24 • THE CHRONICLE OF PHILANTHROPY
MAY 5, 2011
A Grant Maker Pulls La.’s Coast
Together to Fight Erosion
By Nicole Wallace
GRAND BAYOU, LA.
The GPS device on Patrick Dickin- son’s boat shows just how quickly southeast Louisiana is losing its
A charter-boat captain in
Plaquemines Parish, he marks the location of good fishing spots electronically so he can return again with his customers. But when Mr. Dickinson calls
up the sites he’s marked on his GPS,
many appear to be on land, because the
marsh that used to be there has since
Mr. Dickinson, 34, followed his father into the charter-fishing business,
but he’s not sure that will be an option
for his children.
“I hope this is still here,” he says, mo-
tioning to nearby marsh from the wheel
of his boat. “But who knows what it’s
going to look like 10 or 20 years from
Louisiana is losing wetlands at a rate
of more than 25 square miles a year,
“There’s no way that
we can fund all
of the effort, no matter
how much money
which threatens the existence of coastal
communities, the seafood industry, and
the livelihoods of many of the state’s
Some of state’s most unusual enclaves, including fishing hamlets populated by African-Americans, Cajuns,
Croatians, Native Americans, Vietnamese, and the descendents of Canary
Islanders who came during the Spanish colonial period, may be lost to the
Gulf of Mexico in a matter of decades if
something isn’t done, say environmental experts.
Last year’s oil-drilling catastrophe
in the Gulf accelerated the loss of wetlands. And the devastation caused by
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005
heightened awareness both in the region and nationally that the loss of
marshes—a natural speed bump for
hurricanes and tropical storms—has
made the entire area, including New
Orleans, more vulnerable to natural disasters.
Now, on the anniversary of the explo-
sion that caused the oil spill, the Great-
er New Orleans Foundation is starting
a new effort, the Coastal 5+ 1 Initiative,
designed to help the region develop a
cohesive approach to protecting and re-
storing the wetlands that can be saved
and adapting to the environmental
changes that cannot be amended. The
goal is to get civic and political leaders
in five coastal parishes—St. Bernard,
Plaquemines, Jefferson, Terrebonne,
and Lafourche—talking and work-
ing with one another and with leaders
in the city of New Orleans—the “plus
one” in the program’s title. The founda-
tion hopes that if southeast Louisiana
can get a handle on issues like coastal
planning and water management, the
expertise it gains will help seed new in-
dustries in the region.
Early Fund Raising
The first phase of the project, say organizers, will focus on getting local residents to think about potential solutions
to the problems caused by land loss and
helping them plug into local planning
efforts. Later stages will test new ideas
to restore the wetlands and help the region adapt to environmental change.
The foundation has set an initial
fund-raising goal of $5-million for the
Coastal 5+ 1 Initiative, which it hopes to
raise largely from national grant makers, and it is starting off by contributing $200,000 of its own money.
Compared with the scope of the problem, $5-million isn’t a lot of money, acknowledges Mr. Cocito-Monoc. He hopes
that if early efforts prove successful, the
foundation will be able to raise more.
But even so, he says, the project plans
to finance pilot programs in the hopes
that government will pick up and expand the promising ones.
“There’s no way that we can fund all
of the effort, no matter how much money we raise,” says Mr. Cocito-Monoc.
South Louisiana is a river delta, its
marshes and wetlands built up over
roughly 6,000 years by soil and other
sediment deposited by the Mississippi
River as it runs into the Gulf of Mexico.
Deltas are dynamic regions with sedimentation in a constant battle with erosion by the sea.
But after a disastrous flood in 1927,
the balance between those forces was
sharply altered when the Army Corps
of Engineers constructed a series of levees, channels for excess water flow, and
other structures along the river that
protected riverside towns from flooding—but also cut off the flow of sediment that replenished the wetlands.
Canals cut through the marsh in later decades for shipping and to transport
oil and gas drilled offshore to the Port
of New Orleans exacerbated land loss.
In recent years, the 2005 hurricanes
and last year’s oil spill battered the already fragile coast.
“You can just see huge chunks of
Louisiana fishermen, like Jimmy Dao, may see their way of life disappear
due to erosion of the Gulf Coast, say environmentalists.
these areas that are gone in a week’s
time,” says P.J. Hahn, director of coastal zone management for Plaquemines
Parish. “I have never seen the acceleration of the loss of marshes that we’re
experiencing right now because of this
From a lookout above the levee at the
edge of the Lower Ninth Ward in New
Orleans, Bayou Bienvenue doesn’t look
very impressive. The murky open water is covered in algae blooms near the
shore. The dead stumps that dot the water are the only indication that the area
was once a thriving cypress grove.
Fifty years ago, the huge cypress
trees provided storm protection for the
Lower Ninth Ward, slowing down wave
action before storm surges struck the
levees protecting the neighborhood.
But the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet,
a shipping channel built in the 1960s,
changed tidal patterns in the area,
which led to an increase in the amount
of salt in the water that killed the cy-