The alligators have fled and the tall, green marsh grasses are brown from salt water, but the coastal Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge’s resilient natural defenses may have prevented a catastrophe in the area ravaged by Hurricane Rita.
The refuge’s 76,000 acres of beach and salt water and freshwater marshes were swept by a 20-foot surge from the Gulf of Mexico when the storm struck the coast on Sept. 24, destroying towns as far as six miles inland.
Much of Cameron and Vermillion parishes remain flooded, and water levels at the Rockefeller refuge are nearly three feet above their normal depth of about 18 inches, but damage from the saltwater appears to be only temporary.
“The marsh is a filter system, and it buffers the effect of the flood and storm tides,” said Guthrie Perry, a biologist and the program manager at the refuge.
Hundreds of alligators that usually live in the refuge are now prowling the farmlands and marshes to the north to escape the high salinity levels, Perry said, but they should return as those flooded areas dry and the refuge returns to normal in the coming weeks.
Surveying the refuge by airboat, Perry spotted dozens of tiny fiddler crabs, usually happier in the shadows of the water, scurrying along the sandy high grounds and narrow levees constructed by the state.
Small flocks of birds, such as Wilson’s Plover, were also evident at the refuge that is a key stop in the “Mississippi Flyway” migration route for millions of birds.
The fish, plants and bugs they feed on, though partially depleted now, should rebound within a year, Perry said.
First Post-Rita alligator
Amid one patch of marsh grass, Perry honed in on a narrow bumpy ridge in the water -- the first alligator he’s seen in the refuge since Hurricane Rita. The six-foot reptile spun quickly and slapped its tail violently against the water as it dove to evade the airboat.
“There’s a lot of them out on the roads, and lots of turtles and snakes,” said Darren Richard, a wildlife technician at the refuge.
For the moment, those animals may be the only residents. The towns of Cameron and Creole to the north of the refuge were mostly destroyed when Hurricane Rita struck just weeks after Hurricane Katrina blasted the coastline to the east from New Orleans to Mobile, Alabama on Aug. 29.
At the edge of the Gulf, a sliver of sandy beach about 200 feet long rises from the water, revealing grapefruit-sized holes where ghost crabs had burrowed.
A marker standing in the water showed that the beach was nearly 100 feet wider before Rita swept much of it away.
“This has changed dramatically out here since the storm,” Perry said. “And once it’s gone it doesn’t come back.”
Since it was established by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1920, the refuge has lost about 10,000 acres to coastal erosion along its 26.5 miles of shoreline.
Rita’s surge also swept away limestone and rolled up mats used to build a narrow road recently constructed for nearly $1 million. A cluster of buildings used as offices, temporary residences and equipment storage at the refuge will have to be torn down.
Rebuilding and good riddance
The refuge’s trust fund, bolstered by fees from oil and gas drilling at the site over the years, including a half dozen wells currently operating, should enable it to rebuild facilities.
“We’ve got a lot of resources in the bank to rebuild it. This is our flagship refuge,” said W. Parke Moore, assistant secretary in the wildlife office of the state’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
There was little that Perry and Moore could do about the eroding beach, but the storm had provided some unexpected help.
Invasive plant species, such as salvinia and water hyacinth, and the marsh-destroying nutria, a beaver-like rodent that can weigh as much as 18 pounds, had suffered sharp losses because of the salt water.
“Along with the destruction, there has been some good,” Perry said.