Cemeteries in Lafourche Parish sinking into Gulf

A sinking cemetery in Leeville
A sinking cemetery in Leeville

Leeville, La. - Long before the oil boom of the 1930's, generations made their livelihood fishing and trapping along Bayou Lafourche.  Residents grew rice and oranges on the rich, fertile ground. They raised their children here and buried their dead.

Windell Curole's grandparents grew up near Leeville, a thriving town in the late 1800's and early 1900's.

"Leeville used to be a real community.  The width of this community, you had depth from the bayou, maybe to... a mile and a half of dry land," says Curole. "Now Leeville is no more than an exaggerated shoulder of the road."

There's a cemetery along what's now LA 1.  Every November 1, All Saints Day, family members come out to clean up the graves.

A few headstones are barely visible above a thick slab of cement, the only thing keeping the tombs from washing into the bayou.

"It's the ultimate insult," says Curole. "Here you give a place of rest and subsidence is taking that rest away."

Many residents moved away after a hurricane in 1915.  The cemeteries remained, a symbol of the life and love that once thrived in this community.

The graves and ground are sinking, though.  The Mississippi River was cut off at Donaldsonville, so its replenishing sediment no longer flows through Bayou Lafourche.

"We can now see that we are losing about one foot every 20 years from Golden Meadow south and that's an amazing rate," says Curole. "That's why it's easy to figure that the land here was a good four or five feet above sea level."

Curole now serves on the board for the state's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.  He says, as water crept closer, it eventually swallowed two graveyards south of Leeville.  A third, across the bayou from what remains of the town, rests right at the edge of the marsh. The brick mounds disappear during high tide.

"You can't come and place flowers at a grave anymore," says Archie Chaisson, coastal zone manager for Lafourche Parish. "You can't come and pay your respects to that loved one because their graves aren't there anymore and due to the environmental factors, the caskets and the bodies aren't even there anymore so really all you have is some old bricks lying around in the soft mud."

The cemeteries stand as a silent reminder of how much this area lost over the last century.  The blocking of the Mississippi and the development of several waterways for industry carved away at the land around Bayou Lafourche.

"We've lost so much marsh that now the bay and the Gulf is attached to these canals and this is the only place that crosses this ridge.  So there's a tremendous velocity of every day tide," says Curole. "When the original bridge was built here, the water was maybe seven, eight feet deep. Now it's over 45 deep right here because of the current coming from one of the big basins on the east side to the basin on the west side."

Saltwater moved in when the Mississippi stopped flowing here.  The rice patties died immediately and the orange groves eventually vanished.

The landscape has changed so much over the last century.  Where oak trees once provided shade for the graves, now there are mangroves, which thrive in saltwater.  And the marshes continue to wash away.

The area is outside Lafourche's levee system, with little protection from the storm surge brought by the hurricanes of recent years, Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike.

"Because of this delta subsiding, the Gulf of Mexico is 20 to 30 miles closer to everybody than it was some 70, 80 years ago," says Curole. "So what happens when you get a storm, that energy from that hurricane has water closer to the communities so it can move that water into the communities easier."

Leeville lost another five to six feet of soil during Hurricane Isaac, according to Chaisson.  Though he's too young to remember the orange groves here, Chaisson believes what's left of Leeville is worth protecting.

"The younger generation, people I went to school with in both high school and college, don't recognize what was once here, don't recognize the language, the old Cajun French that was spoken here," says Chaisson. "If we continue not to sustain those areas, then my kids, my grandkids and my friends' kids and grandkids aren't going to know anything about this area."

Both Chaisson and Curole say there's no way to restore Leeville to what it looked like a century ago.  The land continues to sink and the cemetery will likely be underwater in another decade.

But Curole says there's still life here, even as the signs of it slip into the Gulf.

"It's something when someone loses their life that you know," he says. "But when you lose your community, you lose out on your future, you lose your past, you lose everything.  And to see places where people were honoring their relatives and to see that disappear, it's just tragic, this whole deal of the loss that we're going through."