Adapting to flooding at the DeFelice Marine Center

A statement from our Executive Director on our plans to sustain LUMCON

Dear Friends of LUMCON:

You may have heard about LUMCON in the news recently. We’ve been featured on National Public Radio, Yale Climate Connections, in the Times Picayune, and in the Houma Courier. These pieces have focused on a new era for us as we strive for growth, reach for innovation, and capitalize on opportunities. Prominent in these narratives is the impact of coastal loss and flooding on our facility.

Throughout LUMCON’s history, our location in Cocodrie, near the very end of Highway 56, has proven to be an immense asset. The architecturally unique DeFelice Marine Center and its idyllic location are icons of LUMCON and marine and coastal science along the Gulf of Mexico. Because our Center is situated in the heart of the beautiful coastal wetlands of Southern Louisiana, our location provides ready field access to the most productive estuaries in the United States and one of the largest wetlands in the world. Besides access to vast salty, brackish, and freshwater marshes, the Marine Center also affords proximity to barrier islands and offshore coastal and deep waters of the northern Gulf of Mexico. The distance from a major urban center and universities also affords opportunities for retreat. Faculty and students find solitude removed from institutional distractions that allow them to focus on both research and education. Our facility has and will continue, for years to come, to serve as a retreat and a scientific and educational launch site.

For many years, the DeFelice Marine Center has experienced and continues to experience flooding brought on by high tide events due to the normal cycle of the Gulf or storms small and large alike. A complex interaction between sea level rise, loss and degradation of wetlands and barrier islands, and coastal subsidence has resulted in water replacing land in Southern Louisiana. At its worst, Louisiana lost a football field of coastal wetlands every 30 minutes. I have witnessed this loss first hand. As a young man, I took undergraduate courses at LUMCON, and, upon my return two decades later as the Executive Director, I’ve struggled to process both emotionally and mentally the loss of marsh that I conducted research in not so long ago. Unfortunately, my experience is not purely anecdotal as LUMCON scientists have documented some marsh boundaries eroding as much as 16 feet per year.

This loss of land means LUMCON’s DeFelice Center floods. In 2017, water covered some minimal part of walkable ground on 43 days. On 17 of those, we had to get through water pooled in the driveway to enter the building and on 5, we were closed because the water covered Highway 56 and had entered the Center’s first floor. We were prepared on each of these occasions. Strong environmental monitoring (broadcast live at​) combined with access to NOAA meteorological data allow us to get advanced warning and even predict when flooding will occur. A combination of local employees, security guards, 24/7 tower cameras, and 24/7 environmental monitoring lets us assess conditions at the site instantaneously and remotely. The DeFelice Center’s main floor of operations resides 18 feet off the ground to provide the Center with a formidable defense against flooding.

We are a marine center, water is our job. Our location here “way down the bayou” is important to our mission and our future addressing our state’s, and our nation’s, largest problem. There is no better way to thoroughly understand coastal change, loss, and recovery than to live it. There is no richer opportunity to understand the resilience and vulnerability of wetlands than to witness it firsthand every day. There is no better way to educate the public about coastal loss than to have students experience it firsthand at a flooded LUMCON. And there is no better way to teach other institutions how to adapt than by adapting to flooding ourselves.

And so LUMCON’s ​Growth & Planning Panel (GRAPPLE), in conjunction with​ ongoing collaborations with the Coastal Sustainability Studios at LSU, are laying the groundwork for the future of LUMCON by developing innovative solutions and creative adaptations. Our solutions will provide a model for other institutions facing similar issues. And our plan, even as we expand our operations and increase our presence in the state through new facilities at the new Houma marine education and research campus and our new Louisiana Center for Marine Science Innovation there, is that our beloved DeFelice Marine Center will always be our headquarters and the heart of our operations.

That heart is important. Our Center standing strong in flooded waters is a tangible representation of LUMCON’s resilience and adaptability. When we flood, we put on our white boots—the same white boots worn on the decks of Cajun shrimp boats. They are a tool that allows us to continue our important work, but they’re also a symbol of Cajun culture and the strengths of Louisianians. With our white boots on, rising waters are less threat, and more of an opportunity to rise up too.

With hope and determination,
Dr. Craig R. McClain