Christina Melton edits footage for her upcoming documentary, Washing Away.

With the rotors turning slowly overhead, Christina Melton braces herself in the seat. The earth suddenly falls away from under her as the helicopter rushes upward from its pad, hovers, then turns and speeds southward. The 35-year-old documentary filmmaker and UVA graduate (Col ’93) steadies herself, focusing on the quivering image on the video monitor in front of her.

These aerials are the last scheduled shoot for Melton’s upcoming public television documentary, Washing Away. It’s summertime and hurricane season has come again. Already, the early-morning skies over south Louisiana are hot and blindingly bright.

From south of Baton Rouge, the helicopter traces the course of the Mississippi River below, snaking its way through a long corridor of petrochemical plants and sugarcane plantations, down to New Orleans. Melton has visited there many times since Hurricane Katrina smashed the city nearly a year before, but this is the first time she’s seen it from the air. Neither time nor altitude has done much to make the place look better. It is still a city in ruins.

Melton instructs the pilot to take them further southward, still following the Mississippi, down to where the big river widens and finally frays into the open blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Walled up behind some 2,000 miles of levees, the river no longer deposits sediments to build up its own delta. Instead of piling up new land in lower Louisiana as it had for uncounted centuries, the Mississippi now dumps its muddy freight off the edge of the continental shelf and into ocean. The entire region, including New Orleans itself, has begun sinking into the Gulf at an alarming rate, making it much more vulnerable to hurricanes’ storm surges.

Scanning the landscape below, Melton radios directions to photographer Rex Fortenberry, who operates the helicopter’s high-definition camera. It’s here over the open, grassy expanse of the marshlands that they find the shots they’re looking for.

“You can see it,” she says. “You can actually see where the land has just disappeared.”

Louisiana is losing land to coastal erosion at a frightening pace of 25 to 35 square miles each year, more than 1,500 square miles since 1930. A study by the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that some 120 square miles of wetlands were lost as a result of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In some regions, more land area vanished in the 2005 storm season alone than was projected to be lost over the next 50 years.

But those are numbers. Hovering over the ragged remainder of Louisiana’s coastline, Melton gets a good look at what those numbers really mean. “Acres upon acres of what was obviously solid ground once—now they’re just small splotches of grass, or else open water. It’s just gone.”

What troubles Melton most, however, are the losses you can’t see from a helicopter.

“It’s easy to look at the crisis as though we’re viewing it all from the air,” she says, noting that it took two major hurricanes, a massive death toll and a spike in gas prices for many people even to take notice of the problem. “For a long time, we’ve tended to think of coastal erosion just in terms of statistics and square miles and changes on a map. But what gets overlooked are the people who’ve lived and worked on this land along the Gulf Coast for generations, and it’s literally just vanishing from under them.”

As a filmmaker, Melton decided that what her audiences needed most was to see this story from a different vantage point.

Shrimper Preston Doré

Alligator farmer and port operator Ted Falgout

Extreme Close Up

After working as a television news producer for seven years, Melton shifted gears in 2000, redirecting her talents to making documentaries for a public television station. “I like documentaries better because I have more than three minutes to tell a story,” she says.

Back in Baton Rouge, squinting at the screen of her small desktop editing station at Louisiana Public Broadcasting’s studio, Melton turns her attention to the onscreen image of Marlon Horton, a lanky 25-year-old rising star in hip-hop music. “The first floor was completely gone,” says Horton, recounting his experience on Aug. 29, 2005, the day Hurricane Katrina roared ashore. “Two or three elderly people died on that first floor because they couldn’t get out, the water was coming up so quickly.” But the unsteady images Horton shot with his home video camera tell the story even more vividly: floodwaters rising rapidly around his apartment building in New Orleans East, neighbors wading waist-deep through the city streets, a man stranded atop his car, panicking.

“The first day, we thought the water was going to go down, because usually when it floods in New Orleans, usually it gets to your ankles, maybe your knees. In this case, it was to my neck,” he says.

Horton’s home movie freezes in mid frame on the monitor, and Melton fast-forwards across the video editing timeline. This time, instead of the swamped cars and crowded tenements of Horton’s neighborhood, the monitor shows a tractor rolling slowly down the furrows of a plowed field.

“Mon nom c’est Jimmy Domingue,” a voice narrates in Acadian, or Cajun French. “Me and my two sons and my brother farm sugarcane, cattle, crawfish and rice. We were three days away from starting our sugarcane harvest with a decent crop ahead of us, and Hurricane Rita came and put an average of six foot of water across our crop. Very salty water.”

Melton pauses the video playback. “Now, bear in mind, the Domingues’ farm is a good 20 miles inland from the nearest bay off of the Gulf of Mexico,” she says. The narration resumes, voiced by the old farmer and his son, Errol. On the monitor is an image of a devastated farmhouse surrounded by endless acres of brown, wilted sugarcane.

“Where I’m living right now, I’ve never had—my grandfather never had—any water any more than six or seven inches in his front yard. He was born in 1898, so that’s a hundred years that they never had water over here.”

Melton watches and listens carefully. Each shot of destruction on the screen is more shocking than the one before—dead cattle littering the pastures, a toppled water tower lying amid the ruins that were once a town.

“For Hurricane Audrey in 1957,” continues the younger farmer, “the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway had a 20-foot-plus elevation levee, which acted as a hurricane barrier, tidal barrier. Now there’s none. It’s level, even with the marsh elevation, and I mean the water just rode right on through. It had nothing to stop it. We were the barrier from the Gulf this time, where we sit here.”

Melton nods to herself. With several nationally acclaimed documentary films to her credit, she knows what she wants in a shot. This is the kind of perspective she searches for—firsthand storytelling, plain and personal.

Instead of scientists and satellite imagery, Melton’s Washing Away presents the intimate eyewitness accounts of ordinary people whose lives and livelihoods have been directly threatened by coastal erosion. The story follows six residents of coastal Louisiana over the course of the year after Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the eastern half of the state’s shoreline, and Rita, which largely destroyed the western half less than a month later. The one-hour documentary is delivered entirely from the point of view of these six individuals and their families as they struggle to recover from the storms and preserve their unique ways of life.

“With Washing Away, mainly I just wanted to get out of the way and let them tell their stories themselves,” Melton says. But that wasn’t the original plan.

Biologist and conservationist Kerry St. Pé (right)

Farmers Errol and Jimmy Domingue

Take Two

“I’d wanted to do a documentary about coastal erosion for a long time,” Melton says. “I had this great science-based program planned.”

In fact, the project was already under way in 2005, with support from Louisiana Public Broadcasting and America’s Wetland Foundation. “We’d done eight months’ worth of research, arranged interviews with all the leading experts, gone over the computer models and scary predictions about what a major hurricane would do to Louisiana, now that the wetlands are so degraded. We were ready to go,” she says.

Then Katrina hit, followed by Rita. Wiping out a third of the state’s economy in less than a month, the storms transformed virtually every aspect of life and work in the region.

“Anybody who wasn’t a victim was scrambling to find ways to help those who were,” Melton remembers. She and her family, which includes three young boys, weathered the hurricanes safely in Baton Rouge, then immediately went to work to assist in the recovery. Her husband, Jamar Melton (Col ’92), is the chief of pediatrics at Women’s Hospital in Baton Rouge, where he organized medical relief for the waves of refugee children flooding into Baton Rouge from New Orleans. Since then, he has taken on the additional responsibility of establishing a statewide pediatric emergency response team.

Christina, however, was unsure at first how best to help.

“It was paralyzing,” she says. “I couldn’t even begin to wrap my mind around the scale of these disasters. We were watching everything that the experts had predicted happening right before our eyes.”

Like so many other things, the hurricanes had swept away Melton’s original plan for her documentary. Instead of a conventional science-based documentary, she recognized an opportunity to help other Americans understand, in very human terms, what is being lost along Louisiana’s coast. “Historically, Katrina and Rita were not that unusual,” she says. “The difference this time is that people here no longer had the wetlands to protect them the way past generations did.”

Last year’s storms were not a one-time catastrophe, she says. They were part of the ongoing disaster of land loss along the Louisiana coast, caused by human mismanagement of the Mississippi River. But the aftermath of Katrina and Rita could dramatically illustrate what’s at stake, Melton knew, and she decided to allow the victims to speak for themselves in Washing Away.

“It’s just impossible to tell this story properly from a detached point of view,” she said. “You have to put it into meaningful human terms. You really have to present it from the individual perspectives of the people who survived.”

Along with hurricane victims like New Orleans rap artist Marlon Horton and Acadian farmer Jimmy Domingue, Melton documented a year of recovery and rebuilding by four other survivors: Leah Chase, a Creole chef and restaurant owner from New Orleans’ Faubourg Tremé, the oldest black neighborhood in America; Ted Falgout, a French-speaking alligator farmer and businessman who operates Port Fourchon, one of the nation’s most vital access points for oil and gas; Kerry St. Pé, a biologist and conservationist whose family has lived in the bayou regions outside of New Orleans since the arrival of the first French colonists; and Preston Doré, a shrimper struggling to keep his family’s fishing boat in the water.

In seeking a broad cross-section of people from different social and economic backgrounds, Melton was struck by the intimate, often tenacious, relationship between each of her subjects and the place along the Louisiana coast that they call home. “After you’ve talked to these people for a while, it starts to sink in: every single member of their families has lost their houses. Their businesses are wiped out. The schools where they sent their kids are gone. They’re not getting the aid they expected or the insurance money they were counting on. They no longer have anything,” she says. “And yet what’s most surprising is that, despite all that, these are people who are still in love with their home and determined to come back.”

Restauranteur Leah Chase

Musician Marlon Horton

The Big Picture

But maybe they shouldn’t be allowed to come back, some have argued.

In April’s nationally broadcast debate for New Orleans’ mayoral election, MSNBC moderator Chris Matthews echoed the question that many have asked, both in Congress and in editorial columns: Why bother rebuilding the region anyway? If it’s so vulnerable, why not abandon New Orleans and move the people inland?

Melton bristles at this suggestion. “Would anyone dream of moving Boston if it was under threat? Or Alexandria, Virginia?” she says. “Besides, this isn’t a beach resort: It’s a working coast. You can’t sustain the coastal industries we have here from 60 miles inland.”

Originally from Atlanta, Melton has developed a fierce loyalty to Louisiana’s low country since moving to the region six years ago, and a deep appreciation for those things that can only be found there.

“Everybody knows about the heritage and history of New Orleans, the music and the food. Those are things that can only come from that particular place,” she says. “But there’s also much more outside the city, too. With the Cajun and Creole populations, we’re talking about an indigenous culture that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. A unique language. Unique ways of life and traditions. Then you have the fact that Louisiana wetlands produce 30 percent of the nation’s seafood, the richest fishery in the lower 48 states. One-of-a-kind ecosystems for different species—all of these things should be reason enough for the nation to invest in doing what it takes to preserve this place.”

Of course, Melton admits, there is at least one other good reason why Americans should care about coastal erosion: The price of gas.

To make her point, she rolls through the rough cut of Washing Away to the segment profiling Ted Falgout, executive director of the Port Fourchon facility. Images of huge interlacing pipelines and supertankers cross the screen. “The Gulf of Mexico produces about 30 percent of the U.S. domestic oil supply and this port services the majority of that,” says Falgout in a voice heavily accented by his native Cajun French. “Nationally, we play some role in approximately 18 percent of the entire nation’s oil supply, and that is critical to this country. Unfortunately, [most Americans] don’t quite realize that yet.”

Nor do they realize the vulnerability of the nation’s energy infrastructure in this region. Port Fourchon’s only connection to the mainland of Louisiana is Highway 1—a thin ribbon of road through the marshes. An interruption in America’s energy supply could literally become a matter of how hard the wind blows.

“There are places along Highway 1 where the road surface is only a foot or so above the surrounding water in the marsh,” Melton says. “In years past, hurricanes have sometimes flooded that road. Now, all it takes is a good stiff breeze from the south to push seawater over it. The miles of wetlands that used to protect it are now gone.”

The public would take much greater interest in wetlands loss, Melton believes, if they knew just how much money the problem will cost them. She fast-forwards to footage she shot from the helicopter, showing a long line of barges, loaded with coal, grain and timber, passing through the port—billions of dollars worth of exports from America’s heartland.

But those are the things you can see from the air. Besides the big picture, Melton is careful to make sure her audiences also take notice of the smaller, more subtle scenes that show just what’s washing away from us in this fragile and rare part of America: The matriarchal Creole chef Leah Chase, cooking seafood gumbo for her displaced family. Kerry St. Pé plying the cypress-shaded bayous of his childhood in a small wooden boat he fashioned by hand. Shrimper Preston Doré and his wife working together on their trawler to haul in the nets, swollen with a full catch.

“You can’t leave what you’ve lived your whole life for,” Doré says. Melton allows the footage to roll forward for a while longer. “Whether it’s been destroyed or not, you have to try to rebuild and look for a future. As far as my kids, I would not tell them to leave—this is our home.” This time, she watches the screen and says nothing. The stories she shows in Washing Away speak for themselves.

Read “One Pediatrician’s Story,” the story of Jamar Melton (Col ‘92), a doctor in the chaos of Hurricane Katrina’s wake:

One Pediatrician’s Story

In talking with survivors of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, filmmaker Christina Melton discovered that, very often, the most critical assistance came neither from the government nor from insurance companies. Help arrived first from able and generous neighbors within the community. And noteworthy among those able people was Melton’s husband, Jamar.

Jamar Melton (Col ’92) is chief of pediatrics at Women’s Hospital in his native Baton Rouge, some 85 miles northwest of New Orleans. Though far inland, Baton Rouge was lashed by high winds and heavy rain from Katrina and, like most hospitals in the city, Women’s Hospital was shuttered and secured on Aug. 29, 2005 when the storm came ashore. The next day, when Melton returned to work, few realized the full scope of the disaster that was unfolding downriver in New Orleans. By that evening, however, it became apparent that the region was facing an emergency of unprecedented proportions—and that help from the outside would be slow in coming.

After his shift, Melton stopped by the Pete Maravich Assembly Center (PMAC). A cavernous sports arena on the campus of Louisiana State University, it was serving as a makeshift hospital facility for the first wave of evacuees who were now being rescued from the flooded city of New Orleans. There, Melton found a frazzled emergency room doctor in charge, a scarcity of resources, and an alarming number of incoming casualties—including six infants and children upon arrival—with many more on the way.

“Essentially, there were no pediatric services,” Melton explains. “No coordination of specialists yet, very little in the way of supplies and equipment.” What was needed most, however, was leadership and an operational structure; help from FEMA was still days away.

Melton immediately set to work. With support from his colleague, Roberta Vicari, the pediatric medical director at neighboring hospital Our Lady of the Lake, Melton established a triage for the evacuated children arriving at the PMAC. But without adequate medicines, instruments and equipment, there would be little he or others could do to treat them. So, despite communications problems caused by the storm, Melton and Vicari managed to summon every pediatrician they could contact in Baton Rouge. Very quickly, Melton had not only the necessary supplies and facilities to treat the children, but he had personnel too: friends and associates within the local pediatric community immediately volunteered to work at the emergency facility. Melton was soon directing a dedicated team of volunteer doctors, working in eight-hour shifts, around the clock for the next eight days.

And not a minute too soon. Melton watched the number of sick children at the facility jump from six when he arrived to 89 the next day. They came by helicopters, snatched from rooftops by rescuers, and even by barge and boat, transported up the Mississippi River to Baton Rouge. Most were suffering from dehydration and exposure, or from fractures, cuts, and contusions. Other children were treated for more serious problems, including respiratory illnesses and at least one near-drowning. “And, of course, there were some kids that had snake bites and rat bites,” Melton recalls.

Melton directed that all pediatric patients be processed there at the PMAC facility first before being admitted to area hospitals. This decision helped to keep local emergency rooms, already under strain, from becoming overwhelmed. Local pediatricians and residents cared for 60 to 80 children each day at the triage facility.

FEMA officials arrived on the third night to take control of the operation, but by then the worst was over and the number of new patients was decreasing. And although they exercised their jurisdiction over adult care at the PMAC facility, FEMA apparently concluded that Melton’s operation was too successful to tamper with. Eight days after the storm, Melton and his fellow doctors were finally able to break camp and go home. But their experience provided the basis for a new set of protocols for emergency pediatric medicine in Baton Rouge, under Melton’s direction, in future disasters. Planners in other cities are eager to learn from them.

“We concluded that when a disaster occurs, you can’t afford to wait for outside help,” Melton says. He’s quick to credit his fellow Baton Rouge doctors, claiming that any one of them would have been equally capable of steering the effort. “By the second day, we had everything running smoothly from a pediatric standpoint, because we had local people assuming leadership and using their native knowledge of the community where they live and all its assets. Responders coming in from outside the area can’t be expected to have the same advantage.”

—C.E. Richard