January 25, 2008
Photography by Paula Burch-Celantano
Most people born and raised in the wetlands grow up loving it. Others grow to love the wetlands after moving there.
As graduation approached for his law class of 1964, L.G. LaPlante recalls sitting in the cramped office of the New Orleans law firm at which he clerked. Gazing out of a window onto a gloomy, rainy afternoon, LaPlante contemplated his future.
“Sometimes I feel like going to the end of the world,” he sighed.
As luck would have it, when LaPlante checked with a placement counselor at Tulane, he discovered there was a job in Golden Meadow, La., which was located halfway down Lafourche Parish and darn near the end of the world.
Throwing a couple of suits, a sports coat and a broken record player into the back of his ’61 Chevy, LaPlante headed south.
After a brief stay in Golden Meadow, LaPlante relocated up the highway to nearby Cut Off, La., where he began to build his practice as a trial attorney. There he met a beauty queen, and the former Miss Nicholls State College would eventually become Mrs. L.G. Laplante. She was the daughter of a man who patented the original “marsh buggy” built to transport men and equipment to onshore oil related activities.
Some years later, LaPlante dreamed up inventions of his own that he believes will help preserve the fragile Louisiana coast. One, he says, can be used to dredge marshlands and the other to retain soil to be used in wetland restoration. LaPlante says he holds patents for both pieces of equipment and hopes to manufacture them to aid in the reclamation of disintegrating coast.
He cares deeply about the marshes that he refers to as “floating prairies.” “You put your foot down where there’s little trees and bushes, and sometimes you sink right through it.”
LaPlante grew up in coastal Mississippi and has had a lifelong love affair with the outdoors. There is nothing, he says, that can compare to a marsh sunset.
While lingering over lunch at a favorite restaurant in Thibodaux, La., LaPlante contemplates his years in South Louisiana. Truth be told, he’s also thinking about the three fly rods waiting in the back of his car.
“I was in my 30s when I began to notice changes in the marshes,” he recalls. “They were sinking. The saltwater intrusion was eating away the trees, like acid. They’re so decayed, you could knock them down with a paddle.”
By 1976, LaPlante was a well-known member of the community. He campaigned for state representative by walking up and down Bayou Lafourche, speaking with folks as they sat on their porches. He served one term, becoming disillusioned by the political process.
A natural-born raconteur, LaPlante expounds on the importance of the marshlands as he leisurely enjoys his lunch of fresh fish.
Besides the sheer beauty of its wetlands, Lafourche Parish is vital to the economy of the rest of the United States, says LaPlante. The seafood and oil industries top his list of what must be secured.
“Where do you think they get the crab to make crab cakes in Baltimore?” he asks. “It’s Louisiana crab, passing right through Port Fourchon here. …” He pauses to draw a map on the white paper tablecloth.
“And the heating supply for those Yankees up north comes through the offshore pipeline, through the marshlands, up Bayou Lafourche to the refineries,” he continues.
What concerns LaPlante is the long-term consequences of coastal erosion. “What’s going to be the effect 20 years from now? The loss of the marsh is much more severe than anybody around the country realizes, more than the maps show. You have to go down into it to appreciate it.”
After three hours of telling stories, LaPlante is finished talking. He heads to his car, his hands itching to wrap themselves around one of those fishing rods.
- Fran Simon
Dionne Chouest speaks with a distinct Cajun accent and wears her pride for her hometown like armor.
“Everything I have to make me happy is right here,” she says. “I feel no need to leave.” “Here” is Cut Off, La., a town located along Bayou Lafourche and about 40 miles above the Gulf of Mexico.
The unassuming Chouest moves comfortably in the modest, down-to-earth society of coastal Louisiana. She doesn’t telegraph that she is not only the general counsel of one of the most advanced offshore vessel service companies in the world, but a member of the family that owns and runs it.
With shipyards in Louisiana and South America, Edison Chouest Offshore designs, builds and operates high-tech, high-capacity offshore vessels and also owns and operates the largest independently owned fleet of research vessels in the world. The company employs more than 6,000 people worldwide and 2,800 locally.
Chouest says that providing so many jobs in her community is both a privilege and responsibility.
“We are proud of the fact that we can help support our local community with wellpaying jobs right here in our local, rural area,” she says. “At the same time, it is sometimes a bit overwhelming to think about all the families whose income derives from our operations. But that helps us to continue to work hard, because there are lots of people counting on us.”
Chouest enjoys being involved in her community and is a member of the executive advisory board for Nicholls State University’s College of Business and on the board of directors for the South Central Industrial Association and the Lafourche Education Foundation. She was appointed to serve on Gov. Bobby Jindal’s Economic Growth Transition Advisory Council’s Workforce Committee.
These activities, however, do not keep Chouest from enjoying the simple pleasures of Cut Off. With a population of 5,500, the small town is an ideal place to live, she says. “Growing up around the water, I feel like a fish out of water if I’m too far away,” says Chouest. “I like to travel and see other areas, but I would miss not being near the water. It’s just so calming.”
Cut Off sits in a low-lying area of Louisiana that took a hit from Hurricane Katrina. Despite the threats disastrous hurricanes and coastal erosion may pose, Chouest remains focused on the good life. She attends local fairs and festivals and enjoys listening to Cajun music, fishing and hunting with her children, Dante, 6, and Mia, 4. Her family admires the Cajun culture and takes much pride in it.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, my father would say,” says Chouest. “I love it here. This is home to me and I have no desire to move.”
In addition to the pleasures of having a close-knit family (she works alongside her family everyday, including her brother Damon Chouest, who is a 1997 Tulane Law School graduate), it’s the friendly atmosphere of Cut Off that keeps Chouest in her comfort zone.
“Lots of visitors who come from other areas comment about how friendly and open people are,” says Chouest. “In past construction projects, we have had people from New York or Florida visit during Mardi Gras time, and they would be so amazed that the people they would meet at parades would invite them over to have hot dogs or say, ‘hey, if you want to come to my house after to watch the game.’ They just couldn’t get over that.”
Cut Off is family, friends, career and a safe haven. It has a calm spirit that for Chouest embodies how life should be lived.
- Kiley Brown
Situated along the thin strip of Plaquemines Parish that follows the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, the tiny community of Buras has for more than 100 years been known as the orange capital of Louisiana. In August 2005, it gained the woeful distinction of being the marker for where Hurricane Katrina first made landfall.
Soon, 82-year-old Barney Schoenberger, who knows about oranges, storms and just about everything else concerning the parish, will be among the small but growing group of residents to return home.
“My house has withstood it all,” says Schoenberger of the structure built for his father 75 years ago.
When the work to repair the damage caused by Katrina’s 20 foot tidal surge is completed, Schoenberger will again be able to enjoy the Gulf breeze from his second floor balcony. As little as 10 years ago that balcony overlooked a wide expanse of marsh. Now it’s mostly open water.
“The marshland is evaporating, going away, and that is causing the sea to move in,” he says. Schoenberger has observed his parish from the perspective of attorney, citrus grower, businessman, state legislator and sheriff. His grandfather, George Schoenberger, was a pioneer of the parish citrus industry, and the family farm that produces predominantly satsumas and navel oranges is still recovering from the hit it took from Katrina.
Living with storms is a way of life in the parish. Schoenberger, whose earliest memories of Buras are lit by the kerosene lamps used before the town was wired for electricity, says locals never used to evacuate. Rather, they’d ride out storms in the sturdy Buras auditorium.
Employees of the nearby Freeport Sulfur Co., were not so hearty, he recalls. “I remember taking trips to Port Sulfur when there was a storm because Freeport would hire a special train to come down and take their employees out. We thought that was really something.”
Schoenberger was serving as sheriff in 1969 when Hurricane Camille swiped the tip of Louisiana on its way to the Mississippi coast. On the afternoon Camille arrived, Schoenberger contacted a ship captain riding out the storm at the mouth of the Mississippi River.
“He told me, ‘Barney, you’re going to have a rough time up there because our wind gauge broke at 200 miles per hour.’”
From 1960 to 1967, Schoenberger served in the Louisiana House of Representatives. More than 20 years later he would use his political skills to lobby for two freshwater siphons designed to divert water from the Mississippi into parish marshes. “The sediment and silt helped build up the marsh,” says Schoenberger. While he knows that canals dug by the oil industry have played a major role in encouraging saltwater intrusion and loss of wetlands, Schoenberger, like many in Plaquemines, says he is grateful to the oil companies that provide the parish jobs and revenue from royalties.
He thinks it’s up to the state and federal government, who also have benefited from the oil and gas industry, to fund projects to restore the levees, marshes and barrier islands so that they can again offer protection from the Gulf. Schoenberger fears that with less than 30 percent of its population back, the parish presents a cost-benefit ratio that will discourage spending on hurricane protection. He regards the difficulty residents are having getting permits to rebuild as a sign that the parish is being abandoned by the rest of the country.
“Look at the things that come from here,” says Schoenberger. “Not only oil and gas but fisheries. They should look at what we contributed and are contributing now.”
At one time, says Schoenberger, the oil-rich parish operated exclusively on a cash basis and was the envy of all others in the state.
“A friend of mine in the legislature once said to me, ‘Barney, they could take all of you from Plaquemines to the top of the capitol and throw you off, and you’d all land on your feet.’” With the parish now in free fall Schoenberger can only hope for a soft landing.
- Nick Marinello
Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 firstname.lastname@example.org