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Gulf of Mexico

Surviving the Storm: Q&A with Jean Landry

Jean Landry, Grand Isle program manager for The Nature Conservancy, is no stranger to hurricanes. For five decades, she has lived on Grand Isle – growing up here, raising her family here and dedicating her professional life to safeguarding the island’s natural resources.

Despite the threat of storms, Jean remains a steadfast Grand Isle resident.

The Nature Conservancy:

Tell me about living on Grand Isle.

Jean Landry:

My family first came to Grand Isle 50 years ago from southwest Louisiana – we are originally from south Florida – to work in the oil and gas industry, and I’ve been here ever since. This was a wonderful place to grow up. I love the history and the physical presence of the island – from walking on the beach, fishing and birding and exploring the maritime forest. I really like that it’s a remote location with a slower pace of life. Just a wonderful place to raise children.

The Nature Conservancy:

Through the years, Grand Isle has been impacted by numerous storms, including Hurricane Katrina and, of course, the latest, Hurricane Isaac. How did you fare during these storms?

Jean Landry:

We’ve, of course, had damage to our home on many occasions, but material items can be replaced or fixed. We evacuated for every storm with the exception of Juan in 1985. It was a slow-moving Category 1 storm, much like Isaac. After that, I was determined never to stay for another hurricane. I have never experienced rising water like that and never plan to again.

With Isaac, we evacuated the island for a week. By the time we came home, the water had receded – it had surged around 5 to 6 feet. Because our house is elevated, it didn’t flood but we did have roof and ceiling damage.

Part of Highway 1, the only way onto and off of the island, was washed out, but it was quickly repaired so cars could pass.

The Nature Conservancy:

What changes have you seen on the island due to the storms?

Jean Landry:

After Hurricane Betsy in 1965, we really started seeing changes in building codes and infrastructure. People used to build their homes 2 to 4 feet off the ground, but now homes are built on pilings as much as 14 feet off the ground. With the changes to the way houses are being built, we’re also seeing an increase in property value and taxes.

With each hurricane, more and more people move away. We’re quickly becoming a community of summer homes, not full-time residents. About 1,450 people live here year round with the population rising from 8,000 to 10,000 on the weekends. Grand Isle is a popular fishing destination, so a lot of people will come for 3 or 4-day weekends to enjoy the water and beaches.

Once a hurricane hits, it pretty much shuts down the tourist business on the island for the summer. Because of Isaac, we lost Labor Day weekend.

The Nature Conservancy:

What about physical changes to the island?

Jean Landry:

With Isaac, as with all storms, we saw broken branches, fallen trees and water damage. We’re the only Gulf island that has a hackberry-live oak forest. We’ve lost quite a few hackberry trees, which are important for migrating birds, but live oaks are astonishing to see in a storm. When put to the test, their branches will bow to the ground and withstand the wind. It’s a sight to behold.

These storms create a tremendous amount of erosion here, which is one of the fastest eroding areas in the world. In Louisiana, we lose up to 35 square miles of shoreline each year to erosion. With such loss, our seafood industry suffers as nursery habitat for finfish and shellfish disappears. Marshes and barrier islands are the first line of defense against storms. With this rate of erosion, more inland communities, such as New Orleans, are more vulnerable to storm surges. This just isn’t an issue for our local communities, but an issue that has national consequences.

The Nature Conservancy:

Being a year-round island resident, how do you handle the constant threat of tropical storms and hurricanes?

Jean Landry:

Growing up in a low-lying coastal area, you learn early to respect Mother Nature and the power of the wind and the water. We’ve, of course, experienced damage to our home on many occasions, but material items can be replaced or fixed. What’s most important is life and limb. You have to be well organized and prepared. It’s essential to think ahead and have a place to stay for at least a week while you evacuate. Even small storms can cause a lot of damage, so it’s important to pay attention to the weather reports and evacuate when necessary.

The Nature Conservancy:

You’ve seen 5 decades of change on the island and have experienced countless storms of varying degrees. What can we do to lessen the impact of these storms?

Jean Landry:

These areas are naturally designed to absorb the impact of winds and storm surges, but overfishing, dredging, habitat loss and the deterioration of water quality have compromised our natural coastal infrastructure. We need to fortify our barrier islands and marshes through coastal restoration – projects like building oyster reefs and promoting the growth of marshes and seagrass beds.


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