A few hours after the sun goes down, if you’re sitting on the dock stretching out into Bayou Lafourche outside of Lisa Cefalu’s camp in Leeville, you’ll see a giant orange light of what looks like a refinery turning on for the night shift begin to glow.
But the light gradually ascends into the deep midnight blue sky. It’s the moon. On a horizon without any buildings, it doesn’t look like or make you feel like it does in the city.
“The fresh air, the peace, I get out in a boat and I start praying,” Cefalu said of Leeville. “It’s not the hustle and bustle. When you go down there, everybody’s in a good mood.”
But that peace has been drawing to an end gradually over the decades. Leeville sits outside the ring of levees that protect south Lafourche parish.
And the ground Leeville was built on is eroding.
Janet Rhodes, a real estate agent from Baton Rouge who has no experience in the science of coastal restoration, is the leader of a local advocacy group called Launch Leeville. She hopes to do what no politician or coastal policy maker has been able to do.
Leeville hasn’t ever been the subject of a restoration project, but Rhodes is looking to the grant process set forth in the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act to find funding to rebuild the marsh of Leeville’s delicate east flank.
“It’s changed a lot since I used to go. I’ve watched the land deteriorate. The landmarks you used to have (for fishing holes in the marsh) aren’t there anymore,” Cefalu said.
The CWPPRA legislation created a task force made up of several nationwide agencies and coastal parish governments to select four projects for federal funding annually. Any citizen can bring a project to the table.
Rhodes’ project was created by the National Marine Fisheries Service, which has a seat on the task force, but the project failed to make it through the selection process last year. Rhodes’ thinks it has a better shot this year because of her “passion and perseverance.”
“Leeville’s never had anyone do that for them before,” Rhodes said.
The plan is to pump sediment from Little Lake to the west of Leeville behind containment dikes in the marsh in the east. Marsh grasses then will be planted in an effort to create or nourish nearly 400 acres of marsh.
Currently, Rhodes’ project is in a pool of 21 others that are vying for funds to cover engineering and design costs. That group will be narrowed down to 10 in mid-April, four of which will be chosen in December. Once that step is complete, the projects then compete for construction funding.
The state’s overall plan for the coast does include efforts to rebuild the marsh outside of Leeville, but the first phase of the project isn’t set to be complete until 2031.
“Well, we got a problem because Leeville cannot wait 10 to 15 years,” said Rhodes, looking out the second story window of Griffin’s Marina at the elevated expressway portion of Highway 1 that residents complain will cut off most vehicle traffic in Leeville.
Windell Curole, the director of the levee district that protects communities to the north, said the road was essential for storm evacuation and to secure the flow of traffic from Port Fourchon, but the state’s construction of that road signaled a resignation of Leeville’s fate.
“If (Port Fourchon) is so valuable, why not protect it’s northern buffer? This isn’t rocket science; this is the obvious,” Rhodes said.
Rhodes said Leeville is too economically valuable not to save.
“Other communities don’t have the industry that Leeville has. If the port wasn’t here, or the seafood docks or the recreational fishing, I wouldn’t have a legitimate leg to stand on,” Rhodes said.
Curole also thinks Leeville is worth supporting.
“It’s there because it has a role. The government didn’t put those businesses there,” Curole said.
Griffin’s Marina is just a few buildings over from Cefalu’s camp, adjacent to a lot an oysterman uses to sell his catch, one of the town’s sinking cemeteries, a gas station and Leeville’s lauded seafood restaurant.
Rhodes said that during high tide and a strong wind water is pushed underneath the marina and onto Leeville’s main road, the old Highway 1.
“It shouldn’t happen. It’s an embarrassment that a coastal community has to deal with that,” Rhodes said.
Don Griffin, who owns the marina, said other than his shop, Grand Isle and Port Fourchon, the closest place shrimpers can stop for bulk ice is Dulac on the other side of Terrebonne Bay. Griffin often supplies ice to shops on the island or near the port.
He said his shop is essential during shrimp season for non-refrigerated shrimp boats looking to quickly get in from the Gulf and back out for more catch.
Curole said funding a project in Leeville would make his levees more effective and protect Port Fourchon and Grand Isle. Marsh slows down wave action that causes erosion.
If something isn’t done to protect Leeville, Curole said, the natural ridge it is built on will erode away, converging Terrebonne and Timbalier Bays and Barataria Bay into one “super bay,” as Curole called it.
That would mean wind could create more wave action, more erosion and more storm surge for communities farther north.
“Golden Meadow will be the start of the Gulf of Mexico,” Cefalu said.
Cefalu and her siblings inherited a camp from her father. Hurricane Andrew leveled the camp, but they rebuilt despite the narrowing stretch of land.
“Because it’s the best fishing to me in the world. You got the marsh, and right down the road is the Gulf of Mexico,” Cefalu said.
As Leeville becomes more threatened, an increasing number of residents are moving away, but Cefalu’s father wanted to make sure his family never left.
“My dad was having heart issues. He had his first heart attack on the way back from the camp. Five years went by, and when my dad was dying, he told us kids to sell everything he had, but to split that camp because that would bring more happiness than anything he owned,” Cefalu said.
Eight days after he gave that order, he passed away at the camp.
“With the insurance, my brother said we might not be able to afford it, and if a storm came we might not rebuild, but I said, ‘No way; Daddy wouldn’t have had that,’” Cefalu said. “Not just because it was Daddy’s camp, but because it’s Leeville.”