In Louisiana, Climate Change Threatens the Preservation of History

When I visited Whitney Plantation in Louisiana last year, I was surprised to find that the museum’s tour, which is focused on the history and legacy of slavery, also discussed climate change. Amid twisty live oaks draped in Spanish moss, as green dragonflies buzzed in the heavy heat, I stopped to read a sign entitled, “Climate Change and Threats to Preservation.” 

Its text explained that Hurricane Ida, which hit the museum’s grounds on Aug. 29, 2021, was worsened by “warming oceans caused by climate change.” The sign connected Ida and climate change to the products manufactured in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, 85 miles along the Mississippi River that is home to more than 150 petrochemical plants and refineries—and to Whitney Plantation. Another sign, “Hurricanes and Other Storms,” sat in front of a wide expanse of grass, empty except for a scattering of wooden pilings. They were the remains of slave cabins that stood in that spot before the hurricane struck. 

“We started interpreting climate change, officially, as a response to that storm,” said Ashley Rogers, the executive director. “The hurricane sat on us for seven hours. Every single building was damaged, and three of them outright collapsed. Two slave cabins were demolished. That’s part of the cultural landscape of Louisiana that no longer exists.”

The museum was closed for three months for extensive and expensive repairs, and when I visited, 10 months after Ida, the 19th-century Antioch Baptist Church was still wrapped in scaffolding and yellow caution tape. 

Although Whitney Plantation was able to restore some (but not all) of their buildings, Rogers wonders how the museum will weather extreme storms like Ida in the future, and that’s to say nothing of what land loss, flooding and nearby industrial development might mean for the site’s survival. She sees a type of feedback loop in the environmental problems facing southern Louisiana. 

“We are fighting industrial encroachment, that only furthers conditions of land loss, which then lead to climate change, which then leads to stronger storms,” Rogers said. “It feels almost inevitable that there’s going to be significant loss of heritage sites like ours. Climate change poses an existential threat to our continuance as a historic site.”

Whitney Plantation’s vulnerabilities are not an anomaly. Historical and archaeological heritage sites around the world are gravely threatened by climate change, a fact made clear in a comprehensive recent report published in “Antiquity” called “Climate change and the loss of archaeological sites and landscapes.” Press about climate change and archaeology often touts discoveries made possible by melting ice or eroding coastlines, but those stories obscure the bigger picture: we are losing far more than we are saving. 

From Libya to Greece, Scotland to Australia, the world’s cultural treasures are at risk, and efforts to preserve them have so far been unequal to the magnitude of the threat. A 2018 paper compared the situation to “burning libraries” on a global scale, irreplaceable resources that we must act to protect now if we want to keep them. “I hope that authorities in countries around the world will begin to realize that the climate change threat to archaeology is an urgent problem that has to be faced,” said Jørgen Hollesen, the author of the report. “The sooner the better.” 

Because of how quickly climate change and its effects are accelerating, the report acknowledges that it won’t be possible to save every site. Projects like “Heritage on the Edge,” which has a “mission to digitize more sites before they’re lost” are trying to fill the gaps, but a digital model is not a true substitute for a physical place, especially a place that has not been fully catalogued or studied. Deciding what to save, and how, is a subjective and complicated minefield. “We are preserving sites for generations of people to come, and so need to evaluate what will be significant to them, rather than to us,” Hollesen said. 

While we can’t know for certain what will be most significant to future generations, in the here and now, Whitney Plantation’s work is helping to make visible the ways that America’s past is very much alive in its present. “Climate change and environmental racism are legacies of slavery,” Rogers said. “The fact that Cancer Alley exists, and that it exists in exactly the same spot that was the densest plantation district in the country–these things aren’t a coincidence.” 

Cancer Alley is what’s known as a “sacrifice zone,” a place where residents, often disproportionately people of color, are routinely exposed to pollution and hazardous waste. In 2021, the United Nations called on the U.S. federal government to end further industrialization in Cancer Alley, citing ongong public health risks and human rights violations. Cancer Alley’s refineries and plants, Rogers said, sit on top of former plantations where generations of enslaved people were born, worked, died and were buried. 

A few miles up the river from Whitney Plantation in St. James Parish, residents are fighting a proposal to build a giant new petrochemical plant. The history of the land and the close proximity of enslaved ancestors’ graves played a role in a judge’s 2022 decision to cancel the company’s air permits. But many of Cancer Alley’s old plantation burial grounds, which are largely unmarked, have already been destroyed by industry, and climate change could wipe out what is left.  

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On the way back to New Orleans after the tour, we passed some of Cancer Alley’s hulking infrastructure: huge, rust-colored structures, belching thick white smoke; pipes disgorging brown water into open fields; eerie, blinking orange lights; cranes and towers and a billboard for Shell with a smiling worker’s photograph and the words “The Rhythm of Louisiana” and the hashtag #MakeTheFuture. There were few signs of wildlife in the tall grasses and creeping kudzu that lined the road. As we drove, a storm was brewing, and the sky darkened to a bruised purple, extinguishing the sunny afternoon of a few minutes before. Fat raindrops fell hard against the windows. 

In our interview, Ashley Rogers spoke about the Antioch Baptist Church, a structure that was built by formerly enslaved people after the Civil War and originally served as a burial society for the African American community in St. James Parish. After Ida severely damaged the church in 2021, its roof was replaced with 50-year shingles as part of a major renovation that cost $350,000. “You tell me: is that place going to be there in 50 years?” Rogers asked. “I don’t know.”

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                    Kiley Bense                 </a>


                <a href="https://kileybense.com/">Kiley Bense</a> is a writer and journalist whose work has previously been published in the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Believer, and elsewhere.

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