eaten away, and all becomes water? Crossing the Sabine River and into Louisiana the land is sunk in mist. On the other side is a liquefied natural-gas plant operated by Cheniere Energy that covers the space of roughly forty-four football stadiums. To transport natural gas vast distances more efficiently, it is cooled and condensed into a liquid at sprawling LNG plants like this one. This process shrinks the volume of the fuel by a factor of six hundred. The plant spumes so much water vapor—as well as nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide—into the atmosphere that it literally makes its own clouds. And here begins lonely, lonely Louisiana Highway 82.
About seventy miles east is a stand of those stately live oaks, with their hanging moss and dark memories. And defiant weaving trunks, from which sister branches grow apart for forty years or four hundred, survive untold storms, untold traumas, untold beauty, and grow back together. Under this canopy is the headquarters of Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge and in an office in back is wetlands manager Scooter Trosclair.
He is a busy man. The refuge is seventy thousand acres, home to three hundred and sixty types of birds, the highest density of nesting alligators in America, and a rich array of fish and wetlands species. Scooter has history here: his grandfather was a shrimper out of Dulac, his father was a trapper in Grand Chenier, and he grew up on the Mermentau River, catching crabs and redfish. And he happens to be the one on the crest of a mountain of time who will see it all into oblivion. “This landscape,” says Scooter, “is crumbling apart.”
It’s deteriorating thanks to dikes along the Mississippi River that help shoot out to sea the sediments and sands which were once transported by currents along the coast to Scooter’s wetlands. And thanks to oil and gas canals and shipping channels that have cut the marsh to pieces and helped salty ocean water surge inland. Without new sand and sediments to build elevation, the land is eroding. Sea level rise brought on by melting ice sheets and a warming ocean certainly doesn’t help. At one spot in the refuge, Scooter’s agents recently recorded a remarkable measurement: two hundred and thirty-three feet of land lost over a nine-month period. Meaning that the sea here is advancing inland at the rate of nearly a foot a day—like a slow-motion monster in a horror movie. The highest point in the parish is about twelve feet above sea level; when hurricanes come through, the storm surge wipes clean across. “If you look to the east,” Scooter gestures out the window, “it is all water. It used to be land.”
Yet he still hangs on to hope that the land will survive. “We haven’t lost southwest Louisiana yet,” he says. “It’s in the process of converting to open water, but we can help save it.” Getting money for restoration projects in this remote corner of a state that is losing land all along the coast has been difficult, but Scooter has his eye on a shiny new pot of cash. “Liquefied natural gas,” he tells me. “That’s our only hope.”
At least five new LNG plants have been proposed for the area, all of them back toward the Texas border in and near a tiny town called Cameron. If and when they are built, Scooter believes he will have a much easier time securing money to save his wetlands. Because, as he puts it, “the gas industry doesn’t want this whole thing washing away.”
And so again Louisiana is left with its enduring twentieth-century conundrum: Oil and gas hath built it, oil and gas hath helped destroy it, oil and gas shall be the only thing that can save it. Or at least, so claim Scooter and the oilmen. But just what would this place be like without oil? Better? Worse? It is not so clear.
“Without oil and gas we would have remained deeply rural and agrarian,” longtime Cameron Pilot newspaper reporter Cyndi Sellers tells me at the Anchors Up Grill, a seafood spot in Cameron—and one of the only restaurants left after all the hurricanes. Cyndi is married to a sheriff’s deputy, her grandfather was a state representative, and her grandmother first traveled to the coast from central Louisiana by mail boat. “All the bayou south was very rustic,” Cyndi says. “Into the 1950s electricity was sparse. Rural electrification was in its infancy. People still used wood stoves and bottled gas. Phone service didn’t come till the forties. There were little pieces of shell road here and there, but they were not very well connected. We had some shrimping, some cotton, and oranges. It was sleepy here.”
Oil and gas came in the 1940s and 1950s and changed all that. Cyndi’s father was from Lufkin, Texas, and arrived around 1949, after serving in the Navy. “Offshore oil was just taking off,” she says, “and after working with a seismograph crew for land-based drilling, he went to work with Sun Oil on one of the primitive offshore rigs.” The seafood industry took off at about the same time. “We were the number-one fishing port by weight in the country in the seventies,” says Cyndi.
But there have been many storms. Young Cyndi and her family rode out Audrey, a monster that struck in 1957, in the upper floors of the parish courthouse. Others crammed into attics and prayed as homes lifted off their foundations and floated away. The storm surge washed twenty-five miles inland. Cameron Parish lost as many as five hundred people, an astonishing seven percent of the parish’s population.
“We thought that was the worst,” says Cyndi. “No, Rita was way worse.”
Rita hit as a Category 3 in September 2005, less than a month after Katrina, and annihilated Cameron. “There are absolutely no structures here,” a local radio journalist reported after the storm. “Everything’s been torn away . . . flattened, like it was punched by a giant fist.” Just three years later came Ike. People had lost everything in Rita, but many had moved back by the summer of 2008 and were living in mobile homes. “Ike came and washed all that away,” says Cyndi. Residents were no longer allowed to live in mobile homes, and costly new elevation requirements and building codes were put in place. Many residents have not returned. “Down here in Cameron we’ve taken a huge population hit,” she says. People have moved inland to cities like Lafayette and Lake Charles, or up into the piney woods north of I-10. There’s hardly a soul left here, and hardly a thing left here for a soul to buy.
“Right now, we don’t have a grocery store, because there is not enough population,” says Cyndi. Cameron is also without a pharmacy, forcing Cyndi to drive fifty miles each way to get a prescription filled. A Facebook page titled Cameron Parish – Ain’t There No More! lists other things that have gone: various nightclubs, numerous restaurants, softball leagues, Boy Scouts. “People say, ‘Why can’t you just come back?’ But you can’t come back if there’s nothing to come back to,” says Cyndi. “A town needs these things to flourish.”
There is a Family Dollar, which in this retail desert serves as a backup grocer and pharmacy. It is just like Bill Merrell, the oceanographer back in Galveston, had said: All the mom and pops are gone. “The thing holding most people back from building is the lack of money,” says Cyndi. “If we could have an industry here that paid people enough money to build strong structures, they would, and LNG jobs pay very well.”
And so the loop of fossil fuels circles around again. Oil and gas have given the people of southern Louisiana jobs, built them homes and towns, and helped destroy the wetlands and funnel the ocean in to destroy their homes and towns. Now here they are again, waiting on liquefied natural gas to bring enough jobs and money to build back up their land and fight the land loss and the climate change and the rising seas. But there is no irony here—this is just the razor’s edge. It’s not just Cameron’s problem, but all of our problem, the loose bolt of our wobbled system, or just the way of our world. And when I point it all out to Cyndi, her region’s dependence on the thing that is destroying it, her people’s insistence on living upon a land that many scientists say will be gone within two or three generations, she pushes back.
“In the first place,” she says, “the nation would not survive without our oil and gas. They may not like oil, but they can’t live without it. If you look at a map of the country, all of the pipelines center here. There is still an industry here, a need. We have our shrimping and our fishing. And while saltwater intrusion has done its damage, we still provide food to the nation. And the thing is, fishermen have to be by the water. It’s not like you can commute to a fishing boat. A forty-five-minute drive for a fisherman, you can’t do it. It’s not practical for us to all leave.”
“Besides which,” she continues, pondering an imaginary map, “some of us can’t figure out where the heck to go. Going inland doesn’t get you out of a hurricane. Into the Midwest where the tornadoes been whacking them? My daughter lives near Portland and she can see Mount St. Helens. All of California is imminent to an earthquake, and they don’t give much warning. . . . At least us on the coast, we get a little warning, so we can pack up and go. And if we build a house strong enough, we’ll at least have something to come back to.”
I get in her car and we take a drive around to see the sites of the proposed LNG plants. Two of them are right in town. One is a marshy expanse called Monkey Island, favored by birds. A facility the size of forty-four football stadiums, or even four, would clearly eviscerate this veld. The other is slated to be set just inland from a sunny patch right on the Gulf where presently there is a public pier. The spot is popular amongst anglers, many of whom fish and hunt the marshlands to sustain themselves and their families, and nature lovers like Cyndi. “For generations people have come down here to look at the waves,” she says.
If the plant goes through, the townspeople wouldn’t be able to access the coast. “I don’t know how we’re going to cope with not being able to get to our Gulf,” says Cyndi. “We’re coastal people. We have salt water in our blood. We get stressed out if we can’t reach the water.” She stares out past the dunes to the sea. Yes, being able to touch the ocean, truly touch it, is something grand. But then there is the lack of jobs, the fact that no one has money, that there are no stores or shops. “We’ve got to have something,” cries Cyndi. “We will die if we don’t have something.”
But there is more. The LNG carriers—massive freighters that take the liquefied natural gas from the LNG plants and bear it across oceans to Asia, the Caribbean, northern Europe—can be a thousand feet long, and if all five proposed plants in the region get built, as many as eight a day could be passing through a channel used by local shrimpers and oystermen. When a carrier comes in, maritime law dictates that other vessels remain clear of the main shipping channel two miles ahead and one mile astern of the LNG ship, which would sideline the fishermen, who would suddenly have to adjust their harvest times and march to the beat of the gas industry. “They’re being told they’ll be accommodated,” says Cyndi, “but they know how important they are in the scheme of things.”
Even out in the open water of the Gulf, the shrimpers will have to contend with liquefied natural gas. Delfin LNG proposes building a deepwater port fifty miles offshore from Cameron capable of housing a floating liquefied natural gas plant, the first in North America. “Floating liquefaction will be the future of LNG production,” states Delfin’s website. “I still doubt the wisdom of their choice,” Cyndi says as we drive away from the coast. She works with the Louisiana Ornithological Society and names the birds she enjoys seeing in the coastal wetlands: tricolored heron, snowy egret, black-necked stilt, roseate spoonbill, brown pelican. “I stand out there in the evening and watch the pelicans fly in formation, like bombers, coming in to roost on Rabbit Island,” she says (Rabbit Island being just beyond Monkey Island). “There is a lot of concern in the birding community about the impact on the shore birds.”
“What will happen to all the birds?” I ask.
“We’re not sure,” she says.
On the ride back to town her tone is less chipper. We talk in the car before parting ways. “I’m trying to imagine what this skyline will look like with something like Chenier,” she says, and shakes her head, worried. The afternoon is fading on. The tour of the proposed LNG plants appears to have cast her world in a different light and put her in a small spin. “It’s all interconnected,” explains Cyndi, “and we’ve managed to get along with oil and gas. We always felt like we’ve had the best of both worlds: we’ve had the oil and gas, and we’ve had the nature.” She gazes out toward the northern horizon, where a small marsh fire is burning. They can be caused by lightning, or wetlands managers looking to burn off dead material. “I just feel it’s different here than anywhere else in the world,” she says.
Across the street from the Anchors Up Grill a man sits in a camping chair, drinking a beer, smoking Pall Malls, and selling handmade landscape paintings done on scraps of wood, and before leaving town, I head over to talk with him. He has a long beard and a guitar, and has worked in fishing and worked in oil and now lives on a slab, the detritus of some establishment twirled away in one of the hurricanes. His name is Critter, and he strikes me as some sort of oracle. Immediately he reveals this to be the case. “The cops hate me, the fishermen fear me, the women love me,” says Critter between glugs on his tallboy Miller High Life.
Critter can see well that I am on a journey, which both excites him, as life for him has clearly been a journey, and also worries him. “I don’t know what you’re going to find out there, brother,” he says. I go back to the car to get my map and return, but he has gone inside to get another beer. When he comes out he shows me the places that have been ruined, which in his mind is most of the coast. “It ain’t got no soul, man,” says Critter. “It ain’t nothing but yuppies, rich people. They pissed off because they don’t have no heart in life.”
But Louisiana is a holdout, and especially coastal Louisiana. Here, life is different, and Critter excitedly points out the traditional and indigenous communities where people still speak pidgin and live off the fruits of the land and communicate with the old spirits and may believe in God or may believe in magic or some combination of the two that makes sense to their time and their land. There are the Atakapa-Ishak, and the Houma tribe, and the marsh people out on the Bayou Teche, and the water people over by Dulac and Cocodrie, and the people of Isle de Jean Charles, who have recently been forced to abandon their sinking island and have been painted as America’s first climate refugees.
I know the Atakapa-Ishak, having spent time with the tribe’s matriarch, Rosina Philippe, in 2010, right after BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and spilled what was to total two hundred and ten million gallons of oil into the Gulf. The tribe was driven, many centuries ago, from the area back by Cameron to a remote spindle of marsh near the mouth of the Mississippi River, where they rely on boats, not cars, and all the roads are water and they ardently ply their trade, which is shrimp and oysters. “All I do is catch oysters,” Rosina’s nephew John Philippe had told me. “Whenever I’m not doing that, I catch shrimps.” The BP oil spill, which was right in their backyard, had been yet another assault on their livelihood and identity. “We’re looking,” Rosina had told me, “at the potential for cultural genocide.”
The following evening when I reach the Atakapa-Ishak community of Grand Bayou, everyone is working busily about their shrimping boats. This time, I can’t find Rosina. Turns out she is taking care of a sick relative. “A lot of people old, a lot of people sick,” a salty old shrimper also named John Philippe tells me. But there is a group of younger guys hustling around the docks as the seabirds soar in for the night and the light becomes lavender pink. I am just looking to find out what I don’t know, and to see what they see, but I am met with iron stares. No one wants to talk, everyone is working. “Shrimping is a busy hustle,” says John.
I do find a man named Noah near one trawler who tells me, “Every day you see the coastal erosion. What used to be land is now water.” It’s what I’ve heard all along, and will hear again, and this is what I think about as the lackluster night light fades and I move on, noticing as I drive back north and toward the mainland of Louisiana and America a vast space where the native marsh and trees have been hacked away to make way for a new housing development. And an even vaster space that has been cleared and is for the moment nothing but dust, though it shall soon become some massive industrial complex. What, I do not know. Perhaps another coal terminal; there is already one nearby. Or perhaps this too shall become a plant that processes natural gas into plastic pellets to ship to India and China. Or one the size of forty-four football stadiums that processes natural gas into liquefied natural gas to ship to these same nations and others.
But now is the night, now is the terrible, burning question of what’s next, of what can’t be avoided or passed over or dodged. That is: New Orleans, which until very recently was my home and where I have not been since leaving. There, amidst the constant chemical burning air and carcinogenic water, I plied my environmental trade. On the side I helped a man who had been wrongly convicted of murder and spent nine years in prison, five of them on death row, write a memoir of his life, which was to me an insane life, though to him just his life. Long after his exoneration, I sat with him at his hospital bed in the ICU after he was gunned down in the streets, shot seven times—both his hands were broken and he still had a suppurating wound in his gut and was dozing in and out of consciousness, and I tried to decipher his words, as I have tried and tried.
And tried. I know that the city is a great grave, stretching back not just to Katrina but across generations and perhaps across time or even before there was time. It is a great wound where all the acid of the world gets thrown or coagulates on its own and duly flourishes, a hot wet acid bath, a power center, a vortex, and a hole, and for those who stay too long and don’t belong they will swiftly and soon fall down and get struck and get stuck. As I approach the city on its blood-soaked maiden bridge I know more than anything that if I stop there this night I may die, because I feel in my bones that my card is up. There is a time for staying and a time for going, and when the wick burns through it must be recognized. I would like nothing more than to sit with a friend, have a night drink at one of the outdoor café tables, watching out over the wicked, the doomed, the collapsing, even as we speak and sip, but—but I have this niggling.
In the end, I am saved by a sudden traffic jam in the heart of the city, some horrible midnight wreck, splats and pieces on the highway. No, I must not stop in New Orleans. I must move on.
Many miles on, I crash out in the sand under pine trees at a campground. In the morning, families cook up their Saturday pancakes, and I hear the sounds of children dancing about, pets being walked, bicycles being pedaled. It is a fine family campground where an employee in a golf cart delivers sunscreen and bug spray, and I am the suspicious outlier, sweating through my clothes again. My attire is not right for this setting, my body is not right for this climate, my mind is not right for this world.
One morning there is rain, a hectic arousal, a desperate search for coffee, and a phone conversation in the car as the big drops fall down. It is the great David Baker, Louisiana coastal ecologist and preeminent man of darkness. David has taken a peek into the abyss, seen the little slippery pieces of code. The truth fragments at the blunt end. And yet, like many a misanthrope, he has found that very few want to listen to him. I want to.
“I have been chasing storms for twenty-five years,” David begins. He has compiled a list of some one hundred fifty-one Gulf and Atlantic hurricanes dating back to when recording began in the 1880s, and he has put these storms onto a single map and input the data into models that take into account our changing climate patterns, and then he has run the models. The results are hardly surprising: we are doomed. But the future to him is not as interesting as the past. There are hurricanes out there, says David, that “in human existence in the continental United States we have never seen.” He calls these storms “super hurricanes.”
“What would that look like?” I ask.
“I imagine being a Native American hunting a deer somewhere in Mississippi,” he says, “and here comes a one-hundred-foot wall of water.” David prophesizes that one of these super hurricanes would occupy the entire Gulf of Mexico, “from Mexico all the way to Florida.”
“We estimate three hundred and sixty-five million trees fell in Katrina in one day,” he continues. “At one hundred twenty miles per hour all trees start to crack. A handful of trees can resist these winds—cypress, live oak—but at one hundred sixty miles per hour there is no tree that can resist getting ripped out of ground. And now,” he says, referring to Hurricane Irma, one of last summer’s monsters, the strongest hurricane ever observed in the open Atlantic, “we are talking about two hundred ten miles per hour . . .” The call ends, the rain continues, I drive on.
At the roiling sweeping green black watery tangle of a river that separates Louisiana from Mississippi is one of the few places in this part of the Gulf where, even from the interstate, the landscape looks wild, prehistoric, primordial. I notice a ribbon of black birds welling up from the sweeping tangle.
Now let us prance about a very different landscape. A towering glossy lobby, ornamental trees glazed in glass, a floral-patterned carpet, a line of gift shops that sell singing frogs and Christmas paraphernalia, everything in tinsel, everything scented, dipped in gloss, slippery, and, of course, gleaming, the unseemly fusion of gold and pastel, the air rich with manufactured scents, the decked-out ambience of a perennial holiday.
I have booked a room for the night in this place, the Beau Rivage, finest casino in Biloxi. This seaside strip was “completely flattened and destroyed” in Hurricane Katrina, according to an NBC journalist who weathered the storm here, but now has been built back bigger, taller. Of course it has. Whereas before, many of the casinos were on barges that got tossed about like a child’s bath toys, split open like turkeys, now the barges are gone and we have these new shining towers, still right on the coast. In the room I am renting, a gigantic, overly air-conditioned, thickly scented cave with insanely wide chairs, even the water feels glossy, and I drop off my baggage morsels and make my way down to dinner.
Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” soothes the air itself as I wind around the labyrinth of soup and salad bars, pasta and meat stations. It is a dazzling slow-motion swirl of human beings, and although I feel like a vampire who doesn’t show up in photographs, I am a part. There are about one hundred and fifteen food stations by my quick calculation, and except for the lettuce bar, each one is filled with something soft, squishy, salty, often sugary, too. We’ve figured out how to create the basic flavors and sensations and then jack them up artificially in a factory and inject them into everything we see, eat, sniff, touch. And the forever-blood-orange sunset comes pacing across the steaming landscape populated by so many cities and towns, and the endless pig lots and cow lots and corn and soybean lots that feed them, and us in our midnight purple nation that is our stolen home, America. Somebody must be smoking a cigar, and the smell is wafting into my eating station.
I try my hand at gambling, instantly lose twenty dollars on roulette, then walk outside to experience the vivid moment of the freshly fallen night. In Las Vegas, a man has just murdered fifty-eight people at a concert using a selection of semi-automatic rifles, and the Beau Rivage, being owned by MGM, which also owns the casino from which this man handed out his carnage, has issued a statement about the event in rather pixelated script beset by digitized billowing American flags on the gigantic digital signboard that towers above the marigolds. People are set up here in camping chairs, smoking cigars in the warm evening breeze, a lot of old, once-ripped now-fat dudes with beards waiting for the annual Cruisin’ the Coast event to begin, which is a weeklong parade of antique muscle cars that has lit the whole town with rattling engines. My mind is more on the following question: Why do people gamble?
We are clearly a nation of idiots, I think to myself, clutching our drinks as we make our bets in sandals and smocks on the strands of a destroyed culture on sands that are washing away as the oceans warm, acidify, and rise right into the lobbies of our gambling halls. We all want so bad to win, but win what? We want the bell to go off and it to be for us. We want to be validated, even if it be merely our decision to pull a lever. The obvious conclusion, as a Cherokee elder once told me, is that Americans are lost. And there is no greater emblem of our delusion than a brand-new casino on the sinking coastline.
Just a few blocks from the beach is the other side of town and the Church of Redeemers, where down a series of hallways in a room with cinderblock walls stuck with sticky notes and photographs of Barack Obama and Martin Luther King Jr., and basketballs scattered about the linoleum floor, I find James W. Crowell III, president of the Biloxi branch of the NAACP and member of a number of other community organizations. He sits behind a vast desk piled with papers, wearing glasses and a Hawaiian shirt, and welcomes me into his world. The first topic of conversation is the roads, which despite it being twelve years since Katrina are still in various stages of disrepair in his neighborhood of East Biloxi. There is the typical story about contracts delayed and contractors gone bad, but there is also much more than that.
“Right after Katrina they brought all these architects in and were talking about having walkable communities, bringing the local grocery stores back like in the old days, having parks; they were even talking about having something like a Central Park, by the Point,” James explains. “Governor Barbour said this is the first time a city can rebuild itself, and you have the money to do it. But that’s not what we’re looking at now. The idea went away. They built a baseball stadium, and a new aquarium in Gulfport, and a visitor center for NASA out by Bay St. Louis, and the casinos all got what they needed. But these roads,” and he indicates through the cinderblocks to the muddy mess of streets beyond, “are still torn up.”
“Anytime you got roads torn up no one wants to put a business in, because folks can’t get to them,” James continues. “Several businesses have closed. And as long as these roads are torn up, no one is going to drive through and say, ‘Oh, I’d like to live here.’ There
is no plan out there. We don’t know what we’re going to have, because it’s all being done hodge-podge. You never know how your city is going to look. I have no idea what will be around my house in the next ten years. And right now, the value of my house is decreasing.”
“Fact is,” he continues, “when Katrina came in and flooded this area, whatever was in that water went into this soil. Then the contractors came in and tore up the roads, now all that is in the air, people breathing in all this dirt, so we don’t know what health hazards we’re going to have.” And like in Cameron Parish, costly new building codes are redecorating the coastline. “In ’71, I could get insurance,” he says. “Now, after Katrina, you need three types of insurance: home, flood, and wind. For me, I pay eighteen hundred dollars for wind, five hundred to six hundred for flood, and five hundred to six hundred for home. Before, it was twelve hundred for all.”
“We just got a letter from FEMA,” he continues, rifling around his cluttered desk, “saying flood insurance is going to go up eighteen percent per year, and they don’t know when it’s going to stop.” He can’t find the letter, no matter. “What happens with insurance like that, the cost of the house note is less than it would cost to insure the house, so this makes it harder for lower-income people to move in.” And yet, he points out, “the rich can build their summer homes here.”
“What about the casinos?” I ask. “Have they helped your community or hurt it?”
Sure, James says, the casinos have pitched in to build a new high school, a brand-new middle school, a few elementary schools, and buy the police department new guns. But as in Cameron, and like in so many places across America, the once-solid industries that comfortably buttressed communities like James’s have crashed. The fishing: still hasn’t recovered since the BP oil spill. The shrimping: lost to Asian shrimp farms. The manufacturing: moved to Mexico or China. Good stevedore jobs at the port: now done by mega-cranes and robots. The jobs trickle away, until the people are on their knees. The casinos bring most of their high managers in from Vegas, says James. People in his community “get maid jobs.” Or they get nothing, because migrant workers from Africa, South Asia, and the Caribbean are brought in.
“Like a pimp with a prostitute,” James goes on—unfazed, on fire, sometimes turning papers over on his desk as he talks, sometimes staring me straight hard in the eye, occasionally picking up the phone to take a call, and even at one point calling a young man into his office who had done some work for one of his organizations and handing him his pay, but always picking right back up where he had left off—“you prostitute your people to get cheap labor. Like the Nissan plant up in Jackson. Nissan came to Mississippi because they can pay people less. A Mississippi Nissan worker makes less money than anywhere else in the world, so right now they are prostituting our folks out in Jackson at that Nissan plant. A lot of that happening around here. McDonald’s is having trouble keeping employees because they don’t have any benefits and only have part-time. It’s hard to keep people in a job like that. And this is a right-to-work state, so they don’t like unions. Our workers here don’t get the salaries they get elsewhere. We are losing a lot of young professionals; they go somewhere else where they can make more money.”
Finally, winding down. “It’s been rough for the Gulf Coast since Katrina,” James sighs. “The coast,” he says, “is for the wealthy.”
Just a hundred miles east along the powdery white shores of Alabama is a different story. The southern half of Baldwin County is “exploding,” AL.com recently reported. “From Spanish Fort to Daphne and Fairhope, across to Loxley, Robertsdale and Foley, and down to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach . . . Baldwin civic leaders and boosters can cite a long list of attributes fueling the growth. They mention the lure of the beach, relative affordability, popular schools, a coastal vibe, and on and on.”
At 900 Commerce Loop, behind the little local airport, is the operations center of Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism. Joanie Flynn, vice president of marketing, tells me about the boom, which shares an arc I am beginning to see as a rule for the coast. That is, after a hurricane, things are not just built back, they are built back taller and shinier, and the homespun way of coastal living that may have existed before is forever lost.
Initially, says Joanie, “the beach was just camping and fish camps.” Developers were afraid of hurricanes and no one built big buildings right at the coast. Then in 1979 came Hurricane Frederic, a devastating Category 3 that hit near the Mississippi-Alabama state line. “Frederic wiped the fish camps out,” she says. “That’s when the developers came along.” Small hotels, six or eight stories high, began popping up along the coast. Then there was Hurricane Elena in 1985, Opal in 1995, and Georges in 1998, but the next big one did not come until Ivan, which struck as a Category 3 in 2004. “After Ivan,” says Joanie, “the high-rises went up. The condos took off, too. They tended to be larger, bigger, higher.”
The coast in Baldwin County is now a sparkling plume of condo and timeshare towers, plumped-up pastel beach homes, and creamy beachside hotels—Island Sunrise, Seawind, San Carlos, Castaways, Colonnades—all rising majestically above the blizzard white sands. “The reason this works here is because we are a multifamily destination,” says Joanie. Grandparents bring grandkids to summer on the beach, grandkids start their own families and purchase summer homes. The beach remains the main attraction, but municipal leaders have worked to garnish the calendar with other lures. There is the Hangout Music Festival, a three-day reggae, indie rock, and electronic dance party on the beach in May, the National Shrimp Festival in October, and the Waterway Village Zydeco & Crawfish Festival each spring.
Lately, there are even hipper things, like Dr. James Shamburger, a dentist who opened a brewery with his wife. And there is a new café called Foam. Cargo ships sunk offshore to create artificial reefs to attract scuba divers. A brand-new Arts and Entertainment District, and an initiative called Business Where You Beach, intended to attract inland businesses to move to the coast. “The idea,” explains one of Joanie’s colleagues, “is that if you are already commuting in your private jet every weekend of the summer to stay at your condo, you may as well just move your business to the beach.” To inspire this outcome, the county is reaching out in particular to women, “who are the decision makers in the families,” says Joanie. “They start thinking this is a simpler life for our family, maybe it’s easier here, maybe you should move your business here.” The county has even cleared off a vast plot for these future businesses, a three-thousand-and-nine-acre trapezoid just off Interstate 65 called the Mega Site. An environmental analysis has apparently already been completed, highway and rail access prepped, utilities linked in.
Ah, yes. It has all been premediated and pre-modulated and prepackaged and predestined. The Mega Site is ready, the timeshare has a full range and mega air-conditioning and a fully wired virtual portal so you can connect your devices and never be far away from the comforts and conveniences as you pretend to truly touch this thing of beauty and danger that is an ancient bone that in your cozily dozily you half-remember though don’t understand at night, under the stars, the burning sky stars, the spectral visions, the jarring inspirations, the tear-wrenching human moments that only come when you are naked, face to face with the crashing wave froth, under the universe, under love, and under God—and I mean every God, because every single one of them ends and starts in the sea. And you slam the sliding plexiglass door shut and pretend this pretend life on the pretend ocean was once not pretend and, the thing is, very soon the thing that you pretend to pray to—as soon as you can say Irma, Ivan, Georges, Opal, Elena, Frederic backward—will burst through the plexiglass and come right into your sweet condo living room and bust up your gas range.
I watch night fall from under a palm forest next to a pond just across the border and into Florida. I am at Big Lagoon State Park, and this is the last pond: the homes are creeping in around this postage-stamp sanctuary as we speak, crowding the boundary line. Another foundation laid here, a house there expands and adds a deck. It is all good and fine—people need warm bedrooms, and jobs, the ability to feed their kids ham sandwiches and stave off the darkness—but I retreat to the damp, verdant, cottonmouth-studded shores of the last pond, where I cook a coffee on my camp stove and, much later, deep in the night, watch a howling wind blow armadas of ripples across the surface. I am hearing noises. There are three wolverines crouched in the bushes, and I see the ghosts, too, with their blood eyes and soft skulls. How will it all end? A great battle? Possible, but I see something else, a squishier ending, something far less dramatic, and far more . . . beautiful.
He has a good body, wears black loafers, trim black slacks, a neat black-and-white checkered golf shirt, smooth long slicked-back hair, a very well-trimmed beard with just a bit of gray. He is Dr. Bill Burden, founder and chief doctor at Destin Plastic Surgery, and I am immediately taken under his spell. Dr. Burden leads me through the spacious lobby of his twenty-thousand-square-foot surgery center, warmly addressing a woman mopping the floor, and then up a winding staircase to the second floor, where he seats me in a glowing chamber. On an extremely long white marble table is a single one-million-dollar bill. Dr. Burden gets himself a miniature Perrier from a cute little fridge tucked away somewhere.
“Classic patient,” he begins, “is a mom. She’s thirty-five. She’s had a couple babies, but she’s still young. She wants to have a good body, she doesn’t want a mom bod—so we’re doing what I call a ‘restoration.’ A lot of men, too, they don’t want the dad bod, the little love handles, the little belly. We get a lot of older people, too, just not ready to be old. A classic would be a young girl with a really large nose—she wants something small and cute. We have a number of military bases nearby, and we’ll get people who just finished a tour in Afghanistan and say, ‘Now I’m going to get my liposuction, or get my breast op.’ They use it as a carrot at the end. We probably get about four thousand people a year cycling out . . . ” He takes a sip of his Perrier.
Times weren’t always this grand. Dr. Burden arrived in Destin in 1995, right after Hurricane Opal, and with his wife opened a one-thousand-square-foot office, about the size of a nail salon. They had moved from New Orleans, and initially she was reluctant of the change; at the time the panhandle of Florida seemed like a backwater. Plus, the area had taken a direct hit from Opal, a Category 3 storm. “I thought, my destiny is crushed,” says Dr. Burden. But again, per the rule of the coast, arriving right after a storm proved to be the perfect time to open a new business. “It brought everyone back,” he says, “and people started building back.” He was like a family plastics practitioner, fixing up scrapes and cuts and busted thumbs, and through good work on jobs like this, he gained the trust of the community. “People would say, ‘Hey, you did a pretty good job on my thumb, maybe you can do my wife’s liposuction.’” And business rocketed. In 2002, he built the futuristic facility we are presently seated in. He now has a staff of fifty, including a well-liked young doctor called Botox Bill. It is quite apparent that Dr. Burden deeply loves his work, respects his patients. I ask him what he thinks is the future of plastic surgery.
“I don’t think it’s going to be overwhelming,” he says, “but I do think it will evolve. Back in the seventies plastic surgery was only available to the rich and famous. You saw a lot of overdone stuff—all the women wanted huge breasts. That’s gone away. Now it has become mainstream, the everyday person has access to it, and you’re going to see that trend continue. You’re going to see more technology develop to slow down the aging process, and you will see the number of treatment options on each level expand. Liposuction, Brazilian butt lifts—rarely did we enhance a buttock twenty years ago, now that’s a very common thing—laser hair removal, Botox, but instead of just a wrinkle option it’s gonna go all over the place.” He brings up the example of brides, who in preparation for their wedding day, and not wanting to sweat too much, will have the sweat glands under their arms Botoxed over. “This is what I think it is,” says Dr. Burden. “People want to be the best they can be, and women like to be pretty.”
But having shared this glimpse of the future, now he is racing me out the door. A magnificent orange star is about to set behind the western horizon. And in the east, the direction in which I am traveling, a glorious golden full moon is soon to rise. None of it is to be missed. “Take 30A,” Dr. Burden tells me excitedly. “It’s the coastal road. There are dune lakes. They’re very rare. You’ll see the sunset on the dune lakes. It is going to be beautiful.”
And I am out of his glow chamber, sliding back down the bannister to the lobby and my little red fuel-efficient rental vehicle, racing eastward, into the coming moonglow, the sun exploding at my back. The doctor is right: a moment is building. Something magnificent. I am shocked with light from both ends, dust motes seize in place, electricity crackles in the void. The journey can go no farther.
A sign for a state park, piney woods, a clearing. I set up the tent and usher myself down the now shadowy pine-towered path toward the beach. I need to see it. I need to see the moon naked and up close, over the sea and waves. I need to see that which defines the liquid ocean’s rise and fall rise itself in unclipped glory above the sea froth, and I need to hurl myself, and I need to be hurled. I am pitched onto the sand.
The plastic-pellet ships will not stop. India will get its single-serve shampoo packets. Cameron Parish will be industrialized by liquefied natural gas and disappear. The shimmery casino towers will rise above Biloxi and disappear. The timeshare towers will rise above Gulf Shores and Orange Beach and disappear. The homes will crowd the last pond in Big Lagoon State Park and disappear. But what does it matter? It will all get built back again; even we will get built back again. In the future, not just our yogurt containers and foams and paints but our armpits and noses shall be made of plastic.
Everything will be plastic. I imagine the trees, too, and maybe even the ocean. And the outliers and misfits and sentinels of a bygone time, people like the Mailman and Angie Lane and Critter and James W. Crowell III, and journeypeople like me—we will be the ones who will be bygone, there will be no room for us in this world, we are the death rattle, and there will be nothing left to do but pick up the plastic rags and wander on, desperately seeking a place that still is, a slab or a stretch of sand somewhere to lay down our heads and stare to the stars, because there will still be stars.
A deep warm breeze wells up from the tremendous wave crash. Now I see it, see it truly, the liquid silver. Sky of light. Moon glow over wave crest. And now I know it. Oh my brother, oh my sister, and oh my god, it tumbles out of me, the thought of thoughts, like a dewy little flagella glob, lays its puke tongue down on the sand:
I will die here on earth, and that is alright.
Justin Nobel’s work has been published in Rolling Stone, Orion, Tin House,and Virginia Quarterly Review, as well as Best American Science and Nature Writing 2014 and Best American Travel Writing 2011 and 2016. In 2016, The Story of Dan Bright, a book he co-wrote with a New Orleans death row exoneree, was published by University of New Orleans Press.
Co-published with Oxford American.