Mark Shirley, Schultz, Bruce | 12/16/2005 3:40:56 AM
LSU AgCenter coastal resources agent Mark Shirley had hoped to bring a group of students back to a plot near Holly Beach where they had planted marsh grass during the 4-H Marsh Maneuvers program in July.
But, after driving for several miles on La. 82 between Holly Beach and Johnson’s Bayou last weekend, Shirley gave up on his hope to find the transplanted grass, which apparently fell victim to Hurricane Rita’s wrath.
"Who would have thought the hurricane would have wiped it away? It’s just gone," Shirley said.
The marsh is a huge expanse of thatch and dying vegetation. And Holly Beach looks like a poorly maintained landfill, with debris scattered everywhere.
"You wouldn’t even know there was a house there," said Sarah Deen of Winn Parish.
During the summer, 4-H students who attended Marsh Maneuvers at Rockefeller Refuge experienced coastal Louisiana in its splendor.
But the advanced 4-H Marsh Maneuvers program Dec. 9-11 that served as a follow-up visit for some of the earlier program’s participants provided a view of Mother Nature at her worst.
"The weekend made a lasting impression on them," Shirley said.
The follow-up to the summer program couldn’t be held at Rockefeller Refuge because repairs to the facility are incomplete. Instead, the 18 students stayed at White Lake Preserve south of Gueydan.
The first morning of the weekend they hid in a duck blind to watch early morning flights of waterfowl – spying on geese and several different types of ducks.
The group traveled to Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge to watch wildlife biologists demonstrate how a cannon net is used to catch ducks. LSU wildlife graduate student Paul Link is using this technique to capture Mallard hens. The ducks are fitted with radio transmitters that allow Link and his assistants to locate the birds and determine habitat preference.
"We want to know what kind of habitat they use here," he said, adding, however, that the hurricanes’ aftermath have resulted in an unusual pattern.
"It’s a strange year because of the marsh being so burnt by the salty storm surge," Link added about the damage caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita across southern Louisiana.
Food and water also are so scarce that birds are concentrated in a smaller area, Link said. Most of the time, the ducks are feeding in agricultural fields, and they travel as far as 12 miles form the marsh to get there, he said.
For student Daniel Manuel of Ville Platte, who came back for Marsh Maneuvers in December, it was a dead deer on the roadside that brought home the devastation.
"It made me realize it wasn’t just people who were affected," Manuel said. "It’s really amazing. I didn’t know it was this bad."
Paul Kieu, a Vermilion Catholic sophomore, said he had seen storm damage when he helped a friend whose house was damaged in Vermilion Parish.
"I just thought it was bad there," Kieu said.
Occie Sykes, a 4-H student from Grant Parish, was surprised that mosquitoes were so numerous in the cold weather.
"Especially that are this big," Sykes said. "They’re like military mosquitoes."
Others agreed the damage was far more than they expected.
"You see things about devastation in New Orleans, but until you actually see it here, there’s no words," remarked 4-H member Jacob Churchman of Grant Parish.
Ben Graham, a Vernon Parish student, said storm damage near his home was limited to timber blown down – unlike the town of Cameron where Rita damaged every structure.
"There’s nothing left down here," Graham said. "It opens your eyes up. You don’t realize how bad it is until you come down here."
During the trip, the group stopped at Rockefeller Refuge to look at the damage to the facility’s buildings.
"That’s where we stayed and had our classes and took our tests," Deen said of the earlier Marsh Maneuvers experience.
Much of the siding had been stripped from the camp, but the basic structure appeared intact, unlike hundreds of houses along the coast.
Julia McLain, an LSU AgCenter 4-H agent from Grant Parish, attended the summer version of Marsh Maneuvers and returned for the December session.
"This has been my favorite thing to do with Extension," she said of the experience, adding that it was a good learning experience for 4-H’ers – even though the lessons this winter weren’t exactly what planners generally hope to show the youngsters.
For more information on Marsh Maneuvers and the variety of 4-H educational programs offered by the LSU AgCenter, as well as research and educational programs on issues ranging from agriculture and natural resources to family life, visit www.lsuagcenter.com or your parish’s LSU AgCenter Extension office.