Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

September 6, 2012

Plaquemines Parish: Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on September 6, 2012

From Wednesday’s Times-Picayune:

Dwight Robinson spent Wednesday afternoon looking for his mother’s casket along the levee in eastern Plaquemines Parish. He had just driven past his aunt’s crypt, now tucked in the slant of the east bank levee that skirts the Mississippi River. Robinson, 59, was walking through the world in utter shock. He was overwhelmed and in disbelief that Hurricane Isaac had moved the crypt about a quarter mile from its cemetery…

“I tried to go back to see if my mom’s tomb was there,” he told a Times-Picayune reporter while waiting along the levee in mud-soaked sneakers. “I just fear it might have floated away.” He looked up at the levee as though he might see her…

He then drove about 100 yards before noticing a beautiful pink casket with ornate metal fixtures resting parallel to the river.

He swerved off the road, stranding his car in some mud along the highway. Later, the Mercury had to be pulled out by a nearby truck.

He climbed the levee and studied the pink casket, attempting to find markings.

“I wonder what you could do to know … to identify these things?” he pondered.

When asked whether he thought it belonged to his mother, he said he wasn’t sure but that it looked familiar.

“I started to think what color her casket was, and pink is what came to mind,” he said. “I hope it’s not hers. Well, in a sense, I’m hoping it is.”

Robinson said his biggest fear is that it might have floated down into the Gulf.

He noticed the casket was upside down. He quickly flipped it, water pouring out as it turned. No identifying markings were present on its top.

Despite it all, he says he’s going to rebuild in Bertrandville.

“This is our little piece of the swamp,” Robinson said. “It’s a swamp but it’s our little piece. Our little piece of America.”

“It’s a mess, but, you know, this too shall pass.”


Plaquemines Parish is a narrow straw of land bisected by the Mississippi River extending southeast from New Orleans into the Gulf of Mexico.

The 2010 census found 23,000 people up from 12,500 since 1910.   There is about 850 square miles of (sometimes) dry land down from about twice that in 1950.

Once dependent on hunting, trapping, sugar, citrus, and piloting ships from the Gulf to New Orleans, Plaquemines is now an operational center for oil and gas drilling for much of the northern Gulf.

Like most of southern Louisiana, Plaquemines  is made up of sediment deposited by the Mississippi.  About 1200 years ago the river’s course shifted east and the erosion of the Northern Plains began forming this new spur of delta.

Over the last half-century not nearly as much sediment has arrived and most that does flows right by.  The engineering of the Mississippi has reduced sediment flows by 50-to-70 percent.   Where the delta once meandered and moved and thereby replenished itself, we now maintain persistent navigation channels.   And because the mouth of the Mississippi has reached the edge of the continental shelf,  our navigation channels are very efficient at delivering the silt into a thousand-foot-deep maw.

In January the State of Louisiana and others announced a plan to reverse land loss in the Mississippi delta.  The core concept is to open up diversions on the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers to allow silt and freshwater into marshlands, build new ridges, pump sediment into eroded marshes, build new shorelines, and pour sand onto barrier islands.  Basically it is an engineered approach to what happened naturally before our engineering got in the way.

Experts are divided on the plan’s prospects for success.  But in May the Coastal Master Plan was adopted unanimously by the Louisiana state legislature.  From my layman’s perspective, the plan is more likely to be effective in restoring the wetlands west of Plaquemines.  With one mile of land on one side of the river and, maybe,  a mile-and-a-half on the other, sitting on the edge of an underwater cliff, Plaquemines is an inherently vulnerable place.

Dwight Robinson says, “This too will pass.”  Well… yes it will, but not necessarily to a better place.

The last few weeks we have been using this blog to explore resilience: For several thousand, Plaquemines is home.  This is where their mother is buried.  This is where they were married and raised their children.  The economy of Plaquemines is stronger than many other places.  The seafood is among the best in the world.  On a bright March morning with the sun rising over the Gulf, it is one of the most beautiful places in the world.

This week Plaquemines looks like the Reuters picture at the top and a mother’s casket has gone missing.  Today a remnant of Isaac makes a return visit.   Next week or next year another hurricane will hit.

Resilience is, I have argued, mostly a matter of human relationships.  The stronger, more numerous, and more diverse our relationships the more resilient an individual or community or organization or nation.  These relationships are quite often tightly tied to a shared place.   We cling to those we love and the places where we have loved them.

Even to our detriment.  Sometimes even to our death.


Following are the lyrics for Between the Devil and Deep Blue Sea. Surprisingly, I couldn’t find a YouTube of Ella Fitzgerald’s version.  Her voice communicates this sometimes exquisite, sometimes perverse sort of resilience better than any words alone.

I don’t want you
But I hate to lose you
You’ve got me in between
The devil and the deep blue sea

I forgive you’
Cause I can’t forget you
You’ve got me in between
The devil and the deep blue sea

I oughta cross you off my list
But when you come knocking at my door
Fate seems to give my heart a twist
And I come running back for more

I should hate you
But I guess I love you’
You’ve got me in between
The devil and the deep blue sea

She’s no Ella, but here’s a 1957 recording of Lee Wiley that begins to suggest the power and pathos of profound attraction to… almost anything.


Related Links:

Plaquemines Resiliency Index

Atlas of Shoreline Changes in Louisiana from 1853 to 1989

Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection, and Restoration Act website

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Comment by William R. Cumming

September 6, 2012 @ 7:53 pm

The mainstem Mississippi River is leveed from St. Louis to the GOM!
Thanks to the OLD RIVER CONTROL STRUCTUREl NOLA remains a PORT and the Mississippi River does not follow its desired course through MORGAN CITY and the Atchafalya Basin!
In the last 5,000 years the mouth (outlet) of the Mississippi River has wandered from the State Line of Mississippi to the State line of Texas.

Pingback by Resilience Index – an indicator of recovery potential « Recovery Diva

September 7, 2012 @ 5:19 am

[…] a recent posting by Phil Palen, one of the authors the blog HLSWatch, he attached a copy of a Resilience Index for Placquemines  I found that graphic quite compelling […]

Comment by Claire B. Rubin

September 7, 2012 @ 5:20 am

I noted this posting and featured the Resiliency Index in a posting today on RecoveryDiva.com

Thanks for the info.

Comment by Alan Wolfe

September 7, 2012 @ 7:54 am

What William said. Really, it took them years after Katrina to announce a “plan” to reverse land loss? If they wait too much longer, maybe they should plan for procuring gondolas for New Orleans and the other cities in the Delta region.

Comment by Django

September 8, 2012 @ 10:53 pm

He should have had her cremated….

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