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Janet Rhodus of Launch Leeville in Leeville, Louisiana
October 18, 2016
Janet Rhodus is a powerhouse of a woman, self- motivated to explore issues close to her heart and unafraid to address situations she perceives as moral wrongs. We got in touch with her through the Facebook page of Launch Leeville, the nonprofit she founded to advocate for the interests of the community. She graciously agreed to meet with us on the deck of her friend’s shrimping boat, docked behind Terry’s Bait Shop. Although we initially questioned the locale of the interview, it’s appropriateness revealed itself when we discovered that fishing is what first brought Janet to Grand Isle and ultimately introduced her to Leeville’s political and environmental issues. Janet’s interview was so detailed and informed, we decided to include it here almost in it’s entirety.
“Last weekend, we normally have a fishing rodeo, the Leeville Annual Fishing Rodeo. We didn’t have it this year because of the oil industry is so dead and also because of the flood. The majority of people that come to Leeville or have camps here are from Livingston Parish, Ascension Parish, East Baton Rouge Parish. So, ever since the flood, they’ve really had a severe impact to the economy in addition to the oilfield economy as well.
There’s two shrimp seasons, there’s a brown season and a white season. This particular season, they’re having to go out farther to get the bigger shrimp right now because the floodwaters pushed the bigger shrimp farther out. Even though the flood happened up there, it’s having an impact here on the shrimp and the economy.
I’m originally from Denham Springs, I came here in ‘91, started fishing here, and fell in love with the place. In the late 1800s, between here and Grand Isle, there was the Cheniere Caminada. When that great hurricane came through, those people, the few that survived, migrated here. They set up stores and things of that nature and there was families and Leeville was really thriving. There was actually three communities. There was Orange City with orange groves and things of that nature. Then, across the bayou, there was Missville. This was vast farmlands. They had rice, cattle, cotton. In 1915 they had a bad hurricane that came through. We celebrated it last year in our annual festival, a hundred years since the great hurricane, but it pretty much wiped out Leeville. There was only one structure left. One home actually drifted up to Golden Meadow and it’s still there in the place that it landed. From 1915 to middle 1920s, Leeville was really like a ghost town except for the trawlers that hung out here. There was no industry here then, all the stores were wiped out, everyone moved away. In the mid 20s, they started drilling for oil around here. Then, in the 30s, Bayou Lafourche was lined up with oil derricks. It was a big oil town, so it started coming back and thriving.
It’s kind of like a double-edged sword. The oil industry brought a lot of money here, but it also has been the demise of Leeville, with them coming in a cutting all the canals and what have you. They were issued permits, and when they dug canals they were supposed to have weirs and dams to prevent erosion, but the state didn’t enforce that. So, once they got their permit and they put in their dams and weirs, they never came back and maintained them. So, they eroded and everything just sort of washed away, and the state didn’t penalize them or fine them. As long as the money’s coming in, nobody cares. So, now it’s time to pay the piper, so to speak.
In my opinion, every dollar that the oil and gas industry has contributed to the Louisiana economy- that and then some- is going to be needed to restore the coast. I’m not so sure if they’re really even trying to restore the coast. I think they know it’s too far gone, it’s a smokescreen. They’ve got the master plan but it’s too slow. There’s constantly study after study after study and we’re not seeing the actual projects being done. You get an actual project approved and funded, it’s five years from the day that it’s approved to when they start doing work. You also have some restoration projects that get approved and then when they go back out to do their assessment. They’ll find that there’s old abandoned gas and oil pipelines underneath and they say it costs too much to remove that. They don’t go back to the oil companies and ask them to remove all that. Our state is the big culprit of all this, it doesn’t make sense.
I started coming down here and I got interested in what was going on here. So, I started doing my own research, going to meetings, and seeing what’s going on. I’ve learned a lot and it’s quite sickening, really.
They don’t care that cemeteries have been washed away here. They don’t care. Over there, there was a huge oak grove. It was huge. The bayou was just as wide as this boat. Their families that buried them there never imagined that they would reach a watery grave. It’s so so sad. Those were people. I think it’s so disrespectful. It’s all about money. They said that cemetery had a big bulkhead. Well, they used to have a sulfur barge that would make the turn there. The bayou was so narrow that it would pivot off the bulkhead of the cemetery in order to make the turn. Eventually, the bulkhead just washed away. Nobody cared, no one did anything about it. sulfur barges just coming through, making money.
They don’t want to sue that oil and gas industry, but they’re the ones that created this. What they do is, they file bankruptcy and create another company so there’s no paper trail. In the 30s, they had all these gas and oil leases, all these wells that were drilled on private landowner’s property, and it specifically says you can do it but you must put the property back like you found it. Never been done! Now, I don’t think it’ll ever catch up.
It’s really a lot of politics. Politicians that are involved in the state agencies such as CPRA or DNR, you see a lot of these department heads enter into the political arena. You go in some of their receptions and fundraisers, and it’s nothing but all these engineering firms that are making these large contributions to these campaigns because they know they’re making a fortune off of all the studies. The thing is, the caminada headland project off of Fourchon and Elmer’s Island that’s going on right now, almost a 500 million dollar project. I asked the CPRA head, “You know, ya’ll are bringing in sand from Ship’s Shoal, which is twenty miles away, that’s a lot of sand. What if there’s one big storm that comes through here?” It’ll all be washed away. I’m like, “Why are you doing it?” If you know it’s going to be washed away, why are you doing it? They take these trips over to Amsterdam to visit with the Dutch because they’ve been so successful, yet they don’t come back and implement what they’ve been doing.
I talk to my friends in Baton Rouge about it, and it doesn’t affect them, so they think. If something’s not done, they’re going to be docking boats at the state capital. When the flood came, and they said it was going to be 4 to 5 feet higher than the flood of ‘83-- well, I was a senior in high school in ‘83 and I lived in Denham springs, and the flood was bad, but back then we still had vast, open pastures and farmlands and woods and swamps in Livingston Parish. After Katrina, every stick of dirt they could build a house on, it’s there. Where my grandfather used to rabbit house in the swamps, there’s 3,000 homes there. So, when they said it’s gonna be three to five feet higher I knew it was gonna be bad because there was no where for the water to go. It could only go up because of all the concrete, you know. So, it’s poor planning. In Livingston Parish, all they cared about was getting the tax base after Katrina. Again, it’s time to pay the piper because of what they allowed and all this overdevelopment. There’s no planning for infrastructure and things of that nature, and when something like this occurs, that’s just what’s going to happen every time because they allowed it and was poor planning.
I created Launch Leeville in 2012 because I got so angry about what was going on after the oil spill here. Leeville has had the same councilman for 35 years and he has done nothing to help Leeville. At one time, Leeville had a fire station. It had a post office. It had numerous banks. It had a senior center. They don’t even have gas service here anymore because they say it’s not worthwhile to run the lines here. He’s just let all these services erode and move away while he’s done nothing.
It’s because of the bypass elevated highway. Everyone who used to come straight through town on the old bridge. The parish government had promised that they were gonna put in a boat launch to help with the local economy because they were bypassing Leeville with the highway. The parish president at the time, she was very corrupt, she was in cahoots with a guy who owned a marina here in Leeville that had a private launch. He didn’t want the public, free boat launch to go in because it would affect his bottom line. Although he was allowing people to launch at his boat launch, he didn’t have enough parking space. During the time of fishing season, people were parking on the highway, on both sides of the road, with little kids and everything. It was quite dangerous. That project got put on a back burner for eight years during that parish president’s tenure. A business owner here in town asked me. He knew with my real estate dealings that I knew a lot of people in state government. He asked me could I find up what the holdup was. The parish government was telling him the state was holding up the project, DOTD was holding up the project. I made some phone calls and came to find out that wasn’t the truth at all. It was the parish president who was holding it up. I knew that there’s lots of grants and resources available, but only to nonprofits. So, I created my own non profit, I got the 501 C3. Again, I taught myself how to do it. I went online, I did it. It was just the need to advocate for Leeville cause no one else was doing it, and a nonprofit was the way to do it and to raise the attention. I called it “Launch Leeville” cause it started out we were trying to get the boat launch. It’s here now, thanks to me. I hate to brag but it wouldn’t’a happened if I wouldn’t have found out what was going on. Once I brought up the issue, she couldn’t deny it anymore and she had to move on it. It’s all from a boat launch to coastal restoration projects that I’ve gotten for Leeville, to doing spaying and neutering. We have a bad feral population. We’ve done some trap and release where we trap feral cats, get em fixed, and release em back out.
We have the festival that brings people here. Our first year of our festival, we had people that came back to Leeville who hadn’t been here in fifty years and they live in Golden Meadow. It’s an arts and crafts festival. We don’t have a lot of room for rides and things like that. But we cook some good food, we let only vendors that make their crafts. There’s a lot of talented people. Although there’s only a population of less than fifty living in Leeville, there’s still so many people that are from Leeville and very talented people. They make things with oyster scales, fish scales. It’s really interesting. It’s just a way we get everybody to come back to Leeville. That first year, it was just amazing. Like, geez, Leeville’s right here. There’s always like “I know, but we always go north. We never go south.” Or they just get on the road and go to Grand Isle and they never stop in Leeville. It’s kind of like a little family reunion once a year. We probably average about eight hundred people that come. It’s the one time of year we have a traffic jam in Leeville.”
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!