Elizabeth Coffman, PhD, faculty member in the School of Communication and maker of the documentary film Veins in the Gulf.

The Louisiana coast is the fastest disappearing landmass in the world. According to Elizabeth Coffman, PhD, a football field’s worth of land disappears there every 45 minutes.

“Protecting the coastal area and starting to restore it are vital,” Coffman says. “This is the first coastal area to go under, but it won’t be the last.”

Coffman, a faculty member in the School of Communication, and Ted Hardin, with whom she made the documentary Veins in the Gulf and with whom she is the co-founder of media company Long Distance Productions, were introduced to the story of the disappearing wetlands seven or eight years ago, before Hurricane Katrina devastated the coast. Coffman, a Florida native, was teaching at the University of Tampa with Louisiana poet Martha Serpas, who is the guide and narrator of the documentary.

“She introduced us to many of the participants in the film, who run the gamut from politics to the media to other writers to environmental scientists,” says Coffman.

When Katrina hit in 2005, the area was suddenly the focus of national attention. “We started following the story of wetland loss after Katrina and Rita, and then when Gustave and Ike hit a few years later, we started more seriously following the community trying to save their homes,” says Coffman.

The challenges facing the Louisiana coast are numerous and complex. “For example, when you build levees, you destroy wetlands,” says Coffman. But without levees, people’s homes are in danger. And sea level rise will only continue.

Veins in the Gulf shows imagery of the Louisiana coast now and in the past and features levee board politicians, water specialists, engineers, and musicians speaking about their home, their perspective on the imminent challenges, and proposed solutions. “We’re on everybody’s side, and we’re letting the community tell the story,” Coffman says. Solutions, however, are as complex as the problems they face.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 again thrust the coast into the national spotlight. “It took us a few years to understand how these competing interests intersect,” Coffman says. “Oil companies’ activities in the marsh lead to erosion, but oil companies have also given significant funds to research and preservation. Plus, a majority of people are employed by oil and seafood. It’s not as simple as to say, oh, the oil company is the bad guy. It’s not binary. People want to keep their jobs; they don’t want the oil company to leave, but they don’t want it to pollute the seafood and the environment. Really, we are looking at a very vulnerable area.”

One solution proposed in the documentary is the piping of sediment through pipelines, which is then dumped on the coast. “This is what the local communities want financed to slow down coastal land loss, and it’s been demonstrated to work,” Coffman says. “This is a conversation among people in political office, levee directors, environmental scientists—it’s really collaborative problem solving.” A copy of the film was given to Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, and Coffman hopes the documentary will make the case for the pipeline sediment solution, as well as draw further attention and funding to the issue.

Coffman is hopeful about the future of the area, and she holds the outcome close to her heart. “One of the documentary’s main subjects is Kerry St. Pe’, who has led conservation efforts in southern Louisiana for decades. He has a long commitment to restoring and saving his home,” Coffman says. “He suffered a stroke while making this film. The stroke was mild, but it was enough to slow him down and affect his speech. Seeing the commitment of people like Kerry, as well as that of people who may have seemed like they were on the other side of the fence—politicians or people who work for oil—seeing how people came together and committed to this issue, regardless of the disasters, was, to me, emotionally gripping.”

Coffman believes that the unflappable commitment of those who live in the area will be the thing that ultimately leads to a solution. “They know how intertwined the culture is with the landscape, and they want to keep both from disappearing,” Coffman says. “These people aren’t leaving.”

To learn more about the documentary and its subject, visit www.veinsinthegulf.com

Story courtesy of Loyola magazine (Fall 2011).