The Sinkhole

By  |  July 27, 2016
"Hole" (2009), by Walker Pickering "Hole" (2009), by Walker Pickering

Dennis Landry’s waterfront home on Bayou Corne in South Louisiana was built to be his last. Antique pine beams—reportedly salvaged from a cotton warehouse—line the ceilings. Cypress planks make for the walls. The floors are Asian teak and the fireplace in the living room was designed just for him. He had a pirogue—a small wooden canoe—carved into the wall above the mantel to create shelves for his antique duck decoys. 

Landry—compact and gray at sixty-four—has lots of treasures. He keeps them here on the shelves and also in his office, just past the fireplace, with windows looking out over the bayou. There are still more duck decoys—“As you can see, I’m kind of a collector”—and commemorative guns and porcelain whiskey decanters designed to look like Paul Revere and Thomas Jefferson and Civil War heroes from the South. “No Union,” he tells me during a visit to Bayou Corne last winter. “I got too many. I got too much stuff. I should have built this room twice as big.”

In the neighborhood at the time—up and down Sportsman’s Drive, Jambalaya Street, and Sauce Piquante Lane—Landry’s neighbors were packing up to leave, putting their lives into boxes. Many more had already left, abandoning their homes in a panic months earlier to escape the sinkhole, swallowing the earth about a half-mile to the east and getting larger by the day. The hole was now thirty-one acres in size and 260 feet deep, forming a massive lake—moving and alive and swallowing cypress trees whole—where a shallow swamp used to be. 

Assumption Parish officials had long ago ordered an evacuation of the tiny community—and the state of Louisiana stood behind that order. The problem wasn’t just the sinkhole and the fears about how big it might grow, but the lethal gases that the shifting earth had unleashed beneath Bayou Corne. Landry and others were now sitting atop a mound of methane, invisible and potentially explosive and trying to find a way to the surface, a way out.

Residents scattered. Lawyers moved in. On the bayou, emergency management officials set up patrols—worried eyes on the hole. And in New Orleans, seventy-five miles to the east, a battle took shape in U.S. District Court: Homeowners versus Texas Brine, the drilling and extraction company that operated on the site where the sinkhole formed. The fight was ready-made for the media, easily framed as ordinary folk against big business. 

But quietly, back on Bayou Corne, a much more complicated squabble has played out between the homeowners themselves, pitting those who wanted to stay against those who wanted to go, neighbor versus neighbor and all too often versus Dennis Landry, the vocal leader of the charge to stay, the self-described “protector” and “preserver” of the community he loves, the homeowner determined to be the last man on the bayou—even if everyone else leaves.

“There was a threat—and there is still a remaining threat,” Landry told me, sitting in his home with four air monitors plugged into the walls, sniffing for traces of methane and hydrogen sulfide, “which,” Landry blithely points out, “is a poisonous gas that can kill you.” “But I’m willing to stay,” he explained. 

In part, because he doesn’t believe he’s in danger. “I just don’t think the threat is that great.” And in part, because he likes it here, on the bayou, by the sinkhole, in a community of ghosts. “It’s almost impossible to find a waterfront area like we have,” Landry said. “I can go out my back door, walk down to the water, step on my pontoon boat, and—if I have enough gas—I can go anywhere I want to go.”

 

Bayou Corne is a destination. Type it into Google maps and the Sinkhole, with a capital “S,” pops up right away. The Internet knows where you want to go and it will take you there: west from New Orleans down Interstate 10, getting off before Gonzalez, twenty miles before Baton Rouge, and slicing south over the Mississippi River, past the petrochemical plants that locals blame for their high cancer rates, and further still down Highway 70 to the brown water with the fading sign on the shore: bayou corne.

It isn’t a town in any traditional sort of way. There’s no town square and no business district. There’s not even so much as a strip mall, unless you count the gas station selling live bait (crickets—$2.39 per twenty-five count), stuffed alligator heads ($29.99 for the head of a ten-footer), and fried chicken to the Texas Brine employees and emergency management personnel still on site. The mailing address, officially, is Belle Rose, a town just north of the bayou. But the 350 people who once lived here—a mix of part-time residents with weekend camps and full-time residents with spacious homes—never claimed Belle Rose. They were here for the peace and the quiet and the fishing—the water filled with bass and sacalait, good eating.

Landry isn’t much of a fisherman. But when he bought thirty-one acres here two decades ago and started developing it with his first wife, Landry knew they had stumbled onto something valuable. He built a boat launch, erected three vacation cabins and finally his own home. And in selling off the land around it for development, Landry stressed the unique location of the parcels to potential buyers. “I told everyone the same thing,” he recalled. “That this is one of the few places in South Louisiana where, on a beautiful, cool fall morning, if a fella wants to, he can get up, make an early morning hunt, catch a bunch of fish—and still make it to LSU stadium in time for kickoff.”

The location was also popular for petrochemical companies, though for different reasons. The area sits on top of what’s known as the Napoleonville salt dome, a natural deposit of sodium chloride, left behind by an ancient ocean and now roughly three miles long, a mile wide, and several miles deep. “Interminable,” said Sonny Cranch, a spokesman for Texas Brine. “It could be 20,000 feet deep.” Which makes it a valuable resource. Companies like Texas Brine are currently mining salt in fifty-three different locations on the Napoleonville salt dome alone—there are other domes across the South—and shipping what they extract down the Mississippi River to be converted into countless products: paint, plastic bumpers for cars, PVC pipes, and more. “The uses are just enormous,” Cranch said, “and so widespread.”  

Residents in Bayou Corne drove past the Texas Brine operation every day. But few thought much about it or had any knowledge of what the original mining permit described as the potential for “catastrophic subsidence.” In other words, according to the permit, “the sudden collapse of the ground surface due to the removal of supporting underground structure.” In other words, a really big sinkhole. Until August 3, 2012, that is, when Texas Brine employees came to work on the salt dome and made a startling discovery at the closed mining site known as Cavern No. 3. 

“The swamp,” Cranch said, “was gone.”

  

John Boudreaux didn’t hesitate to call for the evacuation. As director of the Office of Emergency Preparedness for Assumption Parish, Boudreaux’s primary goal is public safety. “That’s our job,” he told me. And given the sinkhole and the gas, he and other officials couldn’t vouch—and still can’t vouch—for anyone’s safety. “Worst case scenario, you might have your house blown to bits,” said Patrick Courreges, a spokesman for the state Department of Natural Resources. “You get a spark. Fire. Explosion. That’s our biggest concern.”

Cranch, speaking for Texas Brine, dismissed the chances of anything like that as “very remote.” He would live there, he said, and still works from there sometimes, inside one of the sixty-six houses the company has acquired from residents through direct buyouts. The house, though converted into a command center with computers on desks and maps on walls, still has some of the trappings of home in what appears to have been a child’s bedroom. A Transformers poster. A light switch plate that reads, “All-Star.” And the child’s name still written in block letters across the wall: JOSHUA.

But the state’s concern about explosions was real, and remains so, breeding fear in Bayou Corne last year as families debated whether to heed the evacuation order and go or take their chances and stay. In deposition after deposition, homeowners talked about the stress this decision was creating in their lives.

“I can’t sleep a lot,” said one woman. “Bickering, fighting.”

“Is the bickering and fighting with a family member or—”

“My husband.”

“Have you had disagreements, specifically, related to the sinkhole?”

“Yes . . . He wants to stay.”

Others did, too—even amidst the evacuation order, and the fear, and Texas Brine buying out their neighbors, clearing out their homes, and stacking the appliances inside a large aluminum garage. Nick Romero, a retired postal worker, had no interest in leaving his two-bedroom house on Sauce Piquante Lane. 

“This is my home,” he told me last year. “If I’m going, where am I going? I’m going somewheres that I don’t want to be, around people that I don’t know, who don’t care about me. Why do I want to be there? Even this being as bad as it is, it’s not like that. I feel safe here.”

Romero could work in his shed—the one he and his neighbors had built together. He had a lift ready to drop his seventeen-foot aluminum boat into the bayou. “All I gotta do is press a button,” he said, “and I’m gone.” And to keep busy, he set his mind on another job: keeping track of the days since the evacuation on a wooden sign he erected on Highway 70. For months, he went out and changed the numbers. 

“How long can this last?” he asked.

Some neighbors were angry at Romero for staying. By not evacuating, they believed, he was hurting their chances of a better legal settlement. But few faced greater animosity than Landry. He wasn’t just staying, but renting out his vacation cabins and his land near the boat launch to emergency response teams. He was making money off the disaster while also advocating for his neighbors to stay—an awkward position, in an angry time, that inevitably drew the ire of neighbors. “He’s a Texas Brine spokesperson—essentially,” said Ken Simoneaux, a fifty-eight-year-old heavy-crane operator living just across the highway from Landry. “He’s more pro–Texas Brine than their own employees.”

The sinkhole had taken a toll on Simoneaux’s family, like everyone here. Ken’s wife, Cathy, a recovering alcoholic, had relapsed, drinking again—wine, she said, too much—before going back into rehab. “I couldn’t stop,” she told me later, blaming her decisions on stress and fear. “The fear of the unknown.” 

Still, it hurt Landry to know what people were saying about him. Hurt him to know that Bayou Corne was changing, had already changed, perhaps forever, no matter what people decided to do about staying. “Everybody got along,” he said. “But now there’s some bad blood there. It’s sad. It’s divided the community.”

 

In late January, a Texas Brine official offered me a tour of the sinkhole. At the time, the hole was about 170 feet deep and surrounded by booms and berms and vent wells, releasing the methane from the earth beneath us. The site appeared, with the exception of all the hardware, almost completely unremarkable—like a flooded swamp. Great white egrets soared above the water’s surface and the towering cypress trees—trees that every so often disappear, sucked down into the muck, devoured by the hole. 

It will take years to sort out which party is to blame for what happened here. The insurer claims Texas Brine knew the western wall of cavern No. 3 was “precariously” close to the edge of the salt dome while Texas Brine denies any such knowledge and, instead, blames another company for drilling in that location long ago. Last July, however, the insurer ended the war on one front, agreeing to a $48 million settlement with the residents of Bayou Corne. 

“I believe there’s a significant problem,” said Larry Centola, one of the lawyers representing the residents. “But don’t take it from me. Take it from the insurance companies. They’re willing to pay $48 million so that nobody dies and they don’t have a larger claim on their hands. I’d leave.”

Most people, in the end, took that advice, including Romero. “My wife doesn’t want to stay,” he said, “and there’s no sense in me trying to convince her we should.” He had even stopped changing the numbers on the sign up on the highway counting the days since the sinkhole. They were stuck at 612, several months behind. “The reality of counting those days just kind of works on you,” he admitted. “Wasn’t doing me any good at all,” he added, especially after the settlement. “What’s the point of it, anymore?”

Romero packed up and left in late January along with others—once the settlement money came in and Texas Brine closed on their homes. Romero was moving closer to Baton Rouge. Most had relocated long before. But at least a few were drifting, unsure of their future even as the ink was drying on the paperwork. Ken and Cathy Simoneaux spent their first night away from their home in Bayou Corne sleeping in a trailer park—paved and desolate—seven miles up the highway. 

“I’m thankful we’re getting what we’re getting,” Cathy said the next day at dinnertime. “It’s enough for us to start over.”

“Barely,” Ken groused over his rice and gravy, served on a paper plate. 

“Nothing’s changed,” he added a few minutes later.

But Cathy disagreed, smiling. 

“What’s changed is we have hope,” she told him. “The cup’s half full, baby.”

Before leaving, Simoneaux had found some paint and done the job that Romero had stopped doing. He updated the numbers on the sign on the highway to reflect just how long they had lived in limbo since the sinkhole: 842 days at the time and—as the sign points out—“still counting.” “We need to inform the world,” Simoneaux declared. 

But it’s hard to imagine who might see the sign, besides the truck drivers passing through, the fishermen who still ply the waters of the bayou for sacalait, and Dennis Landry. As Simoneaux ate his dinner that evening in his trailer, Landry was working in the yard around his rental cabins, trimming back the oak and cypress trees. “Trying to get ready for spring,” he said. 

He was hoping for a big year. The growth of the sinkhole has slowed. The gas underground is diminishing, venting—harmlessly, for now—into the atmosphere. It could still be years before it dissipates entirely. No one knows how long it could take. But at least Landry will not be living in Bayou Corne alone. Eight other homes will be occupied, full-time, by people who negotiated deals to stay. 

Still, most are gone and never coming back. Giving me a tour of the community last winter, even Landry had to concede that reality, driving down quiet streets filled with sad, empty houses and pointing out all the neighbors who had once lived with him in Bayou Corne.

“They sold out to Texas Brine early on . . . They were supposed to stay. She got scared to death, wanted to leave right away . . . All the houses on this side of the street are going to be destroyed one day or resold, but probably destroyed. Everything on that side? Gone. These people were set for life here. Set for life. It’s just weeds coming up now . . . All these houses here are gonna go.”


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Keith O’Brien is the author of Outside Shot: Big Dreams, Hard Times, and One County’s Quest for Basketball Greatness. His journalism has appeared in the New York Times Magazine and on National Public Radio. He lives in New Orleans. 

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