May 17 2010 by Amy Graff
Last summer: My family drove to Venice, La. This is one of the first places to be affected by the oil spill and so I thought I'd re-share this post. At the time, the area was recovering from Katrina and now they're being hit with this spill.
If you look at a satellite map and zone in on southern Louisiana, you'll see that the Mississippi River branches out into several water channels. Before dumping into the Gulf of Mexico, the channels run through skinny fingers of land, and on the last day of our road trip we take Highway 23 down one of these peninsulas to Venice. A two-hour drive from New Orleans, the town is the most southern community on the Mississippi accessible by automobile and many refer to it as the end of the world.
Our drive through the lower Mississippi River delta immerses us in a landscape that's long and flat, vast and mysterious, even mystical. The land rises only an inch or so above sea level and it is so low-lying that at a distance it disappears into a blend of sky and water. The road is surrounded on either side by levees, which serve as protection when the Mississippi water level rises, and as we drive I feel as if the smallest wave could cover us in water.
Highway 23 also offers a front-row view of Hurricane Katrina damage. The storm hit southeastern Louisiana on August 29, 2005, and it completely destroyed Venice and nearby towns, leaving them 10 to 20 feet under water. We pass demolished homes, fire stations, and grocery stores with sunken roofs, broken windows, and fallen walls. Rusty cars are piled high in open fields; dejected boats clutter the roadside.
While the devastation is apparent, signs of rebirth are even more discernible. The community has worked hard to rebuild and new construction is everywhere. We drive by countless new homes, most of them lifted high up off the ground on stilts.
The kids spot a shiny new playground, constructed with funds from Project Rebuild Plaquemines, a nonprofit organization established after the hurricane to assist with restoration of the area. A sign reads: "This park is dedicated to those whose lives were forever changed by Katrina--those who lost so much and those whose generosity helped to restore what was lost. Let it be known that this storm has marked us and changed us, but we have persevered." It's a gorgeous playground but nobody is there.
Where do you grab a bite to eat at the end of the world? The Riverside Cafe in Venice is one of the few places. We walk into a dimly lit room with deer trophies decorating the walls. A few men wearing rubber boots that ride up past their knees sit around picnic tables. We're clearly the only people eating in the restaurant who don't work on a fishing boat or an oil platform. We order some fried catfish, which tastes as if it was just pulled out of the river.
Our waitress, Leslie Smith, tells us the restaurant was under 15 feet of water after Katrina. She says that's why the mural of a swamp on the back wall is faded. It was painted by a French man who traveled through town, bedded down with the cafe owners, and paid for his keep by painting the back wall of their restaurant. "We're so glad the mural survived," Smith says. "It's special."
Smith was born and raised in Venice. She moved up the road to Belle Chasse after Katrina hit but eventually came back to her hometown and now teaches at the K-12 school that she attended as a child. "Why did you come back?" I ask her. "There's no place like home," she says. "And that's how 90 percent of the people who lived here before Katrina felt. People wanted to come back. They moved into tents because their homes were demolished. They wanted to live here on this land."
We drive 10 miles down the road beyond the cafe, past a marina where some fishing boats are docked. This is a popular spot for sport-fishing, and the few outsiders who do visit this part of the world come to catch fish.
As we head further south, water laps up against the road and sections are under several inches of water. Egrets and cranes wade through the small lakes. The birds get thicker and thicker and we have to drive slowly.
The road suddenly ends. A sign reads: "You have reached the southern most point in Louisiana." We stop to take photos of the sign. A crab scurries across the road.
We drove over 2,5000 miles to reach the mouth of the river--and taking a few photos of the sign doesn't satisfy us. I want a more poignant conclusion to our trip. We decide that we'd like to rent a motor boat and travel further down the river and so we follow signs to Bud's Boat Rentals. On the way we meet a friendly pelican who probably would have let me touch him if I tried.
It turns out that Bud's doesn't rent boats to families like us. Rather the business runs supply boats between Venice and the oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. We learn this from Roy Mareno, Jr., who is sitting behind a big desk.
The dark gray clouds outside start dumping rain and so we give up on our plans to find a boat rental. Instead we pull up chairs in Mareno's office. He's a bi-vocational minister, working as a manager at Bud's and as a pastor at a church in nearby Port Sulphur. When he tells us about his town he's passionate and intense. I can easily picture him speaking to his congregation.
Mareno tells us about enduring Katrina and about the tight-knit community who pulled through the storm. We ask him why people would want to come back to this area that's so vulnerable and clearly exposed to Mother Nature's forces. That's when he starts to tell us about the fish he pulls out of the water and the alligators that come out in the early evening and about the cranes that are pink because they eat so much shrimp. He was born and raised in Venice and he cherishes the area's natural beauty. He's not leaving.
We have been following the river for over two weeks; the river has worked its way into our souls and at the end of our journey it somehow seems fitting to meet someone who has a deep, spiritual connection to the river.