In this December 2012 photo, water washes around the tombs of those buried in a Leeville, La., cemetery. What's left of the old Leeville cemetery is only accessible by boat. / Dave Martin, AP
LEEVILLE, La. â?? At the 85th Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday, an independent Louisiana-shot film, Beasts of the Southern Wild will be up for four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, for its fictional account of a desolate band of folks living beyond the levees.
Nearly 2,000 miles away, this fishing community deep in the bayous of southern Louisiana is the real-life place beyond the levees, a place where residents eke out a living selling bait fish, brace for destruction each time a large storm looms and watch the Gulf of Mexico's steady march toward their front porches.
In a phenomenon recurring in coastal areas across the USA, wetlands loss and sea level rise are gnawing away at Leeville. Around 70% of the town's surrounding wetlands have vanished since 1932, leaving only the skinny community in the middle, according to studies by the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program.
Five major hurricanes in seven years and the 2010 BP oil spill have further battered the community and chased away residents by the trailer-full, said Juanita Bryan, 81, who moved to Leeville 25 years ago to open a charter fishing business and trailer park. The closest protective levee is 13 miles up the road. One more, well-positioned storm could wipe the town off the map for good.
"Leeville is washing away," Bryan said. "We're losing our marsh."
Leeville's plight underscores a national debate over how much to build near water and what to save once the land begins to disappear, said Robert Lempert, a senior scientist at Rand Corp. who studies how coastal communities respond to sea level rise.
Superstorm Sandy last fall rekindled the debate in the Northeast, as communities from Manhattan to the Jersey Shore ponder how to protect themselves from future storms and land loss, he said. But, as sea levels rise and more residents seek out oceanfront homes, areas from Alaska to Norfolk, Va., are facing the same dilemma, he said. Today, nearly 4 million Americans live in coastal communities less than 3 feet above sea level and are at risk of serious flooding.
"Leeville is the canary in the coal mine," Lempert said. "There are some places you clearly defend and build seawalls and levees. And there are other places you have to abandon."
Once a thriving orange orchard and oil-and-gas town, Leeville began to lose its marsh when energy companies carved transport canals through the area, weakening wetlands, said Kerry St. PÃ©,head of the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program. Building levees along the Mississippi to prevent floods in the early 1900s kept fresh water nutrients from reaching the surrounding marshes and further decimated them, he said.
Local levees were built â?? and later enhanced â?? to protect the nearby, more-populated towns of Golden Meadow and Galliano from storm surges, he said. But Leeville, with dwindling resources and population, was left on the outside. Today, fewer than 100 full-time residents live there.
Leeville today is a skinny spit of land cut by a two-lane hardtop that runs from Griffin's Station and Marina a mile down the road to Bryan's trailer park, where the road ends and the bayou begins. Along the way, there are crumpled mobile homes, destroyed by past storms and left to ruin, fishing docks, RV parks and Pappy's Place, the town's only bar.
A decade ago, Pappy's would fill with locals each day by 10 a.m. and stay open until the last patron left at 2 or 3 in the morning, owner Harris "Pappy" Ebanks said. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, the bar was empty.
"Since the hurricanes, we haven't had people in here," Ebanks, 74, said. "They just leave."
In the movie Beasts, a group of locals boil blue crabs in shanties, weather a battering storm and confront mystical rampaging beasts. In Leeville, residents sell lures at the town's two lure shops or meet for fried catfish at Griffin's Station. Owner Ben Griffin said hurricanes have repeatedly flooded his business in the three decades he's been open. Most alarming: the storms appear to be getting stronger â?? a result of less wetlands to slow them down, he said.
After Hurricane Gustav in 2008, Griffin raised his store 13-1/2 feet off the ground. But a direct hit by a large storm could wipe that out as well, he said. Still, he has no plans to move.
"This is paradise," Griffin, 57, said. "I could fish. I could hunt. Why go somewhere you don't know what's coming? When a storm comes, you have two weeks to get out."
Timmy Melancon,a commercial fishermen, leaves each time a major storm approaches. Each time, he comes back to a ruined, flooded home filled with mud and marsh grass. Each time, he rebuilds.
Born and raised in Leeville, Melancon, 56, said he follows the same routine each time a big storm approaches: He motors the Tee Tim, the 55-foot shrimping boat he hand-built with cypress planks 30 years ago, up Bayou Lafourche and moors it inside the levee system at Golden Meadow. Then he and his wife, Phyllis, head for higher ground.
Most of his family has left or died off. Melancon said he plans to stay but realizes one more muscular hurricane could end Leeville for good. "If a major storm comes up Bayou Lafourche, it's over for us," he said.
The view from Bryan's front porch once offered acres of marshland stretching to the horizon. Today, bodies of water like small lakes dot the scene. And as the land goes, so do the residents. Her trailer park clients have changed from nearly all full-time residents to mostly weekenders, she said. Her husband, Bobby, passed away last year, but she intends to stay. Her two grown sons live in town and help with the charter fishing business.
"People ask all the time, 'Why don't you leave?'" Bryan said. "But where are we going to go? There are disasters everywhere."
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