A SEVERE BLOW

Aerial image of storm damage and flooding
Aerial image of damage

Like Much Of Louisiana, Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge Takes Big Hit From Hurricane Laura, Other Storms

story by Trey Iles, LDWF Public Information

 

You name it, Hurricane Laura had a profound impact on it in southwest Louisiana, especially vulnerable Cameron Parish. And sitting in the eastern end of Cameron Parish and western end of Vermilion Parish, Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge, managed by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF), was in Laura’s crosshairs.

 

The refuge, as you can imagine, suffered extreme damage from the storm. But as Scooter Trosclair, who oversees the refuge for LDWF, surveyed the carnage in the days following the storm, he was taken with how resilient the wildlife was.

 

“Seems like every snake made it because they were sitting in all the offices,’’ Trosclair said. “I’ve seen deer and hogs. How they made it, I have no idea. Alligators are plentiful too.’’

 

But the damage done to Rockefeller, as well as throughout much of the southwestern portion of the state, is most difficult to quantify. It will take years to build back. And there are more hurdles to rebuilding than just the destruction wrought by Laura. Louisiana was a hurricane magnet in 2020 and Laura, which roared ashore on Aug. 27 with nearly 150 mph winds, wasn’t the only strong storm to hit Cameron Parish. Hurricane Delta, which struck on Oct.9 about 12 miles east of Laura , came inland with winds approaching 100 mph.

 

Delta halted and, in some cases, wiped out rebuilding progress from Laura.

 

This certainly isn’t Cameron Parish’s first brush with powerful hurricanes. It was devastated by Hurricane Rita in 2005 and Ike in 2008. Each time, LDWF personnel worked tirelessly, and while rebuilding their own ,to put Rockefeller back together again.

 

Trosclair said they learned valuable lessons from Hurricanes Rita and Ike that they were able to use for Laura and it put the current rebuilding process ahead of the curve. But that doesn’t make it any easier. As of this writing, power still hasn’t been returned to that part of Cameron Parish. The heat was extreme in days following Laura’s strike. Complicating matters is the COVID-19 pandemic, which makes gathering vital supplies even more difficult.

 

“Probably 80 percent of more of our staff at Rockefeller lost their homes,’’ Trosclair said. “Most of them lost everything. Some of our staff  can’t even find their land.’’

 

Buddy Baker, Chief of the Division of Coastal and Non-Game Resources, has the administrative responsibility for working with Trosclair and staff to rebuild Rockefeller Refuge.

 

“It’s remarkable how these refuge employees who are without permanent homes are still down here at the refuge working 40 plus hour weeks trying to get the refuge back up and running,’’ Baker said. “It’s a testament to the dedication of the refuge staff.’’

 

LDWF administration made one of the top priorities replacing the headquarters building as quickly as possible. Baker believes that by getting the office back, it’ll help give staff some sense of stability and a sense of place again.

 

All of the buildings suffered damage, some of it catastrophic, requiring a complete rebuild. The refuge marsh infrastructure also took a hard punch. There was extensive levee damage and some of the water control structures and pumps were completely washed out.

 

“As you look way out into the marsh, we have a lot of damage,’’ Trosclair said. “The fishing piers were all damaged. I don’t know if they’re safe enough to stand on. We have a lot of marsh infrastructure that will have to be addressed. This will all have to be repaired and made safe before we can think about getting the public back out. We still have debris in canals. Some of our pump engines are sitting in the canal. We have to get all that pulled out. It’s a mess.’’

 

Trosclair and crew spent weeks working to clear and recover roads in and near the refuge and getting out water where it had been trapped.

 

Repairing Rockefeller is crucial. Rockefeller is 70,000-plus acres of coastal land fronting the Gulf of Mexico. It is one of the nation’s premiere refuges which winters a significant portion of the continental waterfowl population each year.  Rockefeller Refuge has been established for more than 100 years. But there’s more to it than just a haven for wildlife. Crucial wildlife related research has been conducted at Rockefeller that has helped further the health and success of many species. Think the American alligator, once on the endangered species list but now thriving in Louisiana thanks to a significant amount of research conducted at Rockefeller.

 

“It’s going to be tough,’’ said Trosclair, a Cameron Parish native. “It’s a massive challenge. I just can’t imagine not getting it back. Rockefeller is so important. We’ll get there.’’ However, Baker reminds staff that “it’s  going to be a marathon restoring the refuge, not a sprint. Patience and diligence will get us back up and running.”

 

Other Damage

Though Cameron Parish and Rockefeller were heavily impacted, Laura’s footprint can be seen throughout southwest, west, central and north Louisiana. Other LDWF coastal refuges and Wildlife Management Areas also suffered damage. Other than Marsh Island Refuge, located in Iberia Parish in Vermilion Bay, damage was relatively minor.

 

At Marsh Island Wildlife Refuge, Laura, as well as Delta, caused significant damage to the levees on a 7,000 acre marsh impoundment. Through water control structures, LDWF manages the area for a desired mix of vegetation, both emergent and submerged aquatic.

 

The marsh habitat on the refuge did relatively well in the storm. There was a significant amount of storm debris left in the marsh by the storm but normal prescribed burning scheduled for this winter should help in removing that.

 

North of Rockefeller Refuge in Vermilion Parish, White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area suffered levee breaches on its 5,000-acre refuge unit as a result of Delta’s landfall. If water levels in the Mermentau Basin remain elevated, it will likely cause the unit to be inundated throughout waterfowl season. A long-term fix is being sought, said LDWF biologist manager Schuyler Dartez, who works at White Lake WCA.

 

Inland, forests in southwest, west, central and into north Louisiana were severely impacted by the storms. An estimated total of $1.1 billion of timber damage was done, more than hurricanes Katrina and Rita combined, said Duck Locasio, LDWF’s WMA Forestry Program Manager.

 

About 758,000 acres of timber were damaged in southwest through central Louisiana, which represents about 5% of the state’s 15 million forested acres. Of the impacted areas, 72% were pine and 28% were hardwood. Only 10% of the pine is expected to be salvaged with no hardwood salvageable. Beauregard, Calcasieu and Vernon parishes sustained the brunt of the damage with 511,131 acres of timber harmed. Even Rapides Parish, in central Louisiana, suffered 89,233 acres of timber damage.

 

LDWF’s Wildlife Management Areas in those portions of the state were minimally impacted.

 

Of course, wildlife lives in those forested areas and there will be some degree of impact to it. Of particular concern is the red-cockaded woodpecker. According to Eric Baka, LDWF’s Red-cockaded Woodpecker Safe Harbor Coordinator, Hurricane Laura severely damaged two private lands populations and the largest population in the state on public land, including Vernon/Fort Polk WMA, Kisatchie National Forest and U.S. Army lands.  The long-term impacts on the red-cockaded woodpecker population will be determined during 2021 and successive years’ breeding season, which occur from May to July.

 

Deer populations were affected both in the coastal regions and inland. But LDWF Deer Program Manager Johnathan Bordelon said deer cope much better with storm damage than most species.

 

“They are reliant on the plants that grow on the forest floor for both food and cover,’’ Bordelon said. “Damage from storms will often allow more sunlight to reach the forest floor, which promotes the growth of plants on which deer browse.

 

“There were good deer observations after the passing of Hurricane Laura in areas that were hit with the greatest amount of storm surge near the coast. That is encouraging but the full impact to the herd is difficult to measure due to the difficulty in detecting both live and dead deer.’’

 

A Helping Hand

One thing about Louisianans, they’re always willing to lend a helping hand. That’s certainly been the case in the aftermath of the storms that have hit the state this year. Many people flocked to southwest Louisiana to help with cleanup and rebuilding efforts and that will continue well into 2021.

 

Many businesses in Louisiana have also stepped up to help. The Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Foundation (LWFF) has received a $50,000 donation from the Cheniere Energy Foundation in Cameron Parish exclusively for Rockefeller Refuge recovery. Cameron LNG and Sempra LNG have also pledged $25,000 each. LWFF is also applying for grants that could assist LDWF employees impacted by the storm.

 

Additional Information

 

If you’d like to assist, go to lawff.org or call 225-765-5100

WINTER 2020