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Chalmette students get lesson about the coast and their heritage not available in a text book

Members of the Chalmette High School 4-H club care for mangrove seeds in the school's greenhouse Members of the Chalmette High School 4-H club care for mangrove seeds in the school's greenhouse
CHALMETTE, LA (WVUE) -

Chandler Mackles was 4 years old when Hurricane Katrina slammed ashore in Louisiana in August 2005.

The Chalmette High School sophomore barely remembers an event that has defined life in St. Bernard Parish.

"I just remember moving around and coming back to rebuild the house and living in a FEMA trailer for a little bit," Mackles said.

Now, he and other members of the 4-H Club at Chalmette High are engaged in a lesson they could never quite get from a text book, providing TLC for black mangrove seeds.

"St. Bernard is very concerned about what's happening with our coast," said St. Bernard Executive Director of Coastal Operations John Lane. "And we thought the best messengers to deliver the awareness would be our kids."

Black mangrove trees in Louisiana can grow to about 10 feet tall, though they are often shorter. Usually found along southern parts of Louisiana's coast, they are favorite nesting spots for brown pelicans. Just as importantly, mangrove roots help bind together barrier islands and marsh.

"Every 45 minutes, we lose a football field of land," said student Maya Lund. "So, by planting these mangroves, we are hoping to rebuild our coast."

The mangrove seed, or propagule, is encased in a lima-bean-shaped fruit that falls from the tree.

Months ago, a pair of sport fishermen stumbled onto the mangrove trees on Gardner Island in eastern St. Bernard Parish.

"It was a shocker," said Blaise Pezold of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture Re-vegetation Program.

The experts would say the mangroves are not supposed to be there. Susceptible to cold, mangroves normally grow about 30 miles south. The St. Bernard coastal office said some mangrove experts at Louisiana universities did not believe them when they reported the finding.

The parish plans to grow the young trees, with the students' help, in the high school's greenhouse and plant them in about 18 months. However, there is no guarantee the plantings will succeed, experts warn.

"It's kind of a crap shoot," Pezold said. "We're hoping for a 90 percent success rate, but you could have a low as five."

The potential threats include competition from other species on the island, and tropical storms or even high tides.

Still, given the opportunity, the parish coastal office believes it is well worth the effort.

"This is just one step, this is an entry into coastal restoration," Land said of the student involvement.  "Hopefully, bigger things come from them down the line."

Parish leaders, such as the St. Bernard Parish Council Chair Kerri Callais, see the lesson as part of the rebuilding of the parish, connecting kids with fishing communities and their heritage along the coast.

"Coastal restoration needs to be a big part of that conversation," Callais said, "making sure the eastern part of St. Bernard is as much a part of our culture and our parish's future as it has been part of our history."

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