Tree Hugging to Help Rebuild New Orleans Isn't So Bad After All

When you come to work at a volunteer-based organization, you expect to be around crunchy, earthy, facially pierced hippies. Normally, I hate them.

And wading through mud, carrying baby cypress trees while watching my every step for piles of fire ants, I didn't have high hopes for my long-haired, hippie volunteer leader to change that opinion.

I was wrong.

Morgan Elzey, a project coordinator for Common Ground Relief in New Orleans and my leader on this particularly muddy trek, specializes in working to rebuild the wetlands of the Mississippi Delta, which is disappearing by football fields everyday.

I am here for one week, during my spring break from college, to help Common Ground Relief revitalize the area, still devastated from Hurricane Katrina that struck in 2005.

Being a hardened New Yorker, I've never placed much stock in greenery. "Couldn't we be doing something better with our time like building a house or tutoring kids at a local school?" I asked.

Elzey responded coolly: "In New Orleans, the wetlands can mean the difference between a regular hurricane and Katrina."

He went on to explain how the wetlands act as a buffer that slows or sometimes even stops storm surges in their tracks. Having a healthy wetland area may not have stopped the devastation that occurred after Katrina, but it definitely could have lessened the blow.

Also, the roots of wetland trees — such as the cypress — make a safe nursery for the seafood that supports a large portion of the city's residents and makes up the food of NOLA culture.

The wetlands of New Orleans are no longer thriving, partly a casualty of the levee system put in place by the Army Corps of Engineers. The levees (when they work correctly) stop the natural flooding of the river's banks. This keeps plant life from receiving nutrients found in the river's sediment and water that should flood its banks on a regular basis.

The area's plants are also being depleted because of the invasive salt water that has come into the system from the extensive canals that were built to allow easier access to industrial ocean liners and build up the city's economic status.

Facing my fears of getting dirty, putting my arm in a giant pile of pure black dirt up to my elbow, I helped my group plant around 30 trees on the east side of New Orleans's Lake Pontchartrain.

Looking at a muddy field of cypress saplings that should soon grow to rival the 15-footers that one hugged the banks of the lake, it occurred to me that maybe sometimes being a earth-loving, tree-hugging hippie isn't always bad — and maybe sometimes it can even save a city.

Courtney Crowder is an intern for who spent her spring break volunteering in New Orleans.