A version of this post originally appeared on Matter.
It’s becoming harder and harder to communicate the most urgent crisis facing Louisiana.
According to the U.S.G.S., the state lost just under 1,900 square miles of land between 1932 and 2000. This is the rough equivalent of the entire state of Delaware dropping into the Gulf of Mexico, and the disappearing act has no closing date. If nothing is done to stop the hemorrhaging, the state predicts as much as another 1,750 square miles of land — an area larger than Rhode Island — will convert to water by 2064.
An area approximately the size of a football field continues to slip away every hour. “We’re sinking faster than any coast on the planet,” explains Bob Marshall, a Pulitzer-winning journalist in New Orleans. Marshall authored the series “Losing Ground,” a recent collaboration between The Lens, a non-profit newsroom, and ProPublica, about the Louisiana coast’s epic demise.
The image that maps project — the iconic “boot” shape everyone recognizes as Louisiana — is impossible to escape. The map’s outline is on bumper stickers (with the boot standing in for the “L” in “Love”), T-shirt fronts (my favorite emblazoned with “I drove the Chevy to the levee but the levee was gone”), and on Louisiana-shaped neon beer signs in barroom windows.
But the boot is at best an inaccurate approximation of Louisiana’s true shape and, at worst, an irresponsible lie. It has to be.
In Southeast Louisiana, the theory you often hear is that the best way to keep sinking land from disappearing is to make it economically indispensable. Significant barriers — bureaucratic, political, and economic — make any “official” alterations of the boot appear as difficult as actually restoring the land.
Believing a truer image of the state could be powerful enough to overcome those obstacles, Matter pushed forward with creating our own alternative boot. Andrea Galinski, a coastal resources scientist with the C.P.R.A., provided us with a map that answered this question.
We started with a map of Louisiana that includes non-walkable and non-inhabitable land.
Using publicly available data, Galinski created a map on which areas that commonly appear as land on government issued maps—woody wetlands, emergent herbaceous wetlands, and barren land — were re-categorized to appear as water:
From that map, we created a boot whose southern borders are drawn where terra firma meets water:
On our map, the real map, the boot appears as if it came out on the wrong side of a battle with a lawnmower’s blades. It loses a painful chunk off its heel in Cameron and Vermilion parishes.
Some people might criticize us for taking out the wetlands entirely, and there are places that do exist in real life — like Isle de Jean Charles — that aren’t on our boot (although they are visible, if barely, on the map we used to create the boot). But maps are approximations, and we believe ours errs closer to the side of truth.
Compare the existing boot with ours:
The two images are so significantly different that anyone who encountered the new map would have to squint and ask, What is going on here? Answer: a lot.
A more honest representation of the boot would not erase the intractable disagreements — around global sea level rise, energy jobs versus coastal restoration jobs, oil and gas companies versus the fishing industry — that paralyze state politics, but it would give shape to the awesome stakes, both economic and existential, that hang in the balance. A new map would prove that Louisiana is ready to grapple with the extraordinary task ahead of it. A new map would prove that denial, like the boot, is a remnant of our past.
When I shared my desire to see the map of Louisiana changed with John Barry, the author and instigator of a lawsuit against the oil companies for their damage to the Gulf coast, he was quick to say, “It will never happen.”
A map of Louisiana’s southern coast. Orange areas represent land lost between 1937 and 2000.
He recalled a meeting he attended when he was still on the levee board. It was considering a proposal to install markers around New Orleans showing how high the floodwaters rose during Katrina. Some of the markers would go on levees.
“They came to us because you can’t do anything on the levee without our permission,” recalled Barry, who said the board was supportive of the plan. “There was a guy there from the Business Council [of New Orleans]. He said, ‘This is a bad idea whose time should never come.’ He was worried you were going to scare people.”
Our alternative version of the Louisiana boot is scary, in keeping with the truth Harold Schoeffler has been trying to voice for decades.
On our true map, I saw something the human eye can’t perceive: I was standing on a barely visible stripe of earth far offshore, land that anyone who cares knows is in imminent danger of fading into oblivion. On our map, the beach where we stood and the road we traveled to get to it are barely holding on. The map sounds an alarm too few people have heard. That is its point. Source