Smithridge is a community located in Bayou Petit Caillou. Heidi and I, along with the students in the Duke Engage program, have been spending our last few weeks getting to know the people that live in this community.
Smithridge is a neighborhood in the town of Chauvin, and is not recognized as its own entity as it once was in the past. This community was originally founded by the Smith brothers, Ed and Robert, between 1876 and 1879. These two brothers were sons of a white plantation owner and his black slave mistress. However, Ed and Robert never worked in the fields, and their father sent them to school so both were able to read and write.
Each brother originally purchased land on opposite banks of Bayou Little Caillou, and so the community was located on both sides of the Bayou. In 1939, a tragic boating accident occurred in the Smithridge community. One night late in August, because of a broken bridge across the Bayou, 20 people were boating home from the church across the Bayou when their boat capsized. Of the 20 people aboard, 6 drowned in the Bayou. After this the community of Smithridge and its church decided to shift and relocate to live on just one side of the Bayou. The community of Smithridge continues now to live in this same spot “across the Bayou” from the center of Chauvin.
So you don’t get lost while living and traveling in the Bayou, here are the most important directions to understand. Also insert the local pronunciation “Baya” for “Bayou” as needed.
The Importance of Communities in the Planning Process
Last week we attended a coastal restoration forum entitled “Our Wetlands, Our Future” in New Orleans with Diane and Rebecca from Bayou Grace. Here we listened to people speak on the conditions of the wetlands and opportunities for restoration in Louisiana. Besides the already horrible fate of the wetlands down here, people often forget about what one speaker labeled the “elephant in the room”–the problem of global warming and sea level rise. Along with the enormous challenge of managing the Mississippi River, and the corresponding land subsidence, there is the added unknown of exactly how much and how fast global warming will exacerbate the already tragic receding of the wetlands.
After the speakers in the morning, we had the opportunity to sit in on a roundtable discussion that included people from local non-profits, universities, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Louisiana state Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration (OCPR), seafood industry workers, and other concerned local citizens. What stood out to me at this discussion was the passion from the people in attendance to save their home-state. Also apparent were high levels of tension and stress between all involved with a planning process this complex and in need of being completed extremely quickly.
What also came across at this meeting is that the fate of many communities in Louisiana could very quickly be heading underwater, both literally and figuratively. Steve Mathies, Executive Director of OCPR, presented this question in our roundtable discussion, “How much are we willing to pay for restoration, and what is sustainable?” while pointing out that the money he has to work with is very miniscule for such a large challenge.
But there were other vital questions that I did not see answered, or even really even considered much by those in charge from both the Army Corps and OCPR. Questions including;
- Which, if any, communities are going to be sacrificed, and when?
- How and when should these communities start planning for the future?
- Where will the people from these communities go?
- What will the people from these communities do?
- Who will help these communities, and will there be money to help them?
The more we get to know the communities down in the 5 Bayous where Bayou Grace works, the more real and urgent these questions become.
The conclusion of our roundtable discussion was that citizen engagement is key in this planning process, and that trust is needed between citizens, the Corps of Engineers, and the state. However, there was clearly a concern from community members in attendance that their voices are not being heard, and they are not receiving all the information.