DELACROIX, La. — Rocky Morales is watching his small Louisiana town of Delacroix slowly melt into the water. The woods where he played hide-and-seek as a boy are gone. It's all water and mud back there now. So, too, is the nearby marsh where townsfolk once trapped for muskrat, otter and mink.
Many of the fishermen who once lived here — his friends and relatives — have disappeared as well, fleeing behind the intricate levee system protecting New Orleans out of fear that one more hurricane will be all it takes to send the rest of Delacroix into the sea.
Ten years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast — killing more than 1,830 people and causing more than $150 billion in damage in the nation's costliest disaster — New Orleans has been fortified by a new $14.5 billion flood protection system. But outside the iconic city, efforts have lagged to protect small towns and villages losing land every year to erosion. And as that land buffer disappears, New Orleans itself becomes more vulnerable.
In the past century, more than 1,880 square miles of Louisiana land has turned into open water — an area nearly the size of Delaware. And the loss continues unabated, with an estimated 17 square miles disappearing on average each year, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Cemeteries are disappearing into the Gulf. Entire barrier island chains, Andrew Jackson-era brick forts, Jean Lafitte's pirate colony, lighthouses, bridges, roads, schools and entire towns have been washed away.
"We're losing the cultural fabric of south Louisiana," said Jessica Schexnayder, a researcher with the Louisiana State University Sea Grant program. "It's not just whether the land will disappear, it's about when it's going to be gone."
Hurricanes speed up that disappearance and Morales, one of the few remaining fisherman to still call Delacroix home, knows that another Katrina could be the end of his town.
"It will run us all inside the protection levees," the 51-year-old crabber and shrimper said from his perch on his 16-foot-high front porch crawling with marsh bugs and ants. Pairs of white rubber shrimp boots were hung to dry at the front door.
Neighboring homes stand either on massive stilts that lift them two stories above ground or sit on wheels that would let them flee in the face of a new storm.
Mud flats and open water extend into the horizon.
"All that was solid land. There weren't all these lakes," Morales said. "Katrina tore it all up."
Loss has been a dominant theme for the past 50 years, since Hurricane Betsy clobbered New Orleans on Sept. 9, 1965, flooding many of the same places Katrina did 40 years later. Over this period, scientists say a series of factors — most of them man-made — have caused the rapid loss of wetlands.
There's sea-level rise (estimates of 3 feet or more in the next 100 years), the natural sinking of the delta (about 1 inch a year in places), ongoing damage from oil drilling (more than 10,000 miles of oil canals crisscross the coast in highway-straight lines), and repeated hurricane damage (six hurricanes, including Katrina, have ravaged Louisiana's coast in the past decade).
Add to that: clear-cut logging that wiped out the state's abundant swamp forests at the end of the 1800s, oyster dredging that ruined a delta-wide reef world, the spaghetti-like network of gas pipelines and wetlands loss due to urban development.
"The best hope for these communities, and this includes New Orleans, is getting behind a very aggressive delta restoration program," said Jim Tripp, a senior counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund. He sits on panels exploring multibillion-dollar plans to restore Louisiana's coast.
Since the early 1990s, the government has spent billions on coastal works to slow land loss, but the Gulf inexorably advances.
Katrina itself caused about 190 square miles of land erosion in the space of a couple of days, the loss of an area bigger than New Orleans itself.
Since then, Louisiana has sought to ramp up efforts to save the coast by establishing new agencies focused on coastal restoration. The state also launched pilot projects to reclaim open water by pumping in mud. Under Gov. Bobby Jindal, the state developed a 50-year, $50 billion master plan to reverse land loss.
None of it has worked so far, and now Louisiana's fragile coast feels like it's at a dangerous tipping point.
In community after community along the 150-mile-wide delta, the same story is told: People are leaving behind generations-old homesteads and moving behind the levees, many of them fortified since Katrina.
"You could see it changing slowly before Katrina, but nothing like this," said Henry Martin, a 71-year-old dock and boat owner in Hopedale, a fishing town near Delacroix in St. Bernard Parish. "This is dead for sure," he said of his bayou town, which has been largely abandoned by its residents.
He pointed to skeletal-looking tree trunks, some of them now standing in water. "All these dead oaks used to hang over the road not that long ago," he said.
Since Katrina, he's been running his seafood business out of 18-wheeler trailers where he stores tools, piles of oyster sacks and paperwork. When a hurricane threatens, he drives his business out of danger.
The water also is eating away at Grand Bayou, a Louisiana Indian town reachable only by boat.
Before Katrina, some 40 families called Grand Bayou home.
"Now? Let me make sure," said Raymond Reyes, a 71-year-old villager sitting on his shrimp boat, The Pelican. He counted the roofs along the bayou. "About 12."
"We're forgotten," he said. "They don't want to do nothing for us back here. They tell us we have to be behind the levees."
Some say Louisiana can't win its fight with the sea.
"You have got to retreat," said Edward P. Richards, a law scholar at Louisiana State University who specializes in disasters.
"Unless we face the reality of relative sea level rise and coastal land loss, we will face periodic catastrophic flooding from hurricanes until there will not be sufficient resources to rebuild," he said.
Looking for a model, Louisiana has turned to the Netherlands, a low-lying nation that has protected itself from the sea with a network of dunes, dikes and floodgates. But Richards was skeptical Louisiana could duplicate the success of the Dutch, who face a much milder sea.
"If the Dutch had to face hurricanes, they wouldn't exist," he said. "Their 1953 storm that flooded the entire country only generated 10-12 feet of surge."
Katrina pushed storm surge of 28 feet and waves that reached 55 feet, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. In New Orleans, the surge reached about 16 feet.
Scientists say Katrina was especially destructive because of the disappearance of all that buffer land between New Orleans and the Gulf.
A hurricane that landed a century ago, on Sept. 29, 1915, was blunted by barrier islands, cypress forests, natural ridges and marshes that once extended in front of New Orleans. The storm — one of the worst to strike Louisiana — killed about 275 people as it flattened coastal towns. But New Orleans didn't flood.
The same storm today would push dangerously high storm surge right up to New Orleans' doorstep, testing the city's new fortifications, experts say.
Beyond the new flood protection system, the fight for survival is a daily reality.
People here have a lot of ways of measuring their slow-moving tragedy. Lester Ansardi, a 66-year-old crabber and shrimper mending crab traps, points to the rising height of the stilts that Delacroix houses sit on to avoid flooding.
"When we grew up, there were no houses higher than 10 feet off the ground," Ansardi said. "After Betsy houses went up 12 foot. Now, they're 20 feet high."
Ansardi, like the fisherman he chatted with on a recent afternoon, moved from Delacroix to behind the floodwalls 8 miles to the north.
Rocky Morales and his family, though, aren't giving up.
With the sun dipping, the silhouette of New Orleans' skyscrapers far in the distance, Morales and Suzie Guidroz, his longtime companion, went for a spin in his white shrimp boat — the Rocky and Rennie, named for his two boys.
"Only one way he's going to leave, is when they force him to leave," Guidroz said, sitting on a large ice chest.
Morales smiled as he steered past docks, nets, boats and fish splashing in the bayou, darkening to an emerald green in the sunset. "I guess the water's in the blood," he said.
He waved to an uncle, who lives in one of the 12 houses left in Delacroix, a town settled by Canary Islanders at the end of the 1700s.
When he was a kid, about 500 people lived in Delacroix, he said.
"The thing I miss the most is talking with the people. Before Katrina, late in the evening, you'd find 10-15 people talking," he said. "You don't have that anymore. Now they're all up the road more."
Behind the levees.
He looked over his shoulder at what used to be a marsh where he once trapped muskrat. Now, it's a little lake where fish nibble at the water's surface.