This blog originates on the banks of the Atchafalaya River, in Louisiana. It proposes to share the things that happen on and by the river as the seasons progress. As the river changes from quiet, warm, slow flow to rises of eighteen feet or more, there are changes in the lives of the birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles that use the river. And the mood of the river changes with the seasons. I propose to note and comment on these things.

My Photo
Location: Butte La Rose, Louisiana, United States

I transitioned a few years ago from a career as a water-pollution control biologist. I want to do this blog to stay in touch with a world outside my everyday surroundings, whatever they may be. I like open-minded company and the discussion of ideas. Photo by Brad Moon.

Friday, June 05, 2009

The Levee

Since this story is about the Atchafalaya Basin and the people who inhabited it, there can be only one levee to speak about – the one that fundamentally changed the Basin and the way the people related to it. It was built in the 1930s as a result of the flood of 1927, the latter having taken place at a time when the Mississippi floods could cause national rather than only local distress, and at a time when the federal government was ready to do something to prevent similar floods in the future, if possible. The new national outcry to “do something” was met with the Flood Protection Act, enabling the federal government to apply planning and funds toward effective flood prevention for the first time. It was this Act that mandated the levees in the Basin, changing it forever. Where there had previously been only a huge natural overflow basin for the Atchafalaya River, there was now a somewhat lesser basin with hundreds of miles of manmade levee totally defining the flowage hydrology in the swamp, and restricting it to the will of man, so far.

There are, of course, two levees around the Basin, the East and West Protection Levees. But using the term “levee” in singular form is desirable here. It is always referred to in singular in the interviews with the Myette Point families because the concept of what the levees meant is an overriding and all-inclusive idea. Consequently, “the levee” means more than a ridge of dirt extended for many miles. It means in aggregate all the adjustments that had to be made and all the environmental changes that took place. It was at one time a barrier to travel and a provider of a new means of travel. It brought an opportunity for changing lifestyles. It made life on land possible and life on the water harder. It gave life and it took life. “The levee” did these things, and more.

When it was built, did this new thing, this long dike, cause the Basin residents to rise up and create petitions, or march on someplace, or start campaigns citing potential environmental degradation? No, it did not. The people most affected by the levee were not activists in a broad sense; that kind of aggressive response is mostly for those who can view effects from outside a situation. The Basin people were on the inside in the strictest sense. They were the ones who were so intertwined with the environment that they were almost part of it, and so had to adjust to the changes around them, or succumb to them. Most people made the adjustment, for as long as the changes were not lethal to life, they could be absorbed. Old ways disappeared and new ways emerged.

The presence of the levee to the Myette Point families is so significant that their existence in the Basin can really be divided into the before and after levee construction. So, before the levee, what was the Basin like? It was a vast, open, unrestricted piece of semi-aquatic environment mostly unattractive to human beings. It had many characteristics that made it uncomfortable to people. It had mosquitoes, and snakes, and water and mud – all of which civilization tends to eliminate over time, if it can, by spraying the mosquitoes, killing the snakes, draining the water and drying up the mud, and so making living easier for some fraction of the human population. But for a long time the Basin defied attempts at those modifications, simply because it was so big. Modification was only possible on a grand scale, but the Basin met its match in that the building of the levee was just such a large-scale modification. In cutting through drainages, the levee restricted one of the Basin’s primary inherent features, its watercourses. Subsequent realignment and dredging applied to these watercourses was enough to initiate changes that would redefine the Basin environment forever.

People who lived in the Basin had different responses to the flood of 1927. If they lived on land, the water inundated their houses (to a depth of 12 feet on Hog Island, a previously thought to be safe place). It drowned their chickens, cows and other livestock. Gardens and fruit trees were killed by the flooding that lasted for many weeks. If people lived on houseboats, however, the obvious merits of rising with the water are apparent. The older generation (Blaise Sauce) of Myette Point people was already on houseboats and some of the succeeding generation too. These people tied their boats along upper Bayou Lafourche along with other houseboats. When the water receded, many people returned to the land they had relinquished to the high water and rebuilt their lives there. Others moved their houseboats back into the Basin. To these Basin residents, the political response to the 1927 flooding was not very apparent during the next few years, but the big changes had been put in place and the new resolve to prevent future catastrophes was effective in putting the money and people together. The levee was going to be built, and there would be big changes in the flow of water in the Basin.

The higher volumes of water every year, and the restricted flow in the deeper Basin channels, created swifter currents and more dangerous whirlpools. The small boats used by the people were not meant for these hazardous conditions, push skiffs being particularly susceptible to whirlpools, or eddies as they were sometimes called. Putt Couvillier had memories of someone who was still trying to fish in 1941 or 1942 with a push skiff. He notes how dangerous fishing in the strong currents generated subsequent to the building of the levee could be.

“ And used to have some great big old eddies, you know? Six foot deep, up to six and eight foot deep. Some worse, you had to watch em, you know? And he used to…they used to not have no boats [with motors] out here. And uh, used to have an old fella livin out there on that island [Goat Island] you know? So he’d go out there and run lines, you know, cold, cold, cold…ice sickles. [. . .] And uh, he used to fish out there in skiffs all the time. He didn’t have no such thing as boats [with motors], you know? And he set off down the bayou in that skiff and sometime he would get in one of them eddies, and he have to push about five minutes to get out of there, you know? Keep turnin, turnin, keep pushin, keep pushin! And boy, look, sometime that old back of that boat, you know, it would catch the back like that…sometime it would catch a lil water, and sometime it won’t….until that skiff cover that…in other words, it would hit it just right [and] it would cover that eddy, and kind of smother that eddy out a lil bit. And boy, he’ll take off! They had eddies that big, that current was so bad here. That’s how big them eddies was. [Putt Couvillier, 1974]

Just as was the case in the timber industry, work offered by the levee project was eagerly accepted by the Basin people. They were already good at the things needed to build the levee – the expertise with tools and machinery was highly valued. And truly, by engaging in these actions, the families helped shape the future of their own landscape. They helped build the conditions for the end of the Basin as they had known it for generations, and they built their own bridge to a future on land and all that that entailed.

It was a bridge in that it was the transition to living on land. Because that is so, it is important here to realize that the newly built levee was now functioning as a gathering place for people trying to leave, and in some ways trying to remain close and not to leave, the Basin. Eventually 15 houseboats would congregate in Myon’s Canal, live there for a few years, gradually getting used to the new conditions, and finally moving over the levee.

So, there was a before and after phase to the placement of the levee in the Atchafalaya Basin, with the construction of the levee as the central defining point. Before the levee there was unfettered access to anywhere in the Basin that there was water to take you. After, there was restricted access, the restrictions dictated by the levee itself. Before the levee there was an open Grand Lake, miles across and miles long. After the levee there were narrow bayous and land where before there had been only water. Before the levee there were people living their whole lives in the Basin. After the levee there were no longer people living in the Basin.

But the levee was a generous home to the Myette Point families for 25 years, beginning in about 1950 and ending abruptly in 1975. During that time, four generations of the families lived there. The last generation was the only one that did not experience houseboats as a way of life.

It was generous, and then, in a way the levee evicted them. The 1972 high water threatened to overtop it, which in turn caused the Corps of Engineers to have to do levee repair at Myette Point. The people were living along the levee such that they were in the way of the repairs, with no legal right to be there, and the Corps required them to move. As a group, most of them moved to a location on Bayou Teche, but that’s another story.

The picture of moving is from Edward Couvillier and the two black and white ones are from the Darlene Soule collection.

The River is at 18.6 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, heading down to 17 feet in the next five days. The Ohio and Mississippi are not sustaining any more high water at this time. Time to think about getting crawfish traps out of shallow swamps. Too bad, but it is June, after all.

Rise and Shine, Jim


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