Swamp Savior: Can a 72-Year-Old Inventor Rescue The Sinking Bayou?
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.
Finalists included EMS Green, creators of a vegetative wall that helps restore eroding shorelines, and ABS Technologies, developers of a smartphone app that tracks Louisiana oysters. But it was Pierce, the wild-card from Cut Off--a region known more for its crab boils than its contraptions--who beat out 28 other teams and took home the $50,000 first-place prize.
That seed money is only a sliver of what’s up for grabs, reports suggest. Louisiana officials recently released a list of coastal restoration projects that they hope to pay for, at least in part, with money the state receives from BP as compensation for the 2010 oil spill. The projects are part of officials’ 50-year, $50 billion master plan to stop land loss and even reverse it.
Pierce expects the government to be his biggest customer. And while the agency behind the $50 billion plan, the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, hasn’t expressed an interest in the Wave Robber, he’s in talks with the National Resources Conservation Service, a branch of the USDA, to outfit a 20-mile stretch of shoreline with thousands of the devices. The build-out would carry a price tag of roughly $88 million, Pierce estimates.
To hear Pierce tell it, the Wave Robber couldn’t have come from anywhere but the swamp. “I cut my teeth working in these marshes,” says the former oil worker turned levee district official, who watched for decades as the community’s man-made barriers failed to stop the land from sinking.
Rocks were durable, but would sink in soft soil. Oyster reefs did a decent job of collecting sediment from the waves, but when oil and shipping companies dredged new waterways, allowing saltwater into the marshes, the oysters would die. The most effective fix Pierce saw came at the end of every Christmas season, when locals planted their trees along the shoreline.
“The pine needles would slice up those waves,” he recalls, “and they’d catch some of the sediment too. But soon enough, the trees would rot and float off, and the waves would return to the shoreline, gradually eatin’ at it like a piranha.”
Pierce dreamt up the Wave Robber in 2009. He attached a flywheel to an old washing machine agitator in his backyard to generate waves of sand-infused water for testing. When the machine proved it could sap 80% of a wave’s energy and collect sediment at an impressive rate, he filed, and eventually secured, a patent on the Wave Robber.
Now the real tests begin. Three years on the bayou, including hurricane seasons, as the USDA keeps a close eye on whether Pierce’s prototype can withstand harsh weather while delivering on its promise to rebuild the coastline. In one test, researchers sent 100 pounds of sand through the Wave Robber, and it captured 30 pounds of it in four hours, Pierce said. Ideally, the units would line the coast, depositing silt around the clock and reversing the decades of damage.
Land loss is just one of many challenges born out of Louisiana’s distinct climate that have sparked a wave of innovation in the state and made it a perfect proving ground for startups.
After Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, the startup rate in New Orleans doubled in just three years as swarms of new ventures launched to tackle problems in regional healthcare, education, and the environment. The startup rate jumped in 2012 to the ninth-highest in nation. “Every hurricane has a silver lining,” Walter Isaacson, author of Steve Jobs’ biography and a New Orleans native, told an audience of local business owners last year.
Pierce, however, would argue that swamp ingenuity is nothing new. His uncles made their fortune in the 1950s by inventing the Cheramie Marsh Buggies, tractors with 12-foot steel tires that allowed oil men to survey previously inaccessible marshland. He hung around their shop as a boy, where he developed a knack for tinkering.
“It’s in my nature to invent things,” say Pierce, a white eyebrow raised playfully as he explains that he’s never had any formal training as an engineer. “It runs through my blood.”