Bayou Corne: the Louisiana town that's being swallowed by a sinkhole

The sinkhole in September 2012. Image: US National Nuclear Security Administration.

For those of us who can watch them from behind the protective barrier of a computer screen, sinkholes seem pretty cool. Yes, they cause destruction, but in a world where large objects normally stay where we put them, there's a certain fairytale quality to the way they can just suck away enormous chunks of the earth. They can swallow parked cars:

They can swallow trees with cartoon-like efficiency:

But for the residents and ex-residents of a tiny town in Louisiana, sinkholes are pretty much the worst things ever.

Let's start at the beginning. On 3 August 2012, the residents of Bayou Rouge, Louisiana, noticed a funny, petrol-like smell in the air. Later that day, someone stumbled on a giant hole filled with sludgy water on the western edge of the town, not far from the fork of the Bayou Corne waterway. 

The hole, it was soon established, was caused by the collapse of an underground salt cavern, mined by a company called Texas Brine. On that first day, the hole covered around an acre of land. Here's helicopter footage over Bayou Corne taken another ten days after the hole opened (they reach it around 35 seconds in): 

As sinkholes go, it's not particularly glamorous. If we're completely honest, it looks like a giant pond. But as time went on, it became clear that this sinkhole's work was far from done.

When the walls of the mine collapsed, it turned out, they let natural gas and oil filter up to the surface, to escape into the town's air. As a result, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal issued an evacuation order on the day of the hole's discovery. Many left the town; some stayed in defiance of the order. Texas Brine was tasked with investigating the collapse.

Yet things kept getting worse. Texas Brine have burned off millions of cubic feet of escaping gas and oil in an attempt to keep it out of the atmosphere. There are fears that the sinkhole might explode if the escaping gas ignites. Oh, and it's grown to cover around 31 acres. This is the latest satellite image of the town from Google Earth:

Spot the sinkhole! Clue: it's the giant black pit visible from space. Image: Google Earth.


The sinkhole has been swallowing up Texas Brine's revenues, too. From the beginning of the evacuation, the company sent each resident a weekly cheque for $875. In August 2014, a federal judge approved a $48.1m settlement, which Texas Brine will spend on buying up the town's properties and paying residents' damages. It's also paid out to some families as restitution for the "mental anguish" they've experienced since 2012. 

But, three years from the sinkhole's first appearance, the town's residents and ex-residents are still stuck in limbo. As of January, according to the Louisiana Advocate, 12 families of the original 150 remain, though they, too, will leave once they've reached a deal with Texas Brine. And the empty houses? The company has shut off utilities and is stripping out appliances, leaving them as empty shells. It remains to be seen whether they'll be demolished, or whether Bayou Corne will become a ghost town.

Scientists say the sinkhole's growth has slowed (though it's been belching out mini-earthquakes since mid-December), so it seems unlikely it will finish off the town completely. This probably isn't much consolation for Bayou Corne's once close-knit community, though: as ex-resident Nick Romero told the Advocate, the worst thing isn't the sinkhole's destruction – it's "losing all your friends" as they're forced to scatter around the state.  

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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