Natural resource ecology and management junior gives TEDx Talk on coastal land loss


Madelyn Smith

Madelyn Smith speaks about the communities affected by coastal land loss on March 3, 2018. Photo provided by TedxLSU

In order for global challenges to be heard in a world of information overload, creating a compelling storyline has become a crucial artform.

Two million Louisiana residents have homes along the coast, and their livelihood is threatened by the encroaching Gulf of Mexico, said Madelyn Smith, one of 12 speakers at the sold-out TEDx Talk in the Union Theater on March 3.  

Smith, a junior in natural resource ecology and management, spent two years documenting and photographing the stories of threatened and soon-to-be threatened Louisiana coastal communities.

The project resulted in “Louisiana Gone” — a book filled with black and white photography accompanied with short stories aiming to humanize the experience of Louisiana's biggest challenge: coastal land loss.

“Louisiana Gone” was the focal point of Smith’s TEDx Talk, which centered around four stories from the book.

Janet Rhodus from Denham Springs travels 130 miles every free weekend she has to fish in Leeville, a small coastal town that is quickly eroding into the gulf.

In 2012, Rhodus created Launch Leeville, a non-profit that protects and preserves the heritage and history of the cultural historic fishing village of Leeville for the interest and education of present and future generations, according to the organization’s Facebook page.

“It’s a common saying there that just one more hurricane could wipe everything away,” Smith said.

The Cajun Pecan House in Cut Off, Louisiana is known for its perfect pralines.

When the economic climate of the community was brought up by Smith, Jennifer Schexnayder, a family member of the restaurant’s owners, addressed one of the core challenges of coastal restoration in Louisiana.

Oil and gas companies have damaged coastal wetlands, but these same companies provide an unbeatable livelihood to the people living along the coast, and those paychecks are spent at local businesses like the Cajun Pecan House, Smith said.

How could she possibly condemn an industry that her community relies on to survive, Smith asked the audience.

Smith highlighted the fact that there is a huge disconnect between urban centers like Baton Rouge and rural areas like Grand Isle. She said if those in Baton Rouge include coastal natives in the decision-making process, it will only help each iteration of the coastal master plan.

A staggering 40 percent of the world’s population lives within 60 miles of a coastline.

“Ultimately, the stories of Louisiana's disappearing coastline are not just Louisiana stories, they are American stories. They are global stories.”