Louisiana Loses Its Boot

The boot-shaped state isn’t shaped like a boot anymore. That’s why we revised its iconic outline to reflect the truth about a sinking, disappearing place.

By Brett Anderson
Photographs by William Widmer
Illustrations by Matthew Woodson


[Footnotes appear in righthand “notes” alongside paragraphs.]


Early this year, I drove from Arnaudville, Louisiana, to Morgan City, hoping to walk where I’d heard there was land.

Arnaudville is in Cajun country, in the southern part of the state. Morgan City is roughly halfway between Lafayette and New Orleans, if you take the Highway 90 route. Directionally speaking, that’s all I knew.

I was aware Arnaudville is just outside Lafayette, but I couldn’t have told you in what direction, even though I’d been there several times before. Compulsive use of my smart phone’s map apps has eroded whatever navigational confidence — and, by extension, awareness — I ever possessed of areas outside New Orleans, where I’ve lived for over a dozen years. And this part of Cajun country can be disorienting. Boats traverse rice fields flooded in winter for crawfish production, and the slow-running bayous look innocuous until you get trapped on the wrong side of one. In Arnaudville, I met a tourist from Arkansas who, upon entering the tasting room at Bayou Teche Brewing, announced, “We tried to Google this place and ended up in a muddy swamp by the levee over there.”

I was gearing up to feel a variation on that pain myself as I made my way from Arnaudville to Morgan City. It was the first in a planned season of road trips during which I’d compare the facts on the ground in coastal Louisiana with the facts as presented by the official state maps produced by government agencies. Paper maps.

Remember those? They’re obnoxious to fold, and their search functions leave much to be desired, but it wasn’t that long ago that paper maps were universally accepted as the killer apps they are. Up until the mid aughts, when online mapping services like Google Maps and MapQuest started to find their way onto GPS-enabled mobile phones, paper maps were our go-to tools for navigating unfamiliar terrain on our own. These non-digital guides enjoyed a good run. A Babylonian tablet map of the Mesopotamian world at the British Museum dates to between 700 and 500 BC.

My plan to purchase one of these analog tools to chart my course quickly proved quixotic. I got directions to Myran’s Maison de Manger, a boiled crawfish house at the intersection of two bayous, and from there down Highway 31 to Breaux Bridge, where I planned to stop at Poche’s, a Cajun butcher and diner, to eat some pork backbone stew; neither sold maps. A Breaux Bridge Shell station sold everything from Krispy Krunchy Cajun Recipe Chicken to faux taxidermy albino tiger heads, but no maps. Neither did the Mobil I stopped at in New Iberia. By the time I got to the Patterson Truck Stop and Casino in Patterson (cell phone accessories and broccoli cheese bacon bites but, again, no maps) I had nearly arrived in Morgan City.

The GPS and digital mapping tools built into smart phones and car dashboards have reduced demand for proper paper highway maps to the point of near extinction. The United States Geological Survey, once one of the country’s main mapmakers, has essentially abandoned the map printing business. (Its website still allows people to print copies of digital maps on demand.) And while the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development historically created new state maps with fresh data roughly once a decade, its last map, now 14 years old, is in no threat of being updated. There are still copies left over from their last printing, according to John Snead, cartographic manager at the Louisiana Geographic Survey, which created the map.

Official Map, 2000 (Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development)

Digital maps have expanded our freedoms to roam, removing much of the fear and hassle inherent in exploring unfamiliar terrain by exponentially decreasing the chances we will become hopelessly lost. But smart phone screens are programmed to spit out the granular information we need to get from point A to B. We don’t look to them to give us the large-scale views of border, land, and water of accurate paper maps. And so it’s becoming harder and harder to communicate the most urgent crisis facing Louisiana.

According to the U.S.G.S., the state lost just under 1,900 square miles of land between 1932 and 2000. This is the rough equivalent of the entire state of Delaware dropping into the Gulf of Mexico, and the disappearing act has no closing date. If nothing is done to stop the hemorrhaging, the state predicts as much as another 1,750 square miles of land — an area larger than Rhode Island — will convert to water by 2064. An area approximately the size of a football field continues to slip away every hour. “We’re sinking faster than any coast on the planet,” explains Bob Marshall, a Pulitzer-winning journalist in New Orleans. Marshall authored the series “Losing Ground,” a recent collaboration between The Lens, a non-profit newsroom, and ProPublica, about the Louisiana coast’s epic demise.

While the kind of state map that might have been useful for navigation or perspective was elusive on the road to Morgan City, the image such maps project — the iconic “boot” shape everyone recognizes as Louisiana — was impossible to escape. The map’s outline was ubiquitous on my drive: on bumper stickers (with the boot standing in for the “L” in “Love”), engulfing T-shirt fronts (my favorite emblazoned with “I drove the Chevy to the levee but the levee was gone”), and glowing on Louisiana-shaped neon beer signs in barroom windows.

But the boot is at best an inaccurate approximation of Louisiana’s true shape and, at worst, an irresponsible lie. It has to be.

My preoccupation with Louisiana’s boot dates to the morning in September 2005 when I followed smoke to a ruinous house fire just off Magazine Street in New Orleans’s Uptown neighborhood. I ran into my friend and colleague Jeff Duncan at the scene. We both commented on the irony of fire making news in a city still filled with water from the levee breaches triggered by Hurricane Katrina, which had made landfall a week prior.

Jeff and I are both non-natives who moved here around 2000 to work at The Times-Picayune, the New Orleans newspaper. Jeff had already been in the city for several days; most of the reporters who’d stayed through the storm, and witnessed the early horrors of Katrina, had taken a much deserved break that day or were filing other stories, essentially leaving us as an ad-hoc bureau of two.

We went from the fire to a press conference being held by then mayor Ray Nagin. Jeff took that story. I wrote something about local cops committing suicide. A few days later Jeff and I worked together again, interviewing victims as they emerged from the floodwaters onto the elevated highway that runs through downtown New Orleans. Jeff still ribs me for tripping over the same discarded corpse twice.

We knew as much about crisis reporting then as we did about maps when Jeff started asking questions about Louisiana’s suspiciously unchanged boot over dinner a few years later. Jeff is a sports columnist. I’m a restaurant critic. But Katrina and its aftermath enveloped our lives, personally and professionally, and that continued to be the case even after we returned to our regular beats. Jeff and I, like many of our colleagues, became defacto authorities on the disaster that dominated local news until 2010, when the BP oil spill kicked Katrina to the back seat. People who lived through Katrina wanted to compare notes. People who didn’t wanted to know what happened. People who didn’t ask what happened got an earful anyway.

This is what everyone heard: The disaster was manmade. A hurricane is the hand of a higher power, but the flood control structures that failed and caused so much death and destruction did so because human beings screwed up. Levees are expected to hold, just as bridges, skyscrapers, and subway tunnels are expected not to collapse. It took Katrina — and the destruction caused by her less publicized but also ruinous sister, Hurricane Rita—for flood protection to enter mainstream cocktail and dinner conversation, shedding harsher light on the incontrovertible fact that the system built by the United States Army Corps of Engineers was an accessory to its own malfunction.

The shape of Louisiana — to say nothing of the course of U.S. history — would be much different if not for the human efforts to hold the Mississippi River in place. The deltas comprising Southeast Louisiana sit at the bottom of the Lower Mississippi River Valley. The alluvial land mass had been forever subject to the shifting course of the Mississippi, whose sediment deposits created the land where Native Americans and, later, European settlers built communities in the fertile, strategically crucial areas near its mouth. “Southern Louisiana exists in its present form because the Mississippi River has jumped here and there within an arc about two hundred miles wide, like a pianist playing with one hand,” is how John McPhee put it in a 1987 New Yorker article. Had the river not ranged so widely, southern Louisiana would, McPhee wrote, “be a long narrow peninsula reaching into the Gulf of Mexico.”

The corps allowed civilization to flourish along the banks of the world’s fourth-longest river and the country’s major commercial artery. But the levees and dikes erected to protect people and property from the Upper Midwest through the Deep South to the Gulf of Mexico have had the effect of starving Louisiana’s coast, depriving it of the replenishing soils the river once deposited in the form of sediment during floods. The land is sinking, as the weight of a massive layer of mud compresses against the deep bedrock without any new sediment layers to maintain elevation and nourish the flora and fauna.

Louisiana’s wetlands act as a buffer protecting the southern part of the state against hurricanes and tropical storms. This is a vitally important feature not just to Louisianans, a third of whom reside in the state’s coastal parishes. The state is one of the U.S.’s top producers of energy and seafood, and its ports facilitate 20 percent of the country’s waterborne commerce. These natural resources are dependent on Louisiana’s fertile wetlands and the billions of dollars in infrastructure necessary to access it — the great majority of which is clinging to the state’s eroding coastline. D. Phil Turnipseed, the director of the U.S.G.S. National Wetlands Research Center, calls Louisiana’s shrinkage “the worst environmental and socioeconomic disaster in North America.” He adds: “I would dare say it’s the worst thing in the hemisphere if not for what they’re doing in the Amazon jungle.”

In the aftermath of Katrina and Rita, the legislature created the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (C.P.R.A.) to oversee Louisiana’s Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast. The plan’s $50 billion budget is projected over 50 years, and nearly every politician, governmental agency, academic, and business invested in Louisiana’s coast turns to land loss maps to provide a concise rationalization for such an expenditure. This one, created by Snead’s team at the Louisiana Geological Survey, was completed in 2007, around the time Jeff started going off about the map one night over dinner.

Orange areas represent land lost, 1937–2000 (Louisiana Geological Survey)

In the face of so much shocking and widely available imagery, why does the boot look the same as it did in the 1930s? That was why Jeff and I started devising an expose—this expose—about the boot. In our imagining, the idea spread beyond the confines of journalism, sparking a movement united around the cause of revising the boot in the spirit of advocacy and accuracy. Supporters would mobilize armed with t-shirts, stickers, and posters, all printed with the image of an alternative boot. More wine brought talk of a website and a conference launched under some incendiary title. (The Map is a Lie! Change the Map Now!) Politicians across the ideological spectrum would find common ground on the issue, because one thing environmentalists and global warming deniers can agree on is the basic fact that Louisiana is shrinking. The rest of the country would take notice, forging national agreement on the Master Plan and its funding as the most effective means for averting economic catastrophe. And then Jeff and I wouldn’t have to worry about tripping over more corpses, or being forced to move someplace with inferior cuisine.

South Louisiana has always vexed cartographers. Lawrence N. Powell’s book The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans is front-loaded with tales of early explorers being led astray by maps that were imprecise at best. In the 16th century, Spanish explorers relied on charts that showed the Mississippi “emptying into the Bay of Espíritu Santo, in present-day Texas.” When Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, the Canadian who helped colonize Louisiana for France, arrived in the late 1600s, in search of the river’s mouth, he “carried with him a fraudulent map prepared by a disgraced Récollet missionary. It depicted a mythical east fork of the Mississippi.”

“Louisiana has perhaps the most complex coastline of any state in the union. It’s not just a coastline but a coastal zone that has many inland lakes that are part of coastal change,” said Snead. “Any map you make of the Louisiana coast is obsolete the day you make it. It’s an exercise in futility.”

Snead was the first person I called in my pursuit of the truth about the boot. He neither agreed nor disagreed with my theory that it’s a disingenuous artifact. Cartography, as Snead explains it, requires navigating tensions between precision and compromise. The 2000 map, he explained, is “‘official’ because there is an act of the legislature that says the Department of Transportation will produce an official map of Louisiana. And you should be aware that the legislature is full of politicians.” Elected officials, according to Snead, are not so concerned with the map depicting an accurate coast as they are with the visibility of the public works projects, like highways and canals, that signify their accomplishments. Complicating matters is the sheer expense of collecting the fresh data necessary to render a land-water interface perpetually on the move. As a consequence, the Louisiana map holds “a very generalized coastline,” according to Snead, that “is hard to draw even under ideal conditions. You have to have a very large scale to render it.”

Harold Fisk’s maps of the lower Mississippi River valley (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Viewed from a distance, the shape of Louisiana on Snead’s 2000 map isn’t noticeably different from the boot. But its larger scale allows for the wetlands along the coast, particularly in the southeastern part of the state, to convey some of the porousness that is so obvious when you actually see them in real life. On the boot, those same feeble swamps and marsh appear as invulnerable as Iowa farmland.

The 2000 map was the first Louisiana map ever created entirely digitally using Geographic Information System (GIS) software, which enables the storage, management, and manipulation of massive quantities of geographic and scientific data. GIS technology is behind the spread of the web-based mapping tools that have disrupted the paper cartography trade in a manner similar to how the internet disrupted every other business tied to the printing press.

James Mitchell, the GIS manager at the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, is a former professor in environmental studies at Louisiana State University with the confident air of a person in possession of truths you may not be able to handle. His embrace of GIS technology is tempered by a frustration over what he sees as the public’s tendency to see digital maps as windows to the material world. “No one questions these things,” Mitchell told me when I met him at D.O.T.D.’s state headquarters in Baton Rouge. “A map is a model. It’s an abstraction of reality. So by making a model of reality, we can’t depict anything exactly.”

He pulled up a PowerPoint to help illustrate what he calls “Mitchell’s first rule of GIS: Everything you know is wrong,” which basically boils down to the idea that GIS technology is only as good as the data you feed into it. His experience updating maps with digital tools has exposed how inconsistent existing maps already were. “The topographic layer might have been done in 1956, and the land cover layer was done in 1962, and the transportation came from 1945,” Mitchell said of his findings. “And those are some of the good ones.”

Mitchell said the aerial photography and satellite laser data that lend GIS maps their lifelike immediacy pose problems of their own, particularly in Southeast Louisiana. He pulled up an aerial image of Pass Manchac, the channel between lakes Pontchartrain and Maurepas. On both the image and the Louisiana state map, the area appears to be forest. Anyone who has visited the flood-prone town of Manchac, about a 45-minute drive northwest of New Orleans, knows it is surrounded by wetlands. “People see the vegetation and the trees and think it’s land,” Mitchell said.

Setting aside the disorienting business of mapping swamps, Kurt Johnson, a former U.S.G.S. hydrologist and Mitchell’s colleague, pointed out that Southeast Louisiana’s dizzying interface of coastal tides, river currents, and sinking land can make what appear to be distributaries flow like tributaries, and vice versa. The hydrology is so atypical that he and Mitchell believe USGS should establish new protocols for collecting the dataset it uses to portray surface water on maps.

In March, I boarded a seaplane that took off from a canal in Belle Chasse, a suburb across the river from New Orleans, for a bird’s-eye tour of Louisiana’s imperiled coastline. The vulnerability is unmistakable from the air.

Our flight path took us south and then west, away from Lake Pontchartrain and across the Mississippi River, which winds east through the city before angling sharply downward en route to the mouth. New Orleans is nestled between the river and the lake. On a map it appears as if the city sits comfortably inland from the ocean. In reality, Lake Borgne, which land loss has allowed the gulf to annex, is knocking at New Orleans’s door from the east. Much of the “land” separating the city from the ocean to the south isn’t really land. It’s deltaic swamp and marsh that satellite images — a crucial source of mapping data — cause to appear indistinguishable from inland soil when reduced to the low-resolution shorthand that is Louisiana’s boot. But wetlands are not terra firma. Communities like Delacroix, an island in the wetland wilds below New Orleans, looks from the air to reside on the tips of reeds. It persists mainly due to the obstinance of its inhabitants.

By the time we reached Grand Isle and nearby Port Fourchon, south of Galliano, both just west of the bird’s-foot delta, our flight had provided us a sizable visual sample of arguably the world’s least stable coastline. At one point, as our pilot was preparing to announce our arrival at tiny Caillou Island, only to discover it under water, he said, “There’s supposed to be land here. There was a couple weeks ago.”

Comparable examples of incidental tragicomedy occur whenever I commune with Louisiana’s coastal estuary. I’ve never set foot on a boat in Louisiana without hearing my captain offer a running commentary on the landmarks — cypress trees, barrier islands, fishing camps — that have recently disappeared, casualties of the encroaching gulf.

“How do you represent a place where there is no edge?” asked Jeff Carney, director of L.S.U.’s Coastal Sustainability Studio. A wall of his studio on the university’s Baton Rouge campus contained various map-like representations of what he calls South Louisiana’s indeterminate landscape. As Carney put it, “We don’t have a shoreline. We’re not Florida. It’s not like you’re on solid ground and then you step into water.” That “unclear edge,” Carney said, “creates problems with land ownership, insurance, all of these things. We don’t deal with ambiguity very well.”

Carney, in partnership with the state, is trying to capture this fluidity with data visualization tools that communicate the progress of the Master Plan’s sundry land building projects. Because many of these projects will employ Mississippi River diversions to create land over time with sediment-filled water — in essence flooding land and wetlands you’re endeavoring to protect — detractors fear the Plan could cause more harm than good. Members of Louisiana’s seafood industry are particularly vocal opponents, because the fresh water from diversions kills oyster beds and chases other prey offshore.

Carney, a professor with degrees in architecture and regional and city planning, nimbly mingles left- and right-brain concepts. He said one of the goals for his maps will be to help “develop a language that doesn’t undermine confidence but actually allows people to better understand the environment we live in.” Thinking out loud, he began drawing a series of curving lines on a piece of scratch paper. Carney’s sketches brought to mind the famous maps Harold Fisk created in the 1940s that visualized the various paths taken by the Mississippi River before it was artificially fixed in place (that’s them running alongside this section). The maps look as much like posters in an art museum’s gift shop as pages from an atlas. They also effectively communicate the scale of a never-ending engineering conundrum whose complexities continue to fill shelves of doorstop-size books.

Carney was imagining how wetlands could be depicted “as neither land nor water” on future maps, encouraging people to recognize them for what they are. “Louisiana has an inferiority complex about its wetlands. We don’t understand them, so we dump everything into them. We tear them apart,” Carney explained. “But what if we had a way of drawing future maps that said, basically, all that fluffy green stuff is actually protecting everybody and building our economy?”

The political drama in Louisiana over the past year has revolved around the disappearing coast, the oil and gas industry’s role in contributing to it, and a lawsuit that seeks billions of dollars from the energy companies for the damage they’ve caused the environment.

Louisiana is both the country’s second-biggest crude oil producer and refiner and the largest entry point for crude oil coming into the U.S. (It is also near the top in the nation in total and per capita energy consumption, a reminder that producing energy requires a lot of fuel.) Oil and gas removal exacerbates subsidence of land, and the canals the companies have dug through the marsh disrupt the delicate balance of salt and freshwater in wetlands, killing plant and wildlife and causing erosion on the interior swamp and marsh already threatened on the outside by global sea level rise.

“It’s crystal clear, according to every single scientific study, including studies done by the [oil and gas] industry itself, that industry activities are responsible for a substantial part of the land loss,” said John M. Barry, the best-selling author of Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America and former vice president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East (SLFPA-E), the government body charged with overseeing the flood protection system covering most of metro New Orleans.

John M. Barry in New Orleans

Last year, the authority filed a historic lawsuit against more than 90 oil, gas, and pipeline companies, demanding that “the catastrophic effects of the oil and gas industry’s canal dredging be abated and reversed and the damage to the coastal landscape be undone” and seeking what could be billions of dollars in damages. Barry told me, “State law requires them to restore areas. So do the Corps of Engineers’ permits. And they simply haven’t done it.”

But Louisiana’s reputation for political chicanery is inseparable from its entanglement with Big Oil. If the state’s modern elected officials are less flamboyantly corrupt than the despotic Huey Long, who built a national power base in the early 20th century opposing Standard Oil, their positions on laws affecting the energy industry are still often gaudily compromised.

Instead of leaving it for the courts to decide the suit, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal and other oil industry-friendly lawmakers have done everything they can to kill it (and, by extension, emasculate the SLFPA-E). Jindal has accused the board of overstepping its authority, dismissed the suit as “nothing but a windfall for a handful of trial lawyers,” and effectively removed Barry from his SLFPA-E position for supporting the suit. State lawmakers passed a bill that retroactively nullified the authority’s right to sue. Now that Jindal has signed it into law, the suit could end up in federal court instead.

Both sides of the suit claim the state’s ability to fund the $50-billion Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast is at stake. While that plan was unanimously approved by the legislature in 2012, its funding is not certain, and many of its projects remain controversial, particularly sediment diversions. Coastal landowners aren’t amused by the idea of seeing their properties flooded by the government.

(Regardless of what happens to the suit, the fight over energy company liabilities is far from over. Last week, United States District Court Judge Carl J. Barbier found BP grossly negligent in the oil spill disaster. As a result, the company could pay up to $18 billion in penalties atop the $3.5 billion in settlement money it has already paid.)

The mark the oil and gas industry has left on the wetlands was clearly visible out the window of my low-flying seaplane that day in March; the view en route from New Orleans to south Lafourche was of a vast, green-brown maze, the result of the over 9,000 miles of navigation and pipeline canals energy companies dredged in the state’s coastal marsh starting around the turn of the last century. There are also more than 54,000 oil wells in Southern Louisiana’s wetlands and in its coastal waters, and the well-heads and supply boats appeared in increasing density as we approached Grand Isle and Port Fourchon, as did shrimp boats, whose long horizontal trawl nets give them the cast of graceful water spiders.

That’s the other complicating factor here: Around Fourchon, where commercial fishers routinely supplement their incomes working for the oil companies, there is no perceived disconnect between environmental advocacy and support for Big Oil. The fishers I got to know during the 2010 BP drama, all of whom were adversely affected by the disaster, uniformly dismissed the deepwater drilling moratorium on the Outer Continental Shelf following the spill as little more than hypocritical liberal posturing that ultimately hurt working Americans. In the summer of 2010, Nick Collins, a third-generation oysterman, asked me sarcastically over oyster spaghetti in his father’s Golden Meadow kitchen, “Do those people in California ride horses to work?”

In fact, in Southeast Louisiana, the theory you often hear is that the best way to keep sinking land from disappearing is to make it economically indispensable.

While politicians, lawyers, scientists and engineers fight over the future of the state, people like Jonathan Foret are trying to give shape to the emotional toll exacted by Louisiana’s massive wound. Foret spends his days educating young people about our disappearing coast as executive director of the South Louisiana Wetlands Discovery Center.

“I was telling the kids, ‘Let’s go plant marsh grass because this is going to help.’ And then the kids go back three years later and all of that is washed away,” Foret told me. “They say, ‘Mr. Jonathan, that was supposed to help!”

I met Foret one morning in May at his house in Houma, an industrial town in Terrebonne Parish, near the frayed toes in the southeast of Louisiana’s boot. The combined unemployment rates in Houma and Thibodeaux, 50 miles to the north, are consistently below national averages, thanks in no small part to jobs in the energy and water transport industries. But while the two-story house Foret purchased on a corner lot near where Bayou Terrebonne intersects with the Gulf Intercoastal Waterway, framed by the sprawling branches of a mature oak tree, could swallow his former New York City apartment many times over, Houma does not exude the optimism of a boomtown.

Price Billiot, 67, aboard a shrimping trawler in Pointe-aux-Chenes; siblings Dakirah, Deyonte, and Dasayah Simmons in Isle de Jean Charles. The neighboring communities, both located on vulnerable, eroding coastal land southeast of Houma, are home to many Native Americans. The United States Army Corps of Engineers determined it wasn’t cost effective to build flood protection around Jean Charles, which is, of course, sinking.

When you come across construction in south Terrebonne, it is invariably related to the sinking coast, and what modern architecture there is appears frozen in the 1970s or ’80s. An exhibit of work by the artist Brooks Frederick, a Houma native living in New York, was on display in a gallery behind Anelas Wellness & Yoga Lounge on Main Street. One picture was a portrait of Tony Hayward, the locally despised former CEO of BP, painted in “ink” made from the tar balls that have been washing ashore ever since the 2010 oil spill. A watercolor depicted a man on the verge of ejaculating into Louisiana’s boot, presumably against the boot’s wishes. The painting is entitled No Means No.

Brooks Frederick, “No Means No” (courtesy of the artist)

Both Frederick’s art and Foret’s teaching are powerful examples of citizens behaving as if Louisiana’s point of no return has already arrived. Their work suggests the only way to reverse course is to bring others to their desperate point of view, through shocking visual representation and more.

In a class Foret teaches to local high school students, he asks kids to study coastal restoration projects to identify which ones are the most cost-effective. “Then we throw in, ‘Here’s a senator who needs to be re-elected, and here’s an engineering firm that gives a lot to his campaign,” Foret explained. “Now let’s vote on which project will get through.”

Foret also introduced me to Sandra Maina, until recently an environmental science graduate student at Florida International University who has been spearheading the development of Vanishing Points, a tool that locates local landmarks threatened by coastal land loss with pins on a digital map, along with information — collected by Maina, although in the future Terrebonne students will ideally do that work — about what makes them unique. When it’s complete, Maina plans for it to include data from surveys for each location that assess citizens’ “risk perception of the land loss, and how it’s impacting their decisions to adapt.”

“It’s a way to celebrate what we have while we have it,” Foret said of Vanishing Points. “My hope is that it will help kids be better at facing inevitable loss.”

In 1854, a doctor named John Snow set out to test a theory as to what was causing a cholera outbreak in London. After plotting the addresses of plague victims on a map, Snow discovered the greatest number of them lived near the Broad Street water pump in the Soho neighborhood where he lived. As Peter Turchi explains in his book Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer, Snow’s findings contradicted beliefs held by London officials concerning the plague: “Some people believed cholera spread through polluted water, but others believed it was airborne, and still others felt it rose from the ground in cemeteries, from the bodies of plague victims.”

After confirming the presence of an unknown bacterium in water samples taken from the Soho pump, Snow plotted his evidence on a map. “Map in hand,” Turchi writes, Snow “approached the local authorities and persuaded them to remove the pump handle, thus bringing an end to the epidemic — and, even more importantly, helping to solve the mystery of the origin of the disease.”

An elevated house for sale on Isle de Jean Charles; houses in the wetlands outside Pointe-aux-Chenes. Life on the island’s untamed fringe, among the shoulder-high marsh grass, dying, moss-draped oaks and rising water, served as both inspiration and backdrop for “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” the Oscar-nominated allegory of environmental apocalypse that was filmed here.

The “map cures plague” story is commonly cited by cartographers as an example of how their craft is about more than drawing lines on paper. So it wasn’t shocking to see Snow cited on the series of display panels chronicling the history of GIS inside a building at the serenely modern headquarters of Esri, a leading GIS software company based in Redlands, California. “Mapping the Nation,” a company report of sorts, is a glossy, spine-bound book worthy of a coffee table detailing complex GIS mapping efforts contracted by an alphabet soup of government agencies, from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to the National Cancer Institute.

Drew Stephens came on board at Esri during the BP oil spill. Now Esri’s Ocean and Coastal Environments Industry Manager, he found himself in Houma in the spring and summer of 2010, working inside one of the Incident Command Centers erected to coordinate response to the incident. He hired ten cartographers to build a database for generating maps of a disaster area then too large for a plane to survey in a single day.

“There was operational data that was coming in twice a day,” Stephens recalled, referring to the spill. Emergency responders “needed maps of where the blob was. Where are my National Guard people putting up dikes and dams? Where are the fish and wildlife? The demand for up-to-date maps was so great, we started a queue.”

Albert Naquin, Chief of the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimatcha-Choctaw Indians, sits with Wayne Billiott, one of the oldest remaining residents of Isle de Jean Charles. Naquin, whose speech is still sprinkled with the Cajun French heard on the island, grew up on Isle de Jean Charles but now lives in nearby Montegut. Troy Naquin, smoking, has lived on the island his entire life. When I visited Albert in early June, he complained about commentators who wonder why any one would remain on drowning land in a town that doesn’t warrant a mark on the state’s official map. “Why do you live here?” Naquin hissed. “We were forced to. We’re frickin’ Indians.”

Stephens said the preponderance of inaccurate maps and lack of vetted centralized data only added to the chaos. “I saw people trying to process, ‘Why is this map showing me something that isn’t there anymore?’” he recalled. “One guy came in, already angry, and said, ‘I need place names for every one of these islands.’ I said, ‘That’d be neat. Do you have the data?’ We started searching around for those hundreds of thousands of place names, and we couldn’t find all of them.”

Stephens’s oil spill encounters are charged examples of how faulty maps lead to complications more severe than driving into a swamp where you expect to find a road.

As a reminder, the iconic boot that appears on signs, labels, billboards, and documents across the state, the boot that can be found sitting on every available U.S. map, the boot that pops up when you Google “Map of Louisiana,” the boot that each of us first learned to identify in elementary school, looks like this:

As I’ve pointed out again and again in this story, there is no shortage of digital (and digitally enabled) maps providing ample cartographic evidence as to the boot’s inaccuracies. Just this past spring, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released updated nautical charts that removed 31 official place names in a single county, Plaquemines Parish, just south of New Orleans. Meredith Westington, chief geographer with N.O.A.A.’s Office of Coast Survey, said the new navigation charts were produced after processing shoreline data collected in 2007. She expects the areas hadn’t been surveyed in decades — and for more place names to drop off more charts after N.O.A.A. finishes processing all of the 2007 data. That update, to my mind, provides a precedent for a larger rewriting of the map.

Significant barriers — bureaucratic, political, and economic — make any “official” alterations of the boot appear as difficult as actually restoring the land. The Department of Transportation and Development and the U.S.G.S. would have to agree on a shape and then implement a costly replacement plan for images currently in circulation. I called both D. Phil Turnipseed of the National Wetlands Research Center, and Jerome Zeringue, the chair of the C.P.R.A. board and Jindal’s executive assistant for coastal activities, who acknowledged that the state’s current map is deceptive. Of the existing map, Zeringue told me, “People get a false sense of security, they see these topographic maps, they see these solid platforms of marsh that aren’t there… it’s a false reality.” But both officials declined to publicly advocate for a change, which may be legally impossible. Eighty percent of Louisiana’s coast is privately owned.

When presented with my theories about the boot, Charlie Frye, chief cartographer and manager of the Cartographic Projects Group at Esri, pointed out that in “1981, the U.S. Supreme Court decreed that the state boundary of Louisiana was no longer an ambulatory line that could move in response to changes in the coastline, and was henceforth immobilized as a set of fixed coordinates.”

Believing a truer image of the state could be powerful enough to overcome those obstacles, Matter pushed forward with creating our own alternative boot. Here’s where we started:

Louisiana including non-walkable/non-inhabitable land:

Source: U.S. Geological Survey’s National Land Cover Data (2011)

Andrea Galinski, a coastal resources scientist with the C.P.R.A., provided us with a map that answered this question: What would the map look like if wetlands appeared as water and only solid, “walkable” ground appeared as land? Using publicly available data, Galinski created a map on which areas that commonly appear as land on government issued maps—woody wetlands, emergent herbaceous wetlands and barren land—were re-categorized to appear as water:

Louisiana’s walkable/inhabitable land:

Source: U.S. Geological Survey’s National Land Cover Data (2011)

From that map, we created a boot whose southern borders are drawn where terra firma meets “water”:

On our map, the real map, the boot appears as if it came out on the wrong side of a battle with a lawnmower’s blades. It loses a painful chunk off its heel in Cameron and Vermilion parishes. A gash cutting off the bird’s-foot delta, where the Mississippi empties into the Gulf of Mexico, from the center of the state is reason to consider amputation. Barataria Bay has joined forces with Bay Dosgris to take over Lake Salvador. Golden Meadow, Galliano, Montegut: They’re barely there, clinging to strands of earth as flimsy as dental floss. Lakes Maurepas, Pontchartrain, and Borgne form a contiguous mass flowing into the gulf.

Some people might criticize us for taking out the wetlands entirely, and there are places that do exist in real life—like Isle de Jean Charles—that aren’t on our boot (although they are visible, if barely, on the map we used to create the boot). Maps are approximate, as this story has made clear, even the big ones with lots of detail; symbols like the boot are even more so. Where ours errs, at least it errs on the side of the truth.

So, stop and compare the existing boot with ours. The two images are so significantly different that anyone who encountered the new map would have to squint and ask, What is going on here? Answer: a lot.

Nowadays, the job of communicating our states’ geographic boundaries has fallen almost entirely to the ubiquitous symbols that signal our presence in each of them. Many of those symbols — think Texas, Florida, California — are so effectively iconographic they require no label. Louisiana’s boot is among those, and the power of an altered version would rest on its capacity to communicate the irrefutable truth of its deformity.

A more honest representation of the boot would not erase the intractable disagreements — around global sea level rise, energy jobs versus coastal restoration jobs, oil and gas companies versus the fishing industry — that paralyze state politics, but it would give shape to the awesome stakes, both economic and existential, that hang in the balance. A new map would prove that Louisiana is ready to grapple with the extraordinary task ahead of it. A new map would prove that denial, like the boot, is a remnant of our past.

When I shared my desire to see the map of Louisiana changed with John Barry, the author and instigator of the lawsuit against the oil companies, he was quick to say, “It will never happen.”

He recalled a meeting he attended when he was still on the levee board. It was considering a proposal to install markers around New Orleans showing how high the floodwaters rose during Katrina. Some of the markers would go on levees.

“They came to us because you can’t do anything on the levee without our permission,” recalled Barry, who said the board was supportive of the plan. “There was a guy there from the Business Council [of New Orleans]. He said, ‘This is a bad idea whose time should never come.’ He was worried you were going to scare people.”

Our alternative version of the Louisiana boot is scary, in keeping with the truth Harold Schoeffler has been trying to voice for decades.

Harold Schoeffler, Vermilion Parish, Louisiana

A Lafayette environmentalist, alternative energy entrepreneur, and Cadillac salesman in his mid-70s, Schoeffler doesn’t need to look at our map to know what’s lost. He claims to have “frogged, fished, and hunted just about every inch of marsh that’s out there. And of course, a lot of it isn’t there now.”

We were driving in Schoeffler’s SUV in January with a group from the Delta Chapter of the Sierra Club. Every month they gather to tour a different section of the disappearing coast. “We want to see it before it’s gone,” Schoeffler said.

In our day together, these men expressed more calm resignation than anger over the coast’s degradation, perhaps because Schoeffler’s indignation is ferocious enough to speak for them all. Schoeffler is famous in the Atchafalaya Basin for his pugnacious and sometimes brilliant environmental advocacy, and he doesn’t always fall behind the government’s prescribed remedies. He is not terribly enthusiastic, for instance, about the prospects for restoring mass swaths of land with sediment diversions: “It’s like handing someone a pile of sawdust and telling them to build an oak tree.”

At each stop the men exited the van as if they were entering an ancient cathedral: slowly, silently, their eyes alert to sites they may never see again. At Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge, south of Lake Charles, they snapped pictures of geese, ducks, nutrient-starved marsh grass—and of Schoeffler himself, as he surveyed the vanishing wetland through a pair of German World War II field glasses.

Two hours later Schoeffler parked at St. Eugene Catholic Church, in Grand Chenier, to let his comrades snap pictures of a stand of dying oak trees. Before turning back to Lafayette, we drove through the smoke of a wildfire down a bumpy, waterfront road lined with raised mobile homes. Schoeffler pointed to pieces of wood jutting out of the open water far in the distance. “It looks like an old pier, but it’s a cattle pen,” he said. “It was pasture 25 years ago. There were cows there.”

Island Road, in Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, connects the island to the rest of Terrebonne Parish. It is sometimes nearly submerged at high tide.

We arrived back in Lafayette eight hours after we left. I’d filled a notebook in a vain attempt to record every instance when Schoeffler pointed to a lake that used to be marsh, or marsh on its way to becoming extinct. Viewing the wetlands through Schoeffler’s eyes, I saw the same terminal patient that he did.

It all looked different when I returned in May on a self-guided tour of Louisiana’s coast. I drove the southernmost east-west roads along the coast of Louisiana, from New Orleans to Galveston, Texas, and passed back through Cameron Parish on the way. Without Schoeffler delivering his oral history of land loss in my ear, the lakes looked like lakes. The swamps looked like swamps.

I pulled off Highway 82, which runs parallel to the open gulf, and onto a sandy beach. Parents watched over children playing in the surf. Pelicans disappeared into the waves, reemerging with fish in their bills.

Turning away from the ocean, all I saw was the stark, beautiful expanse of marsh grass punctuated in the distance by cypress and oaks. I opened Louisiana’s official map to pinpoint my location. The map confirmed what I saw from the beach: a solid, healthy expanse of land ending abruptly at the open sea.

On our true map, I saw something the human eye can’t perceive: I was standing on a barely visible stripe of earth far offshore, land that anyone who cares knows is in imminent danger of fading into oblivion. On our map, the beach where we stood and the road we traveled to get to it are barely holding on. The map sounds an alarm too few people have heard. That is its point.


Louisiana’s not the only state being forced to confront the reality of global sea level rise and the problems associated with building on naturally shifting and sinking land. Here’s what Brett Anderson discovered during a road trip along the Sandy-ravaged New Jersey coast.

This story was written by Brett Anderson. It was edited by Mark Lotto, fact-checked by Ben Kalin, and copy-edited by Lawrence Levi. Photographs by William Widmer. Illustrations by Matthew Woodson.