Faces of the Delta: Alberta Lewis

In the third installment of our Faces of the Delta series, you will meet Alberta Lewis: long-time New Orleans-area resident, plantation owner, delta restoration advocate, and king cake doll creator.

Name: Alberta Lewis

Location: Arabi/Poydras, St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana

Occupation: Retired business owner, miniature porcelain artist (designs king cake dolls for a well-known bakery), plantation owner and community activist.

Tell me about your connection to south Louisiana. I was born in the 9th Ward of New Orleans in 1923 and lived in the area for almost my entire life.  I grew up and went to school in the Lower 9th Ward and attended college at Tulane.  I live in Arabi, but I also own Sebastopol Plantation in Poydras (both in St. Bernard Parish).

Alberta Lewis is a long-time resident of the New Orleans area. Here, she stands in the yard of the St. Bernard Parish School Board, behind her is the Murphy Oil refinery (Chalmette, Louisiana).

What does south Louisiana mean to you? When I think of South Louisiana, I don’t immediately see industry.  I remember the area more from the past – special people and a lifestyle based upon living off the land and water and all of the good things that come from that – cooking, festivals, and families being together.  Happiness and joy: trees, animals, birds were all a part of our lives.  We were very connected to the environment.

What are your favorite things about the area? Much of what was addressed above.  Also, Mardi Gras!  My family has always been very involved in the festival and traditions that come with it, like making the king cake dolls.

How has coastal land loss impacted your life? The impact began when I was a child – crossing the industrial canal bridge – which separated two historic neighborhoods.  The canal was built and introduced saltwater to a freshwater ecosystem and caused degradation.  The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet crystallized the damage and failed to be used to the extent promised by the government, and the community invested in the dredging and maintenance of that channel for many decades.

During Hurricane Katrina, I had two homes.  The home in Arabi was not flooded during Hurricane Betsy, but it was in Katrina.  It was a very special neighborhood – very racially mixed – but very comfortable and respectful.  After Katrina, when I passed through the Lower 9th Ward, and still today, my heart aches.  So I lost one home in Katrina to flooding and a lot of family history was lost.  My family had deep roots there and the community doesn’t exist anymore.  There were a lot of older people in that community and I see a lot of despair among the seniors.  They don’t have their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren.  Younger generations had to move out; they had to work, they needed schools for their children.  Families were separated and we lost our nativity and our nest.  Overnight we lost that relationship.  It is still difficult to visit my old home in Arabi because I see the connectivity lost in my own family.  The “pass-alongs” were very important and they are gone.

Why do you think coastal restoration efforts are important? Restoration is important because coastal land was too fragile for it to have been used by government and industry in the way that it has.  Because of oil and gas and shipping uses, there has been a snowball effect of land loss.  Destruction begat more destruction.  We should go back to the old ways of using the river and elevating homes – building them as they used to be – by shuttering and storm-proofing homes.

What obstacles do you see hindering restoration? Funding, organizational problems – within government – and getting people’s voices solidly behind the cause.

What do you fear losing if we don’t take action to restore coastal Louisiana? I fear losing the future of my family.  We have a lot of nativity – families in the same area for generations – and when you lose that, you can’t bring it back.  A part of our loss will be that we won’t know our future.  You used to know your future was in the area.  My family lost it – I have three children – and I’m so sad about it.

What should people around the country know about efforts to rebuild New Orleans and surrounding communities and to protect this area from another powerful storm? Not enough people know how much this American Delta means to the rest of the country.  They go to the grocery store or turn on the lights, but they don’t think about where it comes from.

How do you think restoring the wetlands will help the people and the economy of coastal Louisiana/the state/the nation? Restoration will provide stabilization – not just lining the coast as it grows, but protection – safety of the people and with that a renewal of community that has been torn into shreds.