According to a famous statistic, Louisiana is losing about a football field of land every hour due to coastal erosion. That's 16 square miles lost every year; between the 1930s and 2000, land mass equaling the size of Delaware disappeared.
So why hasn't the shape of the state changed? Why do we still see the iconic boot as the symbol of Louisiana?
In 2014, Brett Anderson of the Times-Picayune wrote "Louisiana Loses Its Boot" for the website Matter. The piece proposes a radical reassessment of what we think of as "Louisiana," a new symbol that doesn't include marshland as solid land. Anderson talks to Brooke about why his map still isn't accurate, but why he hopes it'll start a conversation.
"It's Raining" by Irma Thomas
Okay, now picture the map of Louisiana, that iconic boot. That giant “L” in the American South is as immutable as the shape of Texas or Florida. But, actually, it's not immutable. In fact, it's inaccurate, more so every hour, because roughly a football field of land is lost from the sole of the boot every 60 minutes, according to the US Geological Survey.
Brett Anderson is a critic and reporter for the Times-Picayune. Two years ago, he wrote "Louisiana Loses Its Boot" for the website Matter. Basically, Brett wants to redraw that map. Brett, welcome to On the Media.
BRETT ANDERSON: Good to be here, thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the football field figure gets used a lot.
BRETT ANDERSON: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sometimes Louisiana loses a football field every 38 minutes, instead of every hour. But what does it really mean?
BRETT ANDERSON: Well, it, it doesn't mean you can just go down to the coast and stand there and an hour later a, a football field of land will drop around you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] And the hour figure comes from a loss of about 16 square miles a year, right?
BRETT ANDERSON: Yes, it's a way to illustrate the fact that South Louisiana, Southeast Louisiana, in particular, is in a state of crisis. And, over the decades, we've lost equal to the state of Delaware. But, if it's true, as all the politicians and all the people in power tell us again and again and increasingly have since Hurricane Katrina, that we’re losing the amount of land that we just discussed, how is it that the map can't have changed? It never went out of my mind.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you set off to report this piece about the reality of Louisiana's contour, and your first challenge was finding a complete paper map, the kind that you would unfold on the hood of your car.
BRETT ANDERSON: So I sort of deliberately got myself lost in Cajun country, which is roughly two hours west of New Orleans, and I found [LAUGHS], because it had been so long since I tried to find a map in a gas station, that I couldn’t find one. And that was sort of part of a point I was trying to make, that those roadmaps that show the image of states from that sort of wide angle, we might see a square mile at most, when we look into our phone, and particularly where states are basically changing size, we lose that sort of wide angle lens.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what is so important about that big perspective that we lose when we’re looking at our phone?
BRETT ANDERSON: Well, the visual power of an iconic image like Louisiana presents us with a very powerful tool, an opportunity to communicate the crisis here and that if we change the boot to have it more accurately reflect the true cost that land loss has taken on the coast of Louisiana, you would have people across the country asking the question, what happened here?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about satellite imagery? Around the time that your piece came out, ProPublica and The Lens came out with a project called Losing Ground, and it used satellite pictures, over time, to show how much land had been lost. Why isn’t that enough?
BRETT ANDERSON: I should say that that project was excellent and I think that those satellite images are good, but they're not forced [LAUGHS] on you in the way that the boot is. It doesn't have the imprimatur that government-issued maps have, and you're not gonna change the boot unless the government decides to change it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We should note that the current flooding in Louisiana and coastal erosion, which the map reflects, they’re different things but they're related by climate change, since warmer temperatures mean more heavy rains, and they’re related by development, since there's more concrete in areas that used to be porous. And, most importantly, you say, they're related by flood maps.
BRETT ANDERSON: A lot of the people whose homes were inundated with water didn't have flood insurance. For instance, my house in New Orleans, which has never flooded, I’m bound by law to buy flood insurance because the FEMA maps say that I have to.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
BRETT ANDERSON: For whatever reason, FEMA's maps did not tell a lot of the folks whose houses were flooded in this last flood that they needed flood insurance. To me, that's an example of how a bad map can hurt people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So describe the new map you commissioned and what it took into account that Louisiana's traditional boot doesn't?
BRETT ANDERSON: I was given an image from a scientist with the Coastal Authority who had re-categorized wetlands, which on most conventional maps show up as land, re-categorized that as water. It basically changed what you would call the land and water interface to only include land where you could walk as land and everything else as water.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It looks like someone took an axe to the boot and pretty much separated the foot from the heel or, as you wrote, it looks less like a boot than a badly disfigured foot.
BRETT ANDERSON: Yeah, it does, [LAUGHS] I think.
As I acknowledge in the piece, it’s not a perfect map. It shows some areas where you do have people settled as water. People I respect have taken fault with it and said that it represents cartographic hyperbole. But we stand by this idea that the official map of Louisiana and the boot that you see everywhere is dangerously flawed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And, in a way, won't your map only grow more [LAUGHS] and more accurate as time goes on?
BRETT ANDERSON: I mean, [LAUGHS] I, I hope it doesn't. I believe that there is a cure for our land loss. It is possible to alter the flow of the Mississippi River and to do a, a bunch of other sort of engineering gymnastics to preserve the coast and to rebuild a lot of the land that we've lost. But it is possible that the worst that our map shows could very much become a reality.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There is a community that you visited a couple of years ago called Isle de Jean Charles, which isn't on the redrawn map.
BRETT ANDERSON: It’s a community that exists outside of the current flood protection system, and it has shrunk dramatically over the decades. Due to sea level rise and the coastal erosion, it’s mostly water, and so it’s going to show up on our map as mostly water. But the people of that community were recently given money by the federal government to basically finally evacuate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It's the first time the government has ever given money to relocate an entire community, right, $48 million?
BRETT ANDERSON: And I don't believe it’ll be the last time that happens. We’re not the only vulnerable societies in this country to the problem of global sea rise.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So are there a couple of other states you'd like to take your drafting pen to?
BRETT ANDERSON: I would love it if cartographers would –
- because it's a serious science and craft.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Brett, thank you very much.
BRETT ANDERSON: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Brett Anderson is a restaurant critic and features reporter for the Times-Picayune. His 2014 piece for Matter is called, “Louisiana Loses its Boot.”
[“IT’S RAINING” BY IRMA THOMAS]:
It's raining so hard, It brings back memories Of the time When you were here with me Counting every drop About to blow my top I wish this rain would hurry up and stop
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, the gold medal for sexism, right after beach volleyball.