New Orleans, LA – Volunteers are getting mats of marsh plants ready to place along wetlands and in the open water at Isle de Jean Charles south of Houma. The mats look like full-size mattresses, but made from recycled plastic. Each one carries about 50 plants all set inside holes in the mesh plastic. The project is being coordinated by the America's Wetland Foundation. Spokesman Buddy Boe says the area described as a bird's foot as seen from above is rapidly disappearing. It's not only starved of Mississippi River sediment held back by the levee system, but it's also outside the areas protected by that system.
"So if these marshes aren't here when that storm surge comes in it beats up that levee and risks the integrity of that levee. So we need this land to protect the protection system and we also need this land to protect the community, whose land is literally disappearing at an alarming rate."
Chris Chaisson is 28 years old, and he's seen drastic erosion around his own home nearby. Maryal Dion Mewherter is 53, and moved away from her home in Dulac in 1986 after Hurricane Juan flooded her house.
"It was a vibrant community at one time. And now, 60 percent of the people have left."
She'd like to move home someday. Chaisson doesn't want to leave his ancestral home. He and Mewherter as representatives of the United Houma Nation are lobbying on behalf of 17-thousand other Native Americans in six Louisiana parishes.
"I'm passionate about my community. I'm passionate about at least having something left for the next generation to come back and say - "you know what? My ancestors roamed this land.' "
The floating mats are being used in two ways. One is placing them in a line along existing patches of marsh to protect them from melting away in the tides. The other is linking them together in groups over open water, something that Boe said hasn't been done before.
"We're hoping to be able to literally create land in the middle of open water by having the floating island have its roots grow down, root into the natural bottom of the marsh and then, over time, as the tide comes in and out, those roots will collect sediment, and debris and organic matter and then, over the course of a year, build land underneath that island and create - land."
The wetlands foundation selected the floating islands project as part of its Energy Coast initiative that includes corporate partners, like Entergy and Shell. Meetings are being held throughout the Gulf Coast states to evaluate new methods of saving coastal areas that are in the most critical conditions and locations.
The mats are produced by Martin Ecosystems of Baton Rouge. Spokeswoman Nicole Martin Waguespack says the islands are being anchored to clay several feet under the sea floor to keep them secure and able to grow.
"In prior projects that we've done, plants have literally jumped off the island and started to grow on their own."
As Entergy volunteers planted and placed the mats at the water's edge, Mewherter and Chaisson said they hope the project can be one step in reversing decades of land loss. Chaisson says he gets angry when he hears opinions from visitors that it may be too late to save the outer bayou.
"People pass in our community sightseeing, they were like, you know what, these poor people should just move out of here. Why is worth saving here? But you know what, when we're gone, you're next."
America's Wetland Foundation is hosting a community forum in Houma to review research that's under way, and how to decide which endangered coastal areas can still be saved.
For WWNO, I'm Eileen Fleming