In 2004, producer Christina Melton approached Louisiana Public Broadcasting about producing a science-based documentary program explaining the ongoing coastal erosion crisis along Louisiana's coast: what it could mean for New Orleans if a hurricane hit, what it could mean to the nation's oil and gas industry, America's seafood harvest and the region's environment and population.
For decades, Louisiana scientists, emergency planners and lawmakers had been trying to sound the alarm bell with frightening predictions about Louisiana's disintegrating coast and sinking levees, but at the time, it seemed no one was listening. The crisis had been detailed in books like Mike Tidwell's, Bayou Farewell, published in 1999 and award-winning reporting by the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 2002, the findings of the FEMA-led Hurricane Pam Exercise in 2004 and the prophetic research of Louisiana State University scientist, Ivor van Heerden, published as late as August 2005. This crisis was to be the focus of Melton's updated documentary in 2005. So, by late August 2005, filming was to start on the project. Then Katrina hit and the events unfolded like a script: nearly everything that had been predicted happened. A month later, Rita hit.
The damage was catastrophic, tens of thousands had to be rescued, more than a thousand Louisianans lost their lives, and nearly a quarter of a million Louisiana homes were destroyed. Thankfully, the 20-30,000 casualties predicted by the most accurate disaster models did not occur. Surprisingly, eighty-percent of New Orleans and South Louisiana was able to evacuate ahead of the storms, a mass evacuation unprecedented in American history. And, thanks only to the location of the hurricane strikes, the oil and gas industry dodged a bullet even though there were major disruptions.
Suddenly Melton's planned documentary had become irrelevant, in its conceived form. The "what if?" had turned into "what now?" So Melton set out to find a way to use background material she had already gathered for the science documentary and attempt demonstrate the scale of the impact of coastal erosion on the damage done by these storms—to show Louisianians themselves, and all Americans, a cause and effect relationship between the damage they saw or experienced first-hand, and the still unfolding crisis along Louisiana's coast.
She searched exhaustively to identify Louisianians who were not only affected by the hurricanes, but who represented as many facets of life impacted by the coastal erosion crisis as possible. Melton resolved to follow six individuals for the first year following the storms to represent the larger tragic circumstances, on a microcosmic scale: a New Orleans Creole restaurant owner, a Cajun farmer, a Cajun shrimper, an oil and gas port operator, a conservationist and a musician/evacuee. Each individual would tell his or her own story, as they had witnessed it and as they were still living it.
Melton identified several unifying threads in the lives of these six individuals, principally: dedication to family and a passion for a unique cultural heritage and its food, music and the Louisiana landscape. As the year unfolded, it also became clear how interconnected all Louisianans are. The restaurants and hotels people love in New Orleans are dependent on a vibrant, safe city and culture, and musicians, chefs and workers who live here, and shrimp, oysters and other seafood that is caught in Gulf waters, that is born in Louisiana's fragile wetlands. The seafood industry relies on the fragile nurseries of the coastal landscape for its valuable shrimp, oysters and fish, and affordable fuel to power its boats, and a stable coast for fishermen to live on and places to sell their catch. The oil and gas industry relies on protective marshes and coastal barriers to protect pipelines and access roads to move their products and employees and support industries to maintain it. The region's farmers rely both on affordable fuel to harvest crops and on those same storm barriers to keep salt water from poisoning the land where they've lived for centuries and their crops grow and cattle are fed. The coast's jeopardized waterways that carry America's products to world markets, and provide food and shelter to the millions of birds and wildlife, also provide enjoyment for the state's thousands and thousands of hunters, bird watchers, and outdoor enthusiasts. And finally, and probably most fundamentally, two million Louisianians who lived south of I-10, all depend on a healthy coast to protect their lives and culture.
Louisiana has lost up to 40 square miles of marsh a year for several decades - that's 80 percent of the nation's annual coastal wetland loss. If the current rate of loss is not slowed, by the year 2040 an estimated 800,000 acres of wetlands will disappear, and the Louisiana shoreline will advance inland as much as 33 miles in some areas. Even today, most Louisianans and most Americans don't realize that areas of Louisiana's coast are experiencing the fastest rate of land loss on earth.
The result was Washing Away: Losing Louisiana.
The program premiered nationally on PBS in the late summer of 2006 and was honored with the Radio & Television News Directors Association’s Edward R. Murrow Award. It has since screened at numerous conferences and film festivals including the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival, the largest independent film festival in the world. Teachers from across the country have sought out the program's companion teaching resources developed through a partnership with America's WETLAND: Campaign to Restore Coastal Louisiana, both on CD and on the internet. Increased awareness of the issues involved in preserving Louisiana's coastline have resulted in increased state and national attention to the plight of south Louisiana residents.
But in mid-2006, the story of Louisiana’s recovery had only just begun. In the years since, residents have battled insurance companies, suffered additional damages from subsequent storms, and now face a new wave of devastation from the BP oil disaster.
In this new half-hour, follow-up documentary Washing Away: After the Storms, LPB revisits Kerry, Leah, Errol, Marlon, Ted and Preston as their road to recovery continues.