By Chris Pulaski, National Wildlife Federation
Next in our Faces of the Delta series, readers will be introduced to Patty Whitney: Multigenerational southeast Louisianan, community organizer, restoration advocate and history buff.
Name: Patricia "Patty" Whitney
Location: Thibodaux, Louisiana
Occupation: Bayou Interfaith Shared Community Organizing (BISCO) staff, environmental advocate
Tell me about your connection to south Louisiana. I was born and raised in south Louisiana and have never lived anywhere else (she was one of ten children). This is home. My ancestors have been here for centuries. My children live just a few blocks away from me. Most of my siblings and their children and grandchildren still live in this area. My roots backward are deep in coastal Louisiana, and so are my branches outward and forward.
What does south Louisiana mean to you? South Louisiana means a vibrant and fascinating history. It means warm and open hospitality. It means simple and hardworking people. It means strong and complex cultures. It means intense and deep social patterns. It means a fertile and primordial environment. It means drama and comedy. It means family and food and fun. It’s HOME. It was HOME to my ancestors. It is HOME to me. I hope it will be HOME to my descendants.
What are your favorite things about the area? Besides the obvious of being surrounded by people I love and who love me, my favorite thing about being from here is that we are so unique. We speak differently than other parts of the country. We think differently than other parts of the country. Even our environment is different than anything else in the country. We are the delta of the largest river on the continent. There is only one like it in North America.
We began as a French colony rather than an English colony. French was the native tongue of our land up until the mid 20th century. As a French colony, there was only one religion that was allowed, so everyone here for many generations grew up Catholic. Our unified faith and its traditions have been and still remain an integral part of our unique social structure. Even when we became a Spanish colony, we maintained our language, faith and cultures. These persisted even after we became an American territory and then a state.
We are different. Our food is different, as is the way we prepare it. Our food is a mix of the many unique cultures which populated our coast and the fertility, diversity and abundance of our environment. We are unique, and that is one of my favorite things about southern Louisiana.
How has coastal land loss impacted your life? I guess it’s pretty obvious that the thing I fear most is losing our unique community and becoming an extinct society. Coastal Louisiana is a series of large and small communities and neighbors who live in a very special environment. We are a circle. Once that circle is broken and the pieces are dispersed, it can’t be fixed again. Parts of our “unique community” will gather in other places, but it will never be the same again. We belong here. I fear losing this. And if action isn't taken immediately to restore the coast, my fears will become a reality, and America will lose a valuable treasure that it never really knew it had. But we, the Bayou people, will know and will mourn its loss and our loss.
Why do you think coastal restoration efforts are important? The land itself that we are living on is washing away into the Gulf of Mexico. Without the land, all of the things that make southern Louisiana and make it unique will be gone forever and can never be recreated anywhere else, because the environment we live in plays a major role in our identity. Once our homes and land are gone and we are forced to relocate, “We” as a unique community will no longer exist. Ever.
What obstacles do you see hindering restoration? Environmental injustice is a major part of the reason why we are in the shape we are in today. The major obstacle we face now is that the appetite of others for the natural resources under our land. Governmental bureaucracy is another major obstacle to restoring our coast in time to save the homeland of the over two million coastal Louisiana residents.
What should people around the country know about efforts to rebuild New Orleans and surrounding communities and protect this area from another powerful storm that they don’t already know? It’s my impression that most people around the country think everything along the Gulf Coast is back to normal. That is clearly not the case. Pockets of areas are recovering and rebuilding. Many, many more areas from Texas to Alabama are still limping along trying to survive. It hasn't helped that we in the Bayou Region have also experienced major destruction from Hurricanes Rita, Gustav and Ike since that time, along with the ongoing and increasing coastal land loss destruction, which makes us more and more vulnerable to these storms that come along. Much work has been done, but much more is needed.
I would like people around the country to question themselves about who is next. If New Orleans, southern Louisiana, and the entire Gulf Coast are not restored and protected, then who else will not be protected when their communities are threatened by environmental dangers?