As his parish shrinks, new Plaquemines president maps strategy to reclaim land

Published: Jan. 9, 2015 at 6:54 PM CST|Updated: Jan. 10, 2015 at 1:44 PM CST
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For the eighth-grade religion class at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Belle Chasse, coastal erosion is not some theory. It is a part of their young lives.

As part of a social justice project - Care for God's Creation - the class has adopted rapidly disappearing Cat Island at the southern end of Barataria Bay.

"We also want the birds to repopulate because that's something that we can't lose," said student Braydon Whittington.

The class is selling tee shirts bearing the slogan, "Pelican Cat-astrophe," and trying to raise awareness on social media. A common name along the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts, the Plaquemines Parish version of Cat Island was heavily oiled in the 2010 Gulf spill.

For the students at OLPH, it is more than a mere assignment.

"I mean, it's part of our home," said Valerie Vujnovich. "It's part of Plaquemines Parish. It's who we are."

The parish has a tentative agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a pilot project to transport dredge material from the Mississippi River to rebuild the island.

"Wherever the pelican has the egg, that's where the pelican returns," said new Parish President Amos Cormier, noting that young pelicans imprint on the island of their birth. Cormier has embraced the project and vows to make coastal erosion a priority.

"I think the message that we need to get out is it can be done," he said.

For anyone in Cormier's job, coastal restoration amounts to self defense. Unless current trends are reversed, the U.S. Geological Survey predicts the lower two-thirds of Plaquemines Parish by the year 2050 will be little more than a sliver of land surrounded by levees. Cormier counts among his priorities dredging projects to deliver sediment by pipe and more use of rock barriers to form a line of defense.

"It's my humble opinion that we have to establish a perimeter first, and that's true in any military operation," he said.

Plaquemines is also ground zero in the fight over river diversions. The state plans four diversions - two on each bank of the river - aimed at feeding river sediment and fresh water into the marsh.Cormier believes the state should factor the needs of fishermen into the equation, a sensitive point in Plaquemines, where many commercial fishers bitterly opposed diversions. However, he believes diversions can be part of the toolbox.

"It's not just one thing," Cormier said.  "If you're building a team, in other words to get this job done, you've got to have different positions."

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