WEBSTER PIERCE’S INVENTION RECENTLY WON TOP PRIZE AT ONE OF NEW ORLEANS’ PREMIERE STARTUP COMPETITIONS.
COULD IT ACTUALLY HELP PRESERVE LOUISIANA’S DISAPPEARING SHORELINE? SWAMPY INNOVATION LESSONS FOR ALL!
When a shrimping boat breaks down in Cut Off, Louisiana, you sort of just leave it there.
The 6,000 person town, a proudly Cajun community one hour south of New Orleans, is littered with rusted hulls left to rot on the banks of its central canal, monuments to indifference. The swamp-town equivalent of leaving cars up on blocks in the front yard.
Yet it’s here, in a hamlet of struggling fishermen and oil rig “roughnecks,” that 72-year-old Webster Pierce has tinkered up an invention that just may save the bayou from extinction.
His brainchild, the Wave Robber, is a floating shield against the relentless waves threatening to swallow the region whole. The device recently won top prize at one of New Orleans’ premiere startup competitions. It may just be the bayou’s last, best hope at a future, but it wasn’t built in a fancy university lab or by a team of engineers. Pierce built it using an old washing machine motor in his backyard.
“We’re losing a football field of land every hour,” says Pierce as he shuffles around his “daddy’s house,” which now serves as a makeshift office. Amid the folksy tchotchkes like a “Cajun barometer” (a piece of rope), he’s stocked his kitchen HQ with charts and photos that tell a frightening and tragic story of land loss. Since the 1930s, coastal erosion has claimed nearly 1,900 square miles of South Louisiana’s land.
Pierce, who has never lived outside Cut Off, is the kind of local’s local who stops by every table in the catfish joint to shake hands. He talks about the vanishing coast with a strained voice and glassy eyes, like he’s recalling an old friend who passed before his time. His red pickup truck struggling up the side of an overgrown levee, he points out a stretch of ocean that used to be his favorite field for hunting deer and rabbit before it was swept out to sea.
“This isn’t just wetlands that are disappearing,” he says. “It’s the people, culture, and the economy of Louisiana.”
By the time his old truck sputters over the top of the levee and down to the shoreline, though, his demeanor reverts to its resting state of jolly Cajun. He’s at once proud grandfather and excited child as he trundles through the weeds and hops over mounds of fire ants, excitedly pushing through the long grass at the water’s edge to reveal his baby, his prototype, and the project he vows to devote “what’s left of his life” to: The Wave Robber.
It looks like a giant cheese grater. Eighteen pipes run through three rows of stacked plastic shelves. Water and sediment splash through the pipes, sucking the life out of oncoming waves and spitting the sand and silt into an enclosed area between the device and the shoreline, where it piles up and forms new land.
While seemingly simple, the process was enough to impress the judges at last month’s Water Challenge, an annual startup competition in New Orleans for innovative approaches to water-related issues.
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