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.  

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.