New Orleans coastal restoration service trip, January 2019

Dr. Kevin Koch, Professor of English

The first large snowfall of the season had hit Dubuque on the Saturday morning in January when nine Loras students and I were about to embark on a long van ride to New Orleans. By late afternoon the roads had been reasonably cleared, so we decided to leave at sundown and drive through the night. The students wanted to have a full day in New Orleans before our week’s work began.

You know you’re with a pretty select group of students when the first activity on their New Orleans bucket list was…a swamp tour! But it should have come as no surprise, as coastal restoration was the theme of this particular ecologically-themed New Orleans service trip (now referred to as TREC trips – Think Reflect Engage Connect). 

Our student leader was Trevor Fannon, then a senior Public Relations major. Other students came from a variety of disciplines, including Biology, Media Studies, and more, all with a passion for environmental issues. As the accompanying faculty member, my own discipline was English, where I taught several nature-themed courses.

We stayed the week at Camp Hope in New Orleans, a former school that had been flooded during Hurricane Katrina. Since most of the neighborhood had also been wiped out in the flooding, the school never re-opened but was refurbished instead as housing for the waves of student service groups that would come over the next decade and more—including several past groups from Loras. We joined the many before us who had come to help rebuild the city.

Ours was the first ecologically-focused service trip to New Orleans from Loras. Fannon and our contact in New Orleans arranged several projects for us. On our first work day we visited the repaired dike that had been breached during the hurricane before we helped establish a neighborhood wetlands park in an area that was slowly being rebuilt. The park would add a bit of natural charm to the neighborhood, but would also impound water during mild flooding, taking some pressure off the Mississippi channel.

The next day we went to Docville Farm, a conservation-oriented foundation located on the outskirts of the city. There we helped plant native cypress trees in a wooded section along a flood-prone creek. But first we had to cut down a host of non-native trees with axes and machetes. When we yelled “timber” to each other, we weren’t joking!

We were lucky that the third day’s work kept us inside.  While the first days had been mild—the 50-degree temperatures for outdoor work had been lovely for DuHawks in January—the third day brought torrential rains.  Perfect, though, since on this day we worked in a greenhouse, potting cypress trees for the Jefferson Parish Coastal Management Department. We formed a human assembly line: some of the group layered a few inches a of soil into the bottom of plastic tree pots; the next group placed cypress saplings into the pots; the last group topped the pots off with soil and stashed them away on the greenhouse tables. In all, we potted 1500 trees. Over the next year, the saplings would be nurtured in the greenhouse until they could be planted in the coastal swamps, providing a buffer against future hurricanes.

On our last day we planted trees along a coastal park, but our efforts were cut short by standing water leftover from the previous day’s downpour. 

Along the way we learned much about the coastal environment: about how cypress trees and native grasses are needed in the bayou swamps to hold the soil and shield against hurricane winds; how the channelizing of the Mississippi River out to the Gulf prevents floodwaters from naturally rebuilding the delta soils; how rising sea levels are bringing saltwater into the buffer coastal wetlands, killing off native vegetation. We talked about how Midwestern practices in urban and agricultural areas contribute to coastal problems. And we talked about efforts to solve this host of environmental issues.

Our visit included some New Orleans touring as well. In the French Quarter, we visited various shops and restaurants, listened to street vendors, and toured Katrina and Mardis Gras museums. Back at Camp Hope, we met other student volunteers from California, Scotland, and China. We found a nearby coffee shop that became a favorite late afternoon haunt.

At the start of the week, not everyone knew all the other Loras travelers beyond having met at a couple of pre-trip organizing meetings. None of them had known me as a professor. By week’s end we knew each other well, quirks and all.

I had packed an old pair of work boots for the New Orleans Coastal Restoration service trip. By week’s end my boots were muddy, wet, and worn out, deserving of their final resting place in the dumpster behind Camp Hope. I thought that was a pretty fitting testimony for work well-done.

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