NEW ORLEANS — The cities of Walker and Denham Springs filed a lawsuit against the state and its contractors — similar to the one filed in March by Tangipahoa Parish resident Levi Robertson — alleging that an Interstate 12 concrete barrier acted as a flood wall and was to blame for historic flooding in 2016.

But could these floods have affected something more intangible? According to one local archaeologist, more than people know.

The study of the Louisiana coastline and who settled here before are lessons that can be applied to how floods and storms affect the land, Brian Ostahowski, president and archaeologist at the Louisiana Archaeology Society, said.

“(Studying) our ancestors better inform what we do here today along the coast,” he told the Louisiana Record. “Part of the issue with land loss is as hurricanes push water in, you have less buffer for hurricanes and the land sort of goes away. The lessons we’re learning here are basically ground zero for what’s going to be happening on other coasts in the future, especially when you have big hurricanes like Katrina and Sandy.”

A hydrologist recently said the I-12 barrier was a substantial factor that caused the flooding. Robertson’s lawsuit claimed no hydrologic studies were done to figure out the effects of such a project. Still, state officials said they were studying the ramifications of public infrastructure in natural disasters. But human intervention and environmental factors continue to threaten the coastline and southern Louisiana.

In fact, Ostahowski said Louisiana is losing land faster than anywhere else in the United States, “like a football field an hour,” though the coastline has been subsiding for decades. Land loss, climate change, and rising sea levels are among factors forcing us to think differently about how we live with water, he said.

“At the turn of the century, 150,000 people lived in these communities throughout the Gulf, but today none of them are here anymore,” he said. “We know they lived out there because evidence of these old settlements are all along the coast. We see artifacts and parts of old structures that no longer exists because hurricanes damaged them or land loss occurred.”

Environmental data can translate scientific insights into knowledge that lawmakers and farmers can use to help prepare for extreme weather events, but Louisiana’s culture is slipping away.  

“Louisiana is losing its rich and dynamic history,” Ostahowski said. “Archaeology and physical evidence are sometimes the only evidence of our past and the evidence of Louisiana history is sinking away at a really, really fast rate. It’s faster than we can even try to excavate or record.”

Ostahowski said it’s important to understand how Louisiana communities were formed and why they went away. However, not many records about the past were necessarily recorded for one reason or another. He does not want history repeating itself and said that’s how we can tie the past to the future — through preservation. But few people are focusing on that right now.

For Ostahowski though, it’s not for a lack of trying but a lack of money and opportunity.

“Unfortunately, in the next couple of decades we’re not going to have any evidence of the history of our coastal populations left except in a museum,” he said. “There’s not going to be any physical evidence. I mean, everyone’s heard of ghost towns, but there are whole towns that have just been wiped away and are out there in the Gulf.”

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