Plaquemines Parish, La., is experiencing a bit of déjà vu.
Ten years ago this month, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and spewing a total of 4.9 million barrels of oil toward Louisiana’s fragile coastal wetlands and estuaries.
Oil production shut down in the Gulf of Mexico, and shrimpers, oystermen and charter fishermen were forced to moor their boats until the well could be capped and the oil slick cleaned up. The ramifications trickled through the local economy.
Today, things in this narrow strip of land and marsh jutting south from New Orleans toward the mouth of the Mississippi River are eerily similar due to the pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus.
"It’s cascading through the economy — people who clean hotel rooms, people who run fishing trips, shrimp-peeling factories — ’cause nobody’s buying shrimp right now. It’s all very much in a holding pattern," said Richard "Richie" Blink Jr., an Empire, La., charter tour company owner and Plaquemines Parish council member.
Even Blink’s June wedding may be affected if Louisiana’s stay-at-home order is extended beyond the end of this month.
But Blink isn’t wallowing. He’s a doer with a long history of problem solving.
At 33, Blink is the youngest current member of the Plaquemines Parish Council. And he won his seat after campaigning — at least partially — on environmental issues, a rarity in oil-and-gas-rich south Louisiana.
"It doesn’t make sense to live here if there’s not a thriving economy, and there’s not a thriving economy if there aren’t robust wetlands to serve as a buffer to protect homes, businesses and the culture itself," Blink said in a recent telephone interview, speculating that his election win shows residents are looking for leaders who take "a long-term, balanced view" of problems like coastal erosion.
"Moving forward, it’s clear we need to be smart about how we go about maintaining the [Mississippi River] Delta and choosing our long-term priorities," Blink said. "And that includes keeping the quality of life up for as many people for as long as possible."
The Mississippi River Delta and other parts of coastal Louisiana have lost over 2,000 square miles of land since the 1930s.
Scientists and environmentalists blame the land loss on a variety of factors, including sea-level rise, levees on the Mississippi and its tributaries, dams upriver, oil and gas infrastructure, and shipping channels and canals. Some say the oil spill exacerbated erosion, as well.
But the biggest spill impact Blink has seen is in fishing.
"I can’t remember the last time I caught a flounder," he said.
Ryan Lambert, owner of Cajun Fishing Adventures, has noticed similar problems.
"Can we fish everywhere we used to? No," Lambert said in a recent telephone interview. "It changed our whole business model to fishing redfish; speckled trout customers don’t come here anymore."
Restoring wetlands, losing friends
Blink is a lifelong lover of the outdoors, but his environmental activism stems back at least 10 years to his time as a crew boat captain, shuttling oil and gas workers to drilling rigs and production platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.
"For work, I drive my boat 17 miles out of Venice offshore," Blink told E&E News in 2010. "And one day, I was driving my boat upriver and saw a bank with no trees" (Greenwire, May 4, 2010).
So he launched a Facebook group dedicated to planting trees to battle coastal erosion. The response was overwhelming, and he soon had support from the parish, nonprofits and landowners (Greenwire, May 2, 2011).
In March 2010 — just a month before the Deepwater Horizon spill — Blink and about 30 volunteers planted 1,400 trees on a ridge near Pilottown at the mouth of the Mississippi River.
In the 10 years since, he’s worked with other volunteers to plant a total of 20,000 bald cypress, black willow, tupelo gum and mulberry trees throughout the region. Just last month, he and a group of local high school students planted 160 bald cypress trees near Buras, La.
Some of the early trees he planted are now 35 feet tall and 18 inches wide.
"We’re trying to hold the land together, to enhance it, to make it habitable for migratory birds — I’m sure they appreciate the mulberry out there," Blink said. The trees "really help to lower the storm surge," he added.
Blink’s environmental work didn’t stop there.
In the immediate aftermath of the oil spill, BP PLC — the owner of the failed well that sparked the disaster — hired him and other local boat owners to help contain the spill. He later worked for Clean Gulf Associates on longer-term oil spill recovery work before eventually taking a role as community outreach coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation, a position he held until taking office on the parish council a year and a half ago.
"My role was advocacy on the ground here in Plaquemines," Blink said of his work with NWF. "We were advocating for sediment diversions, barrier island restoration, marsh creation and living shorelines."
The work wasn’t always easy.
"I’ve lost friends because I was vocally supportive of some of those projects," Blink said, noting that the gains on some projects like sediment diversions "are somewhat nebulous."
Sediment diversions would involve building gates into the Mississippi River levee system to allow sediment and river water into degraded wetlands.
"The impacts those projects would have on commercial fishing, recreational fishing — people didn’t always want to go out on a limb," he said.
Still, Blink said "a large number of people here — probably more than half — while they don’t want to take a social hit, are still quietly supportive [of such projects] because they appreciate the need for coastal restoration."
"They realize that society here can’t function without it," Blink added.
Blink knows his work makes him stand out.
"I live in a pretty small town. Everybody knows everybody. I think I’ve always done things that were — I don’t want to say unusual — that caught people’s attention," he said. "I’ve always put myself out there and not necessarily worried about getting compensated for it, but just to do fun things and cool things that someday I can look back on my life and know that there isn’t grass under my feet unless I planted it there."
High school on a barge
One of Blink’s more recent ventures is in training up the next generation of Louisianans to combat coastal erosion and land loss.
He worked with a team of architects, educators and community leaders to design a new high school education model. The design — for a student-centered learning environment focused on coastal restoration and climate change — won $10 million from the XQ Institute.
The result is New Harmony High School in New Orleans, now nearing the end of its second academic year.
"I’m curious to see, in 30 to 40 years, who’s going to come out of that school and what they’re going to be doing," Blink said.
Blink said he contributed a unique component to the school’s winning design portfolio: the idea to situate the school on a barge.
"At first people laughed at us," he said. "But we wanted the school to be place resilient, that wouldn’t have to go packing every time a small tropical storm came through."
New Harmony isn’t positioned on a barge, yet. But Blink says the idea has gained traction.
"The local school superintendent told me he wished he could get all his schools out of harm’s way as easy as calling a tugboat," Blink said.
Blink’s official work with New Harmony ended after the concept won the XQ prize. But he stays in contact with school leaders and has given some of the staff tours of wetlands through his day job as owner of Delta Discovery Tours.
‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’
Blink launched the tour company in 2015 as a way to offset expenses for tours and trips he was already leading out into the wetlands. He’s since built up a small fleet of boats and now takes business leaders, artists, journalists, scientists and "people who want to spend more time than they could get in an off-the-shelf boat tour" on trips into the Mississippi River Delta.
His signature tour lasts 6 ½ hours and takes visitors through cypress forests, brushy saltwater marshes and barrier islands. He covers the local economy and ecology and provides anecdotal stories.
"I like to give folks a good time without using a fake Cajun accent or feeding marshmallows to alligators," he said.
The business was doing well, he said, until the coronavirus shut down tourism to the region.
"It’s hurt," Blink said. "But I’m OK for now. A lot of charter fishermen are not doing so well right now."
Indeed, Lambert said the entire charter fishing industry is currently shut down for the third time in 14 years.
Still, he’s optimistic that the industry will bounce back as it did after Hurricane Katrina pummeled the area in late August 2005 and after the oil spill ground things to a halt in 2010.
"Louisiana people are pretty resilient," Lambert said. "What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. You kind of bounce out of it and keep on trucking."