As Louisiana Port Rebuilds After Hurricane Ida, Loss of Wetlands Seen as Threat
More than a month after Hurricane Ida hit the sprawling harbor of Port Fourchon, where Bayou Lafourche meets the Gulf of Mexico, the destruction remains widespread even as a recovery effort continues apace. Giant containers lie flipped on their side and supply boats sit washed ashore, while the roads are lined with utility trucks and linemen working to rebuild power systems.
Operations at the port, which in normal times services the vast majority of oil produced in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, ground to a halt after the storm hit in late August and currently are at about 60%, according to the port’s executive director, Chett Chiasson. It could be about another six months before the port is running at full capacity, he says.
The devastation of Port Fourchon and the surrounding area highlights the vulnerability of a key energy hub. It is also emblematic of the toll the industry is taking on Louisiana’s swampy coastline, according to some academics and environmentalists. They say the industry, which has brought great economic benefit, has contributed to the threats the area faces in terms of rising seas and stronger storms. That is both via the fossil fuel it extracts and by contributing to local coastal erosion through activities such as cutting canals into the wetlands that allowed saltwater intrusion and killed off protective natural vegetation.
Some academics question whether efforts to fortify the port’s infrastructure and longer-running projects to shore up the coastline will be sufficient to avoid similar disasters happening again.
“The oil and gas industry has done a lot of damage to our coast,” said Tulane University geology professor Torbjorn Tornqvist, who specializes in wetland losses. A lot of the people who have close ties to the industry are those “that are among the most vulnerable in the country to climate change,” he said.
“The question is more ‘when’ than ‘if’,” places like Port Fourchon disappear, he added.
Chiasson, the public official in charge of the port, said he doesn’t agree as it relates to Port Fourchon. “Our resilient design structure, and the coastal investments near our port will keep us in tact and operating well in to the future,” he said.
The port’s executive director added that the oil and gas industry has played a critical role in helping restore coastlines and wetlands around Louisiana, including planting vegetation on newly built land, funding projects and assisting with modeling future coastal restoration projects using dredged material.
Those involved in the industry say they are committed to addressing the environmental threats facing the area. The Louisiana Oil & Gas Association (LOGA) said that during the five years through 2019 the industry provided $226 million to government agencies — in leasing fees and royalties from oil or gas sales – that was diverted to state and federal conservation projects. In addition, the industry has provided support in other ways, such as companies allocating land for flood management, the association said.
“Far from being the cause of wetlands loss, the oil and natural gas industry has led the way to address the issue,” said Mike Moncla, president of the association. He added that following the hurricane it had contributed more than $10 million to local relief efforts for residents.
A U.S. Geological Survey study published in 2000 found that oil and gas activities had contributed to more than a third of the state’s coastal wetlands loss – higher than any other factor. Louisiana’s oil and gas industry generated some $62.6 billion in revenues in 2019, according to the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, another industry trade group.
Many businesses say they remain committed to the port. Offshore vessel operator Edison Chouest Offshore, the operator of the damaged nine-bay shipping terminal known as C-Port 2, did not respond to requests for comment.
‘Heart’ of Offshore Oil
Surrounded by gator-filled bayous, Port Fourchon is the state’s southern most port. An elevated two-lane highway, which hovers above the water, connects it to the nearest town about 20 minutes away.
The port was created in 1960 by the Louisiana Legislature and grew into a critical supply and service hub for oil producers as deepwater exploration blossomed.
Many of the nearly 100,000 people living in Lafourche parish – where the port sits – depend on the industry. “Unless you’re a teacher, in some kind of way you’re related to the oilfield,” said 59-year-old Kenny Johnson, a captain on a towboat operated by a fuel distributor.
When Hurricane Ida struck, it lashed Port Fourchon with maximum sustained winds of 150 miles per hour. Port officials said it was the strongest hurricane to hit Port Fourchon since its creation. That includes Hurricane Katrina, which pummeled Louisiana 16 years earlier but came ashore 60 miles east.
More than 95% of U.S. Gulf of Mexico oil production was temporarily suspended, according to the offshore regulator. The Gulf supplies nearly a fifth of the nation’s oil, which feeds the manufacture of fuel for transport and of plastics for use in everything from drinking cups to medical devices.
More than a month on, power in the surrounding area was still out for thousands of people and many had no water or sewage services. The roofs of many homes are damaged or missing. Insulation and household goods, such as chairs and ceiling fans, lie piled along the streets.
In Houma, another industry hub about 60 miles from Port Fourchon, hangars at a city airport lie in piles of rubble. One night in late September, a group of volunteers from out of state who had been providing meals for families gathered around to watch a baby alligator caught by locals.
The rebuild effort includes installing more robust infrastructure in and around the port. Linemen, flown in from all across the country, are replacing power lines and utility poles damaged by the storm. Companies are rebuilding shipyards and office spaces. Port officials are fortifying municipal buildings and say they are considering building a safe house that can withstand the strongest category of hurricane winds.
Stone Oil Distributor, LLC has replaced its crew quarters and dispatch offices. “Port Fourchon is the heart of the offshore oil industry,” said the fuel distributor’s Chief Operating Officer Tony Odak.
Port director Chiasson estimates more than a quarter of billion dollars worth of damages were done to the companies that have facilities at the port.
There’s also the cost to the environment. Some 60 square miles of marshland was lost on the eastern side of Bayou Lafourche, estimates Chiasson.
“Hurricane Ida did a number on our marsh,” said Chiasson, who was raised in the area. “It chopped it up and we need to rebuild that because we’re now vulnerable for the next storm.”
Louisiana has already lost some 5,000 square kilometers (close to 2,000 square miles) of its coastal wetlands over the past century, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. That’s an area about the size of Delaware.
Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority has launched a series of restoration projects, worth tens of billions of dollars, to restore and protect the coastlines, including building marshes by dredging sediment and creating new lands by diverting river sediment.
River diversion projects can help slow down the loss of land, but they can take several years to decades, said oceanography professor Kevin Xu of Louisiana State University.
Some in the industry point to other causes of local erosion. State senator Mike Fesi, who goes by “Big Mike” and whose district includes Port Fourchon, primarily blames wetland losses on levees built decades ago along the Mississippi River. While protecting the surrounding communities from flooding, the levees kept the banks from overflowing its rivers and naturally depositing silt. Though he acknowledges the industry may have some responsibility for the erosion, the senator said he believes that has been more than offset by the funding the industry contributes to projects.
“A lot of people who work in oil live in this area,” said Fesi, who owns a Houma-based pipeline maintenance and construction firm that over the years has employed thousands of people in Louisiana. “They love this area and they want it to survive.”
Jerrett Webre, who lives in Houma and has spent his entire career in oil and gas, believes many people will stay put.
“They have bills to pay and that is their profession,” the 39-year old said. “Unless they choose to go work at a plant somewhere or start over, there is nothing left for them to do.”
(Reporting by Liz Hampton Edited by Cassell Bryan-Low and Gary McWilliams)
Photo: Port Fourchon Coastal Wetlands Park. Development was completed in July, 2021. Photo: Port Fourchon