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Despite increasingly violent hurricanes and erosion, residents of Cameron Parish are determined to stay in a rural region where the fossil-fuel industry is the biggest employer

Destroyed homes like this one in Cameron Parish are a familiar sight on Louisiana's Gulf Coast, which has been battered by hurricanes over the years. Over time, climate change will make future storms more frequent and intense.Adrian Morrow/The Globe and Mail

A concrete pad and two rows of bricks are all that remain of James Doxey’s house. It was torn away by wind and floodwaters when Hurricane Laura decimated Louisiana’s rural Cameron Parish in August of 2020. For Mr. Doxey, this was déjà vu: Hurricane Rita destroyed his previous home 15 years earlier.

A gregarious 61-year-old who manages rental properties and does maintenance work for the local school board, he escaped harm both times. Like virtually all the parish’s residents, he evacuated before the storms hit. But he has no plans to leave for good. He and his wife are living in a camper in their yard while he rebuilds the house.

“This is home. I’ve lived here all my life,” Mr. Doxey said one sunny winter afternoon, gazing out over the coastal marshes that surround his land. His great-great-great-grandfather arrived in Cameron as a fur buyer in 1847. “I just love it here.”

James Doxey, 61, stands where his house used to be in Cameron Parish, a community of 5,600.Adrian Morrow/The Globe and Mail

Welcome to the front lines of the climate crisis.

Not only is Cameron Parish, a community of 5,600 on the Gulf of Mexico, subject to increasingly violent storms, its shoreline is eroding at a rate of as much as nine metres a year. It’s a place where scientists’ projections about land sinking into the sea are already coming true.

It’s also a place, like much of the Gulf Coast, long dominated by the fossil fuel industry. The largest employers in the parish are a trio of liquefied natural gas (LNG) export facilities.

Their relative importance to the area has only increased in recent years, as industries such as trapping, fishing and raising cattle have been battered by extreme weather. Over the past two decades, the population has dropped by almost half.

Still, many residents, Mr. Doxey among them, reject the science of climate change.

“Who’s to say back in the 1800s they didn’t have the same type of storms, that wasn’t recorded? It could be a cycle,” he said. “Nobody can answer that, bub.”

Cameron Parish is both a window into the world’s future and a microcosm of its current contradictions. Its economy remains dependent on oil and gas even as people face the difficult choice of leaving home or learning to adapt to an increasingly erratic climate.

Cameron's days of disaster: At top, waters from Hurricane Rita cover Route 82 in 2005, and at bottom, a road is mostly submerged after Hurricane Laura in 2020.ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images; Mario Tama/Getty Images

Sinking and storms

Southern Louisiana is steadily slipping beneath the Gulf. The levees that control flooding on the Mississippi River cause it to carry sediment further out to sea rather than deposit it along the shore. Without new material to replenish it, the coast sinks.

This is increasingly compounded by the changing climate. Rising ocean temperatures cause more intense hurricanes, while melting polar ice caps raise water levels.

“The future is here,” said Leigh Anne Sharp, a scientist with the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, a state agency trying to protect the shoreline from erosion. “At any given time, a storm can dump at least 40 to 50 inches of rain. That was super-anomalous decades ago. Now, it’s just a thing that happens.”

The effect is viscerally apparent in Cameron. The parish was devastated by Hurricane Audrey in 1957, when almost 400 people were killed. For the next 47 years, it saw no comparable storms, before being pummelled four times in less than two decades: Rita in 2005, Ike in 2008, and Laura and Delta in 2020.

Across the parish, houses lie in ruins – in some cases split in half, with rusting appliances and waterlogged furniture exposed to the elements. Others have been swept off their foundations and sunk in the marshes. Flooding has destroyed cemeteries, causing caskets to float away. At one beach, a fence disappears into the sea; a post sticking out of the waves about 400 metres from shore marks where the water’s edge used to be.

To live here is to perpetually prepare for the worst.

Michelle and Scott Trahan are rebuilding after the latest hurricane destroyed Mr. Trahan's shop.Adrian Morrow/The Globe and Mail

Before Laura hit, Scott and Michelle Trahan moved their cattle to Mr. Trahan’s cousin’s land on higher ground. Tractors, feed troughs and other heavy equipment were brought to another property they own about 60 kilometres inland. Clothing and pictures on the wall went into cargo trailers they hauled north.

Their families have been in the parish for generations, and they grew up hearing stories about Audrey.

“They always said, ‘When there’s a storm, you need to leave. You go far enough that you won’t drown,’” said Ms. Trahan, 58, who works as the business manager for the school system.

The morning after Laura, Mr. Trahan returned to Cameron in a tractor, clearing the road of mud, trees and downed power lines. Despite sitting on 1.5-metre pilings, part of their home flooded with knee-deep water. The wind ripped off a corner of the roof.

Their three children have all moved away over the years. But the Trahans are rebuilding here, even as they fully expect another hurricane. In their yard, an aluminum water tank sits wedged between the boughs of an oak tree, carried there by Rita 17 years ago.

“It ain’t ‘if,’ it’s ‘when’ it’s going to happen,” said Mr. Trahan, 57, an operator at an LNG plant and head of the parish council. “Over the years, everything’s gotten more violent. The Earth is going through some kind of cycle.”

Mr. Trahan points to water damage from Hurricane Laura in his house.Adrian Morrow/The Globe and Mail

Debbie Savoie’s home survived Laura, but she couldn’t move back in for eight months while the damage was being repaired. It took four months just for electrical service to be restored in the parish. Her husband sold his cattle because they had nowhere to graze after the storm flooded the land and knocked down fences.

“We could move, but where else are we going to go? It wouldn’t be home,” said Ms. Savoie, 58, who works for the clerk of the local court. “When the stakes are down here, the whole town sticks together.”

At the parish seat, where she works, there aren’t many businesses left. A convenience store sells groceries, pizza and beer. A food truck boasts “kickin’” shrimp po’boys. The concrete towers of a newly constructed LNG terminal overlook the shore.

Greg Gachassin, 50, owns an RV park that caters to recently arrived workers at the terminal. He also used to run a man camp, which included the parish’s only full-service, large-scale restaurant. The eatery was open for less than a month before Laura rolled in and levelled it. But Mr. Gachassin is undeterred.

“There is definitely a way to live on this coast. Are you going to get hit? Yes,” he said. “Does the community have to get destroyed? No.”

Clair Hebert Marceaux, the director of Cameron’s port, sees a historical continuum in efforts to hold back the water. Most people here are descended from Acadians, French colonists who first settled in the Maritimes. There they built dikes to reclaim land from the Bay of Fundy, creating fertile ground for farming. When the British expelled them in the 1750s and 1760s, those who came to Louisiana constructed levees to tame the Mississippi.

“This is not new to us,” said Ms. Hebert Marceaux, 44. “We have to investigate what the scientists are telling us about sea-level rise, the best building practices. Everyone in the world needs to pay attention to what happens here.”

Scooter Trosclair manages the Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge and is working on ways to slow down erosion, and the gulf's encroachment into more populated inland areas. The refuge gets its funds largely from oil and gas leases.Adrian Morrow/The Globe and Mail

Adaptation and industry

It’s Scooter Trosclair’s job to fight back against the destruction. The 46-year-old manager of the Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge oversees projects that protect the coast against further erosion.

One of these is building a breakwater with boulders just offshore, trapping sand and mud that would otherwise be pulled into the Gulf. Another involves digging channels in the marshes so saltwater left over from storm surges can drain away rather than smother the vegetation. The state, through the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, is doing similar work. It has mined sand from offshore sandbars, for instance, to rebuild the parish’s beaches.

These measures are vital not only for Cameron but for the entire state. Without this parish, the Gulf would stretch far inland and threaten more heavily populated areas. “This is the only known method [we have to] reduce hurricane energy, by creating land and getting that storm off the source of water,” Mr. Trosclair said. “That makes all the difference to the communities to the north of here.”

When Mr. Trosclair was growing up in Cameron, he recalls, the fishing boats were laden with shrimp and snapper for his father’s processing business. His family also trapped nutria, muskrat and mink in the marshes. Now, populations of fur-bearing animals have collapsed, the result of saltwater flooding that has also left stands of dead trees dotting the landscape. Alligators, sold for their leather and meat, are the only major marsh animals still hunted commercially.

Shrimp and fish populations in the Gulf, meanwhile, have taken a drubbing from increased runoff and warming seas. Since 1990, Mr. Trosclair said, the shoreline has eroded more than a kilometre.

Venture Global’s liquified natural gas plant in Cameron Parish.Adrian Morrow/The Globe and Mail

The refuge funds its operations in large part through oil and gas leases on its land – another sign of the industry’s pervasiveness.

That presence is fraught. Cameron and five other parishes are currently suing more than 100 oil companies for causing environmental damages over the course of several decades, including the dumping of toxic waste.

One company, Freeport-McMoRan, has agreed to a US$100-million settlement. The rest are fighting in court.

This hasn’t stopped the parish from embracing other fossil fuel companies. Cheniere, Cameron LNG and Venture Global all operate LNG plants here, ensuring this parish alone exports more LNG than any country in the world aside from Australia and Qatar.

John Carmouche, Cameron’s lawyer for the litigation, draws a distinction between the companies the parish is suing and the industry in general.

“We want the oil industry. We have a bunch of prudent operators out there,” he said, adding that he believes getting established companies to pay for the damage to the coast will encourage new companies to come in by removing the risk of being saddled with cleanup costs. “We need to promote the industry.”

There’s also that pervasive rejection of the reality of climate change at play here.

Mr. Trosclair, for instance, posits that sea-level rise may instead be caused by volcanoes or an increase in ship traffic.

He contends that “a weather pattern that lines up” causes increasingly intense hurricanes.

“I’m not into the climate change thing,” he said.

“Is there actually all this carbon? I just can’t imagine there’s a human influence. I don’t know how anyone could trace that.”

Mr. Trahan sees the growing storms as part of a natural cycle. “We’ve got what happened to the dinosaurs,” he said.

Mr. Trahan points to a water tank that was wedged into a tree on their land by Hurricane Rita in 2005.Adrian Morrow/The Globe and Mail

This denialism is shared by a substantial minority nationwide. In an ABC News poll last year, 31 per cent of respondents said climate change was “not a serious problem.” A bill currently before the Louisiana Legislature would declare the state a “fossil fuel sanctuary,” preventing officials from enforcing environmental regulations.

Such thinking helps explain why the U.S. is far from achieving the emissions reductions necessary to deal with the problem.

And it helps explain why Mr. Doxey plans to stay. He has started building stilts out of cinder blocks, onto which he’ll use a crane to hoist a double-wide trailer.

He credits the LNG plants, one of which employs his son, with keeping the community alive. “If it weren’t for them, there would be nothing, nobody left here. They really saved this town,” he said.

On the future, he’s fatalistic.

“Climate, if it comes, it comes wherever you go. In the West, they’ve got fires. North, they’ve got tornadoes,” he said. “You can’t fool with Mother Nature.”

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