Book Shelf, Book 3- America's Wetland: Louisiana' s Vanishing Coast

May 15, 2006


 Photographs by Bevil Knapp, text by Mike Dunne Louisiana State 
University Press, $39.95

Reviewed by MARK NEUZIL
The coffee table book "America's Wetland: Louisiana's Vanishing Coast" (LSU Press, 2005) has been blessed and cursed by Hurricane Katrina. Blessed because the Category 4 storm brought unprecedented international attention to the region that the book describes in its beautiful photographs and informative text; cursed because a good part of the text was rendered old news almost overnight by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The hurricanes hit about two months before the scheduled publication date.

What is a publisher to do? The book now has a tinge of nostalgia about it; the sections that are not nostalgic are accurately and jarringly predictive. SEJ member Bevil Knapp's photographs, particularly those of the barrier islands and shorelines, are now important sources of historical data: here's what the place looked like before the hurricanes of '05 hit. The text, written by SEJournal associate editor Mike Dunne, becomes an important source of background information on what conventional wisdom was like pre-Katrina. For example, Dunne writes:

"The biggest threat is to the city of New Orleans and its suburbs. Most of New Orleans is actually below sea level, and it is protected from hurricane storm flooding by protective levees and walls. That system is designed to stave off a Category 3 hurricane, one with winds of 111-130 miles per hour. Computer models show that a stronger or slower-moving hurricane could put New Orleans – the home of Mardi Gras, Creole cooking, the world's largest port system, and a national economic engine – under as much as 17 feet of water."

We don't have to imagine; it happened. And as a prediction, that's not too far off.

The book is divided into seven chapters, plus an introduction. It was published in cooperation with a group called America's Wetland: Campaign to Save Coastal Louisiana; proceeds from its sale will fund national public education efforts about wetlands conservation. There is a "for more information" page as a type of appendix with contact details for conservation, education and government groups.

Chapter 4, titled "America's Atlantis," is the most prophetic. One reads it and is reminded of the other early warnings struck by local media, like the New Orleans Times-Picayune's series on the subject that used many of the same sources. There's even a photograph of the Superdome as part of a downtown landscape taken from above Poydras Street and a second shot of the infamous sports stadium/ soon-to-be refugee shelter surrounded by (dry) freeways. How many times, in the fall of 2005, did we see that photograph of the same scene with parts of the Superdome roof torn away and the streets flooded? Here's what it looked like before.

Knapp has a good eye for photographing people, capturing their faces and giving a peek into what they might be like. There are also a series of images of the once-endangered brown pelican that are particularly good. One quibble: Some shots are of the same scene, taken from different angles. Those could have been dropped and replaced with a wider variety of images.

As I read the text and gazed at the photographs, the biggest question in this reader's mind was "what became of these people whose stories are told here?" You get a brief glimpse of their lives – fishing, eating, playing music – and know that it has since been changed forever. Those that have followed the story closely, for example, know that one community in these pages, Shell Beach in St. Bernard Parish, was blown off the map. Perhaps it would be in the publisher's interest to create a "where are they now" website to help answer that inevitable question.

Mark Neuzil is associate professor of journalism and mass communication and environmental studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN.


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