Submerged tombs in Leeville, Louisiana give new meaning to the expression, “a watery grave.” Piles of barnacle-covered bricks are washing away in the lapping water. The rubble is all that remains of a family cemetery in the small coastal town.
“All over South Louisiana you have these little family plots that people had their family members build as many as 20 or 30 gravesites, some as many as 60, built on high land,” says Windell Curole, who manages the South Lafourche Levee District. Curole is also a descendent of those who once called Leeville home. His ancestors are buried in the Crosby family plot, which has been reduced to a patch of crumbling graves along Highway 1, enclosed by a rusty chain-link fence. There’s little protection against the environmental threats that inch closer every year.
“That graveyard was in the shade of oak trees and now you don’t see an oak in sight. All you see is marsh and open water,” says Curole. A decade ago, the family cemented over the graveyard, hoping to preserve what was left, but looking at the broken tombstones and grave markers you can see it offered little protection against the rising waters.
Over the past century, the town has subsided roughly three feet and lost another from rising sea levels. The primary cause is our intricate levee system that prevents flooding along the Mississippi River. Sediment that built up the delta over 5,000 years now dumps right into the Gulf of Mexico. As the coastline erodes from hurricanes and storms, there’s nothing to build it back up. Curole says, “Adding onto those problems is that we’ve cut channels, which allow the Gulf of Mexico to get closer to us. We’ve lost our marsh barriers. We’ve lost our natural chenieres, our oak ridge barriers. All of these things help keep some of the energy from storms away from away.”
As a result, the coastline is now 30-40 miles closer to the residents of Southeast Louisiana. Families are forced to move further inland with each generation. “And it’s like most deltas throughout the world. You always have great risk and great opportunity and in this place you have the extreme of both of them. You have tremendous truck traffic and barge traffic and tug traffic and yet the risks are taking even the graves away.”
In the case of Curole’s family plot and the other small graveyards dotting Leeville, that risk has taken its toll. He says, “You’re not only losing your past, but you’re losing your future, you’re losing everything.” Once a town of 60, only two families now call Leeville home. Eventually they too will move to higher ground, as they watch the memories of their ancestors sink before their very eyes.