Old-Timer Wisdom: Gleaned from hard-earned lessons (Part 3)

The ruins of Fort Pike on the Rigolets, one of two entrances into “Lake” Pontchartrain (photos by: Folwell Dunbar)


“The only benefit to aging is wisdom.”

~ My father, George Dunbar


Teaching Sensible Lessons

When I was in college, I took a class on coastal ecology. We spent a week at the Duke University Marine Lab in Beaufort, North Carolina. During a lecture, my professor stated emphatically, “Barrier islands, including the one we’re standing on now, should never have been developed. Building permanent structures on land that is constantly shifting is a really bad idea!”

“So, from Roanoke to Galveston,” I said, “we’ve obviously made a number of poor decisions.”

“Yes,” he said, “we certainly have.”

Years later, when I found myself teaching Louisiana History and World Geography, I mentioned the barrier island lesson to my 7th and 8th grade students, and pointed to our own, Grande Isle.

“Isn’t that where they have the rodeo?” One of them asked.

“No,” said a classmate, “that’s at the prison.”

“Why don’t they just move?” suggested another. “I bet you they don’t even have malls!”

Teaching middle school history and geography (middle school anything for that matter) is a tough sell. Today’s generation is more detached from the past and nature than ever before. If I were to impart any valuable lessons, I’d have to pull out all the stops.

So, I did whatever I could to perk their ever-waning interest. I had them paint massive maps on “cafetorium” walls and playgrounds kickball courts. I took them out into the Honey Island Swamp in Voyager canoes, and I had them do oral histories with local fishermen and trappers. I even wrote an activity book that tricked them into using maps and artifacts for a purpose.

I also drew on examples from the past. History is littered with valuable, hard-earned lessons. For example, in A.D. 79, the residents of Pompeii and Herculaneum found out the hard way that the rich volcanic soil they farmed came at a terrible price. Granted, they didn’t have the benefit of modern volcanology, but, the occasional rumblings of “the gods” should have been at least a telltale warning.

The people who built Tenochtitlan on Lake Texcoco picked the location because it was easy to defend. When Hernán Cortez finally defeated the Triple Alliance in 1521 (with Guns, Germs and Steel), he decided to build his own capital atop the ruins of the ancient city. It seemed like a practical and politically astute decision at the time. He, like the Aztecs, didn’t understand plate tectonics. Today, Mexico City is one of the largest cities in the world, and it sits precariously above a dry lakebed and an active fault. It’s a catastrophe waiting to happen!

In 1788, the burgeoning city of New Orleans went up in flames. 856 of 1,100 structures were destroyed. The tightly packed wooden houses of the Vieux Carré were like Christmas Eve bonfires on the levee. When the Spanish rebuilt the city, they made sure to impose (and enforce) strict building codes, hence the brick and stucco Creole cottages and townhouses of the French Quarter.

Just this past summer, the people of Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico learned tough lessons from tropical cyclones. For example, Houston’s politicians and urban planners learned that the city’s lack of zoning restrictions and its unbridled growth over the past fifty years may have actually exacerbate the flooding. It was a wake-up call for smart growth and responsible design.

Engaging projects and historical anecdotes are great, but, they don’t always work. Unless the lessons themselves are relevant to the learner, they generally don’t stick. They have to be “real;” they have to matter – just like it mattered to my father to build a house that could survive a 100-year storm. So, what are some of the lessons that should matter to all residents of New Orleans and coastal Louisiana? The following twenty are a good start:

  1. Depending on the subsurface, much of our soggy, silty soil naturally sinks. The process is called subsidence.
  2. Traditionally, the soil and minerals of river deltas are replenished by seasonal flooding.
  3. The leveeing of rivers prevents this from happening.
  4. Nutrients (and toxins) carried by rivers can both help and hurt downriver communities and ecosystems.
  5. Barrier islands are our first line of hurricane protection; and, as my professor pointed out, they are constantly shifting.
  6. Coastal swamps and marshes can decrease the wind velocity and lessen the storm surge of approaching hurricanes. (It’s probably a good idea to protect them!).
  7. The roots of trees and grasses hold the soil in place (Again, it’s good to have them around!).
  8. Cutting canals through wetlands increases the rate of erosion.
  9. Coastal wetlands are an integral part of marine ecosystems.
  10. Invasive species like nutria, zebra mussels and pigs can have negative environmental and/or economic consequences.
  11. Development, from roads and canals to shopping malls and parking lots, can alter the hydrology of an area or region.
  12. Water that can’t go where it wants to go, e.g., there is a levee in the way, will go where it can go, e.g., somebody else’s property.
  13. Unlike lakes and rivers, bays and bayous are tidal. For example, Lake Pontchartrain is not actually a lake, but rather a shallow bay.
  14. Some species of plants and animals are better adapted to handle storms and floods.
  15. Fossil fuels are a limited resource – and, extracting and using them can have negative environmental consequences.
  16. Contrary to some skeptics, climate change is real, and it is caused, in part, by human activity.
  17. Climate change could have devastating consequences, especially for low-lying coastal communities like ours.
  18. From planting trees to conserving energy, human activity can also help the environment – and, potentially safeguard our future.
  19. The best lessons are often gleaned from experience.
  20. And, while that experience can be painful, it can also lead to improvements.

The recently reopened Louisiana Nature Center in New Orleans East, an area ravaged by Hurricane Katrina (photos by: Folwell Dunbar)

For example, in 1984, Mexico City was devastated by a massive earthquake. Between then and now, the government made a number of changes. It developed an early warning system, it put in place a disaster response protocol, and it imposed better building restrictions. As a result, the earthquake of 2017 wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. Lives were saved.

Hopefully, post-Katrina New Orleans is better prepared as well. We have certainly learned valuable, hard-earned lessons; and, we may have even reacquired some of the old-timers’ wisdom…

Folwell Dunbar is an educator and writer. He lives near the river in a house built by old-timers. He can be reached at fldunbar@icloud.com



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