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Hope and Sustainability for Our Coastal Communities

Rebecca Templeton shares her personal story that lead her to founding Bayou Grace Community Services.

Rebecca TempletonRebecca Templeton is being honored as a Champion of Change for her efforts as a Community Resilience Leader.

I grew up in a bayou community in south Louisiana where so much of daily life centers around one of our nation’s most productive estuaries. I remember taking shelter as a child in my grandparent’s home as a hurricane approached our community. My maw maw (grandmother) sat me down and explained why I was safe and told me about the lines of protection we had from the approaching hurricane.

She told me that before the hurricane reached our home, it first had to travel over the barrier islands, which would slow down the hurricane. She then told me that the marsh was like a sponge that soaked up water and energy from the hurricane. Only after the hurricane passed over these parts of our environment would it reach us as a weaker version of what it was.

While I may not have understood concepts that mean so much to our lives today like climate change, sea level rise, and storm surge, I knew, even from an early age, that a healthy environment helped to protect me and my family.

Fast forward to today, when climate change, sea level rise, and subsidence causes Louisiana to lose 16 square miles of wetlands, our natural flood protection, every year. This is roughly a football field every 38 minutes, much of it in my beloved Terrebonne Parish. According to NOAA scientists, this is not just the highest rate of land loss in the United States but possibly the globe. All of this is further complicated by living in an area facing enormous social vulnerability due to high poverty, where families have limited means to rebuild after a disaster.

We continue to experience stronger and more frequent extreme weather in southern Louisiana, as evidenced by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ike and Isaac. Our community has not only had to find ways to rebuild lives, businesses, and homes, but also to adapt to a more dangerous and vulnerable future. More homes in my community have flooded from what were once considered weak hurricanes and tropical storms.

When I was a young girl, I remember the vastness of the marsh land behind our family home. Now there are just clumps of marsh surrounded by water. It is evident that the habitat is changing. Where we once caught bass, a freshwater fish, my son now catches red fish, a saltwater fish. The environment has changed. There is less of it around me, and the impact of this is huge. These are big challenges, each too large to tackle alone. They require collective action as a community. 

As our wetlands vanish, so do our culture, communities, livelihoods, and the natural hurricane storm protection provided by our coast. It is vital to acknowledge that the impacts of coastal land loss are occurring not because we live in or moved to an inherently flawed environmental system, but because our environment has been altered and manipulated. We are suffering the consequences of global issues like climate change and national issues like Mississippi River flood protection and dredging of canals for energy and commerce.

We founded Bayou Grace Community Services to engage both our local and national community to advocate for solutions. We want our communities to move from vulnerability and possible extinction to survival, resilience and sustainability. Louisiana coastal land loss affects not only our local communities and our state. It is an environmental issue that impacts the entire nation.

I joined Bayou Grace in 2009 and now serve as its Executive Director. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Bayou Grace was formed with the mission to restore the Barataria-Terrebonne Estuary by mobilizing participants in restorative projects, advocacy, and education. Bayou Grace participants develop a complex understanding of Louisiana coastal land loss and how restoration benefits the entire nation.

Bayou Grace’s Louisiana Estuary Experience, a co-operative five day volunteer program with the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program hosts over 250 volunteers annually. Volunteers aid in the restoration of our environment and participate in classroom/laboratory education at the Louisiana University Marine Consortium. Program participants educate others and advocate for restoration after involvement with Bayou Grace.

Volunteers also engage with local community members at community dinners via our Building Community Resilience through Community Dinners project. These community dinners are an opportunity for local residents to engage with government and NGO coastal restoration decision makers and leaders. As one local resident writes:

"…. I am a lifelong resident of Dulac, Louisiana. … [Bayou Grace] keeps our Bayou community informed on the many issues concerning coastal restoration and protection through their community dinners. I and other community people feel more informed on issues affecting our Bayou than ever before through attending these dinners."

Both local residents and national volunteers help create advocacy tools through our Why Should We Save Coastal Louisiana? photo project. Since 2010, over 800 local and national participants have been photographed with their answers to the project question: “Why should we save coastal Louisiana?” Many of these advocacy photos have been exhibited at art studios and museums, and have been used to create a project companion book, a book we now work to get into the hands of government and agency leaders who can have an impact on decisions made about Louisiana coastal restoration.

Bayou Grace and other coastal partners participate on Oxfam America’s Coastal Communities Initiative Campaign. We attend parish, state and federal meetings and conferences and educational workshops. This, combined with outreach, enables Bayou Grace to gain community, scientific and academic perspectives on land loss and restoration and to develop advocacy talking points in the best interest of our communities.

I am deeply honored to be selected as a Community Resilience Leader Champion of Change. This award represents not only my work, but the work of every out-of-state volunteer, every staff member and every community resident who has chosen to become engaged in the issue of Louisiana coastal land loss and restoration.

My hope is that all of our work will lead to thoughtful, holistic restoration and protection measures that balance the needs of our local community, their livelihoods and our environment. The lessons we learn in coastal Louisiana are a chance for our nation to prepare and learn how to tackle these challenges as more and more coastal communities are impacted by a changing climate and rising seas.

Rebecca Templeton is the Executive Director of Bayou Grace Community Services.