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School assignment inspires 8th graders to try to save tiny island

A brown pelican flies over Cat Bay in Plaquemines Parish A brown pelican flies over Cat Bay in Plaquemines Parish

On a cold winter morning, Olivia Arnold joins her friend Valerie Vujnovich on an exotic trip with their fathers down the Wilkinson Canal in Plaquemines Parish, past the fishing camps and into Barataria Bay.

About 10 miles east of Grand Isle, they step onto a tiny island where hundreds of brown pelicans and other species have nested.

"It's pretty great that it's still here at least," said Valerie as the girls walked along a shell beach.

Heavily oiled in the 2010 Gulf oil spill, the four main islands of Cat Bay have all but vanished. Although the islands had steadily eroded in recent decades, and were heavily damaged in the 2005 hurricanes, Plaquemines Parish government has blamed the spill for hastening their demise.

"It's sad to see something this beautiful wash away," Olivia said.

Until recently, Olivia had only vague idea about the coastal land loss that has changed the landscape of south Louisiana.

"I've heard it once or twice, but I never actually took interest in finding out what it actually is."

That all changed when the girls and their eighth-grade classmates were assigned a social justice project at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Belle Chasse. Like the eighth-graders one year earlier, they adopted another island, which locals call "Cat Island." Not to be confused with its famous namesake in Mississippi, this Cat Island serves as a poster child of the spill.

Classmate Katie Goens said she tells people the island is, "the size of a speed bump and it's shrinking."

That turns out to be only a slight exaggeration. Stretching roughly 4 acres in April of 2010, Cat Island now is devoid of vegetation. The almost-skeletal remains of dead mangrove trees sprout from the little remaining soil and from shells pushed up by wave action. This very grown-up problem registered with the class along with the urgency of taking action along Louisiana's coast.

"If you give a kid the ability to do it on their own and make it theirs, they are so incredibly creative," said religion teacher Heather Giordano.

Plaquemines Parish already amounts to a finger of land jutting out into the Gulf of Mexico. Scientists warn unless the state somehow reverses current trends, areas of southeastern Louisiana outside their hurricane protection system will largely disappear, another 1,750 square miles of land at risk.

By the year 2100, Plaquemines would be little more than a ribbon of asphalt surrounded by levees.

"That kinds of scares me because when I get older I want to show my kids where I lived and what project I did when I was in eighth grade," Valerie said.

These young minds took ownership of what might have seemed to be Mom and Dad's problem.

"Some of the things we talk about, they're not old enough to remember," Giordano said. "So, they just think it's an old people's problem."

However, the kids remembered the oil spill - when they were 8 years old - and it clicked.

"You can see how Cat Island is so close to Belle Chasse," said student Andrew Baldwin. "If it's that close and that already got eroded, the next thing is going to be the land that Plaquemines Parish is on."

To raise awareness about Cat Island, the class is selling t-shirts proclaiming a "pelican Cat-astrophe." That involves a bit of mass marketing, promoting their cause on social media and spread the news to anyone who will listen.

Hopes and dreams will not fix Cat Island, which some adults consider a lost cause. The parish plans a restoration project, encircling the island with some kind of barrier and pumping in sand and dirt.

However, engineers face daunting challenges, including the rapid rate of subsidence in that portion of coastal Louisiana. A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study last year found nearby Grand Isle to be one of the fastest-sinking spots on the planet.

Cat Island, too isolated and too small, serves little hurricane protection function. Yet only a few short years ago, Cat Bay was a pelican metropolis that drew thousands of nesting birds of various species.

"The pelicans are living things just like us and they need a home," Olivia Arnold said.

Her twin sister, Samantha, sees the tiny island as a line of first defense.

"I do not want the next class instead of being assigned to raise money for Cat Island, we're going to be saving money to rebuild Belle Chasse."

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