LA - As Louisiana’s coast erodes, its historic communities are disappearing too
It was March 2021, and Sheri Neil was throwing together po’boys for the lunch crowd at her namesake Sheri’s Snack Shack, the only restaurant in the small bayou village of Pointe-aux-Chenes, Louisiana. The counter-service sandwich joint stands elevated about 12 feet off the ground, with a big red deck where people can sit as they enjoy one of Sheri’s renowned milkshakes.
At the height of the lunch hour, a woman drove into the parking lot and came running up the stairs. She was a teacher at Pointe-aux-Chenes Elementary School, which served about 80 children from the village of Pointe-aux-Chenes and nearby Ile de Jean Charles, both Indigenous communities that had been eroding for decades. Earlier that morning a representative from the parish school board had shown up unannounced and informed the staff that the parish was closing the school, effective that summer. People had been leaving Pointe-aux-Chenes for decades, driven out by frequent floods and the decline of the local shrimping industry, and enrollment at Pointe-aux-Chenes Elementary had fallen well below the district’s target. The village no longer merited its own school, officials said.
There were about a dozen people at the restaurant when the teacher drove up, and each of them ran at once to tell their families and friends. By nightfall everyone in town had heard the news, and by the next morning the residents of Pointe-aux-Chenes leapt into action as only the residents of a small town could. They started a Facebook group on behalf of the school and alerted the new cub reporter for the daily newspaper in the nearby city of Houma. The leader of the local tribal organization called the tribe’s attorney and asked her to help them file a lawsuit against the parish. The town staged a small picket outside the school, with students and parents holding up handwritten signs.
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This was far from the first school closure in coastal Terrebonne Parish, which had seen broad population loss over the previous two decades. The story was more or less the same in every town: the shrimp business crashed, the flooding got worse, and people moved up to dry land, leaving empty desks in every classroom. No one who lived in Pointe-aux-Chenes could deny that the bayou population was shrinking. The parish had shut down the library branch a few years earlier, warehousing the books in the school building, and the bayou had lost two grocery stores in the past decade. The only remaining general store was operating on thinner and thinner margins. You couldn’t go more than a mile without seeing a FOR SALE sign.
Still, closing the school at this time felt like an unnecessary escalation, one that would push the town further toward depopulation and decay. Fifty years earlier, when Indigenous children had first attended classes there after the integration of the state school system, the school had been a hostile place, but in the decades since it had become a kind of cultural melting pot for the whole bayou community, a bridge between the white Cajun and Indigenous sides of Pointe-aux-Chenes. The school had one of the largest Indigenous populations of any school in the state, and teachers made a point of educating students about the rich history of the bayou, bringing in tribal leaders to demonstrate ceremonial dances and drum rituals. The bayou had no museum, no archive, no dedicated historian, so it was through the school that each generation of residents passed down their unique traditions to the next. If that went away, what would the town have left?
Even more painful was the fact that the decision had come just a few years after the Army Corps of Engineers had finished a new levee system that would protect the bayou, part of a massive project the agency had been working on since the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The erosion exodus that had begun two generations earlier seemed like it was finally about to slow down: The main reason so many people had left over the years was to escape the flood problem, but now the town would be protected from all but the most devastating storms. The marshland outside the levees might disappear, but the town itself would be safe for decades to come.