Louisiana 3rd District
Below sea level, veined with bayous and creeks and crossed by only an occasional road or railroad, the wetlands of southern Louisiana are one of America’s unique landscapes. Technically, most of this waterlogged land rests on islands in a broad river mouth, through which the waters of the Mississippi and its tributaries drain into the Gulf of Mexico. It is rich with animal life: herons and egrets, shrimp and crawfish, muskrats and alligators. Until August 2005, it supported more people than one might have thought, in surprisingly sturdy small towns with shopping malls on high ground and in bayou towns, where Cajun French remains the primary language. The steep-roofed Cajun houses were not the only structures. Here and there, jutting out of the swampy land, were huge elaborate metal sculptures—petrochemical plants and refineries, processing the oil and natural gas trapped under the wetlands and the shallow continental shelf of the Gulf. In the 1960s and 1970s, the oil industry, by providing well-paid jobs for young people, helped preserve Cajun culture and nurtured a Cajun pride that was seldom articulated a generation ago. Then oil payrolls plummeted and the wetlands were threatened by coastal erosion and battered by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. As erosion worsened, and the wetlands got less water because the Mississippi is not permitted to flood, shrimp fishermen found their catch declining and their profits threatened by competition from aquaculture-raised Asian and Latin American shrimp. But so long as the petrochemical plants, oil refineries, aluminum smelters, and sugar refineries provided decent jobs in these parts, most Cajuns remained in this land of good hunting and good food.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
The good life changed on Aug. 29, 2005, when the eye of Hurricane Katrina made a direct hit on this district, inflicting more immediate damage than anywhere else along the Gulf Coast. Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes were ravaged by high winds and floodwaters, and much of the population fled. By 2008, the population was starting to rebound, but in St. Bernard it remained far below pre-Katrina levels. One sign of the continuing difficulties was the absence of a local hospital. The parish’s one hospital had been destroyed by the flood and had to be bulldozed; as of early 2009, it had not been replaced.
The 3rd Congressional District of Louisiana includes about half of Cajun country. It includes most of Louisiana’s swamplands, covering Houma, where seven bayous converge. It takes in the parishes of St. Charles, St. John the Baptist, St. James, and Ascension on both sides of the Mississippi. Roughneck Morgan City services offshore oil rigs. Iberia Parish is the home of McIlhenny’s Tabasco sauce. The district also has the remains of St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes, downriver from New Orleans. Behind the Mississippi’s western levee, hunkered side by side in Vacherie, are twin reminders of the region’s grandeur and pain: the stately Oak Alley plantation, whose stunning vista stood in for the home of a fictional, aristocratic governor in the 1998 movie Primary Colors, and the slave cabins of Laura Plantation, believed to be the original home of the famous Br’er Rabbit stories. The ancestral politics in the district are Democratic, though a very conservative brand of Democratic. There has been an influx of Mexicans and other immigrants from Central America, many of whom work on the oil rigs or at the chemical plants. George W. Bush won 58% here in 2004, and John McCain took the district with 61% in 2008. In a measure of the continuing impact of Katrina, in working-class St. Bernard Parish, which votes Republican, the turnout in 2008 dropped 55% from the nearly 30,000 persons who voted in 2004. McCain got 71% of the smaller vote.