Reconstruction 5.3 (Summer 2005)
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Loss, Attachment, and Place: A Case Study of Grand Isle, Louisiana 
/ David Burley, Pam Jenkins, Joanne Darlington, Brian Azcona
Abstract: This study examines how residents of a Louisiana barrier island think about place in light of slow and rapid onset of coastal land loss. The island community has always faced change due to hurricanes, development, and erosion. Today the island, as well as the region, is faced with great environmental change due to coastal land loss. This paper uses a phenomenological approach to examine how change, caused by a range of environmental factors, is transmitted and understood by residents of Grand Isle, Louisiana. Residents convey a heightened awareness of place attachment, communicated through elements of fragility and uniqueness, that we claim is brought on by the continuing environmental disaster of coastal land loss.
“We’ve lost forty campsites over the last three weeks. They’re in the Gulf of Mexico right now.” Stephen Resweber manager of Grand Isle State Park. (Associated Press State and Local Wire 1998 right after Hurricane Georges)
<1> A first time traveler to Grand Isle, Louisiana sees a place that appears created on some of the few pieces of remaining land left in the southern most part of the United States Gulf Coast. Everywhere newcomers look, they see water. There is water on either side of the two-way road that winds its ways to the barrier island. There is water under the houses with often only a small patch of road leading to a dwelling. And, there is the gulf – everywhere.
<2> The people of Grand Isle see the landscape differently. The meanings residents attach to this place are as rich and varied as the landscape itself. While the land is fragile, the sense of place is not. Residents who live on the island trace their roots back to the eighteenth century including Jean Lafitte. The other way that people measure time and place on this island is through the history of hurricanes. They mark time by where their families were for all the great storms including the hurricane in 1893 that killed 155 people and destroyed Cheniere Caminada, which had been the original community.
<3> This study examines how residents of this barrier island think about place in light of slow and rapid onset of coastal land loss. The island community has always faced change due to hurricanes, development, and erosion. Today the island, as well as the region, is faced with great environmental change due to coastal land loss. This paper uses a phenomenological approach to examine how change, caused by a range of environmental factors, is transmitted and understood by residents of Grand Isle, Louisiana.
The Place of Sense of Place
<4> The self arises out of the field of experience that develops an identity or core self which incorporates place, a geographic location that includes the people, objects, practices, and meanings of that place (Harvey 1996; Casey 1993). Sense of place about a particular location is reflected in how that place is construed in discourse (Cantrill 1998, p.303). Meaning is conferred upon an environment, encompassing everything from the built to the natural, through learned perceptual practice of intimate interaction with place shaped by time-geography and structuration in a particular historical moment (Relph 1976; Tuan 1979; Pred 1983). The meaning conferred on place often results in a felt connection referred to as place attachment.
<5> Attachment to place is produced through accrued biographical experience (Altman and Low 1992). Experiences that produce place attachment are “fulfilling, terrifying, traumatic, triumphant, secret events that happen to us there” (Gieryn 2000 p. 481). These experiences help to shape identity facilitating the social construction of place.
<6> Environments, both built and natural, are socially constructed places. Social relations, the forces of nature, and meaning interact to produce the everyday experience of place (Sack 1992 p.1; Williams and Patterson 1996, p.375). The narratives that emerge out of Grand Isle reveal how particular places are socially constructed and how they differ according to the self-definitions of the narrators.
<7> Transforming the natural environment into symbolic environments through self-definitions yields social constructions called landscapes (Greider and Garkovich 1994; Berger and Luckman 1967). The natural environment is independent of our interpretation of it. However, our interpretation transforms the natural environment into “meaningful subjective phenomena” or what we can call landscapes (Greider and Garkovich 1994, p. 2). In sum, landscapes are reflections of ourselves. When changes in the environment occur, landscapes change. Rural sociologists Greider and Garkovich (1994) suggest that as changes in the environment occur conceptions of self also change “through a process of negotiating new symbols and meanings” (p.2, 4).
<8> The meaning of change and self-definitions coalesce through discourse, both in texts and social relations, providing what that change means for a group as well as individuals as part of a group (Greider and Garkovich 1994, p.8-9; Fairclough1992; Hastings 1999). The meaning of change is complex. A narrative about place yields structuration of meaning generated from identity to produce what is most salient about place. The concept of landscapes, taking on emphasis of the whole environment, becomes a tool for discerning the complex relationships within narratives. How people think about their environment and the changes that occur there can be understood by how they tell their own stories of place.
<9> A phenomenological approach focuses on narrative production that examines how societal members continually interpret their social order and thus reproduce and construct knowledge (Gubrium and Holstein 1997). Phenomenology suggests that our perceptions and interpretations give place meaning for us. It is from the subjective standpoint of the residents that the meanings of Grand Isle are obtained.
<10> The interpretations that unfold out of a narrative involve characters that are portrayed in a particular fashion, oriented to a type of structure (drama, tragedy, suspense, humor, etc.), and usually attempt to convey a lesson or moral (Shanahan 1999, 407). In short, there is usually a point to telling a story. The points of stories usually reflect the narrator’s identity. These stories say something about who they are. Stories vary according to self-definitions derived from such things as gender, class, and occupation, but they also share commonalities based on a common community and/or culture (Cantrill 1998).
<11> The unit of analysis is the individual resident of Grand Isle, Louisiana. Grand Isle is a barrier island off the southeastern coast. Grand Isle has 1541 residents and is defined as rural (US Census 2000). Grand Isle is located at the end of Louisiana Highway 1 in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. Currently, the population is over 96 percent white. The dominant ethnic heritage is Acadian, but also includes a history of French, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and Filipino settlers.
<12> Three streams of development are dominant in the social history of Grand Isle – fishing, tourism, and oil. From 1781 to the present, much of the economy revolved around resource extraction including fishing and other agricultural activities. During the nineteenth century, tourism became part of island life chronicled by such authors as Lafcadio Hearn and Kate Chopin. This phase of tourism ends in 1893 with the deadliest hurricane in Louisiana which destroyed all tourist structures (Davis, 1990, Meyer-Arendt, 1985, Reeves, 1985, Stilow, 1981). By 1948, offshore drilling for oil begins. While much has changed about these activities over time, fishing, tourism and oil define the island’s growth.
<13> The fourth factor in the development of Grand Isle is the focus of this paper – rapid and slow onset of coastal land loss. Rapid land loss, of course, is represented by the history of hurricanes and other storms. Slow onset of coastal land loss has many causes both natural and human. Human causes include the leveeing of the Mississippi River and the many canals dug by the oil and gas activities in the marsh.
<14> Using a snowball sample technique, over 30 community residents were interviewed over several months. Participants were chosen to represent the range of residents, permanent and temporary, on the island. For the purpose of this paper, a preliminary sample of residents were chosen to describe the relationship of identity to place.
The Interview Schedule
<15> The interview guide is oriented to place through personal history. The instrument asks the respondents two types of questions through an open-ended interview. One type is an inquiry into personal history and the second is an inquiry into reasoning about change in the respondents’ community. The interview guide elicits a narrative construction of place and attachment.
<16> Narrative construction generates meaning from identity to convey meaning, in this case about the environment, and reveal the symbolic meanings that make up landscapes (Shanahan 1999; Cantrill 1998; Greider and Garkovich 1994). Thus, thinking about place, landscapes, and phenomenological narratives result in some guiding research questions.
· Which elements best characterize respondents’ landscapes?
· How is change in place conveyed and understood?
· What role do environmental concernsssues play in their narratives?
These questions are interdependent. The concept of landscapes – transforming the environment into symbolic environments through self-definitions - becomes a tool for discerning the complex relationships within narratives. How a respondent views changes in the environment holds complexities stemming from various elements of their self-definitions. Looking at a narrative about place through the lens of landscapes yields a respondent’s “vested self-interest in environmental issues” (Cantrill 1998, 304).
<17> The questions above allowed themes to emerge from residents’ narratives . Themes follow from the interview guide that was derived from Altman and Low’s (1992) theory of place attachment and Greider and Grakovich’s (1994) theory of landscapes. Accrued biographical experience that account for place attachment and the self-definitions that account for landscapes led to questions about personal history and place.
<18> The themes that emerged from analysis of the interviews include links to place and hope, spatial uniqueness, and work. Throughout these emergent themes, the elements of uniqueness and fragility characterize respondents’ definition of landscapes. The presentation of responses, or parts of a narrative, will be in the form of a respondent’s uninterrupted passage . The most relevant statements of a passage are selected.
<19> The themes links to place and hope, spatial uniqueness, and work are discussed below. The elements of uniqueness and fragility are the points of respondents’ narratives. The symbolic meanings of uniqueness and fragility composing respondents’ landscapes run across themes to create horizons of meaning where different contours of a narrative are meaningfully linked together by life experiences (Gubrium and Holstein 1997, p.148).
Links to Place and Hope
<20> Throughout the interviews, trust and belief in themselves and place emerged. The respondents’ accounts show hope in their world that also has an awareness of possible loss. Shelly, a fifty-eight year old businesswoman: “They [parents] weren’t school smart but they had a head on their shoulders. I think that they had to prove that they could do it. They wanted to have that. And I guess that’s what I’ve got in me.” And when she turns to erosion and the future she says: “Erosion is seriously, seriously a big thing right now for us.” Shelly goes on to say that Grand Isle still exists despite longstanding predictions to the contrary. The interviewer then asked, “Well, what do you think?” Shelly, “I think we’re going to be here. Yes, I’m hoping we’re here. Yeah.”
<21> Not surprisingly, the strongest links to place for these respondents’ are familial. Shelly’s comments convey the link between hope and fragility. She derives self-assurance from family that is also expressed when talking about erosion. Also evident here is her connection to place. Shelly owns a restaurant, marina, and motel embedded with family ties. Her parents started it, she has continued and expanded it, and her daughter continues to help her run it. She is aware of the threat of loss of place but remains determinedly optimistic.
<22> Mostly, respondents are those who have remained on the island. They all tell stories about hard work of parents as well as social events where family bonds were established and extended to social networks. Respondents reflectively convey a strong sense of community. Evelyn, a fifty year old educator, remembers Christmas as a child,
They [her family] would cook and they would do that there for three days… We celebrate [Christmas day] at home until lunchtime and then about two o’clock you’d have to go visit all your relatives’ houses. It wasn’t to get a present or anything. It was to make sure you tell them ‘Merry Christmas.’ And one lady, she just had open house. Everybody on the island would just go to her. They would be dancing inside her house, on the steps, in the yard.
<23> Most echo Evelyn’s social attachment to place and Shelly’s sentiments of hope. Janet, fifty-six years old, moved to Grand Isle in her teens from another south Louisiana community. She and her native husband own and run a bed and breakfast and her attachment to the island lead her into working with the local Nature Conservancy. Janet is very hopeful, but, like many, tries to remain realistic about the possibilities of displacement due to land loss.
I see Grand Isle being here. I don’t see us washing away. We may have some erosion problems! …I hope the (local/state) government continues to do what it does so well right now – lobbying Congress and the state for the help to preserve us, physically as well as our history. Because when Grand Isle is gone New Orleans will be gone. Thibodeaux (community just northwest of Grand Isle) will be gone. And there’s an awful lot of us that will lose a lot of heritage. Right now we’re losing marsh. We’re not losing people’s homes and their families. But eventually we will if we erode away.
Janet is hopeful, but cautious. She uses the context of land loss to express the importance she feels for the sociocultural as well as the natural elements of the island.
<24> Identifying with these elements of family and place, respondents have developed a trust toward the community and the land. Hope varies among respondents from wavering optimism to a strong conviction and trust in the continued existence of their community. Respondents’ hope is more than just a cheery outlook - it is a faith that is linked to their identity.
<25> The narratives, as we see with Janet and Shelly, are full of nuances regarding this sort of conviction to optimism, but they generally express hope that the environment, which includes the people, will survive. Respondents’ hope appears to be derived, in part, from parents’ and grandparents’ self-definitions of community self-reliance. Respondents tell stories of how parents and grandparents struggled and had to trust each other and the land to sustain life.
<26> Clarice, a forty-six year old government employee who owns a fishing vessel with her husband says,
And my grandparents fished. They hunted alligator and shrimp, went shrimping and had their own little wooden boats, wooden shrimp boats. And that’s what my father did for a living to raise all seven children. They used to go duck hunting and crabbing and fishing and that’s how they survived and raised all the family.
Like Shelly, Clarice links her family’s struggle to a type of hope  combined with a strong work ethic that she conveys through her passages and puts succinctly when she talks about her experiences with storms, “But we’re still here.”
<27> Alfonse, a sixty-eight year ‘old-timer’, and former Grand Isle police officer frames his narrative in terms of family connection to place in contrast with changes over time. Alfonse uses comedy throughout his narrative to develop cultural changes over time and convey the deep connection of generations of Grand Islanders who “lived off the land and water.” Planting one’s own produce garden and shrimping are aspects of local life that “still work that way.” Like most, Alfonse intertwines natural and familial connections to place whereas Bill, a fifty-six year-old retired librarian, says
[I] almost stayed in the service, but my brother made a career out of it and my father-in-law made a career out of it, my brother-in-law, but I missed home. I missed the hunting and the fishing and the boats and stuff and I came on back.
While Bill also expresses familial ties to place, he chooses the interactive elements of the natural environment as being his strongest ties to place.
<28> Familial ties to place provide the basis for accrued biographical experiences producing place attachment helping to impart place as part of identity. The familial ties to place set the stage for and intertwine ties to place through interaction with the natural environment. Landscapes then reflect self-definitions derived from identification with place.
<29> Respondents tend to see themselves as inextricably linked to what they see as the unique place they live. They view the region as unique and themselves as unique to the region. Respondents see people in the region as Cajuns while they see themselves as islanders even though many share the same heritage. Their identity, their dialect, the challenges of living where they live, the work and pleasure that stems from living in this place, the changing landscape, the unique environment, all form a symbiotic relationship. Shelly says,
Living in Grand Isle is my life. You know, it’s a challenge everyday. …The rocks [jetties to stop erosion] are doing a great job. I think if they [local governments] had the funding to do all the things they wanted – of course we’re a barrier island… We’re the only marina that I know of that actually has rock jetties that we purchased ourselves. …Yeah, we’ve got it [a picture of rock jetties] on the wall there.
Slow onset coastal land loss, much like hurricanes, is seen as such a unique part of place that it requires being captured on film, framed, and placed on the wall of her business.
<30> Jerry, a sixty-three year old professional who lives in New Orleans but retains a camp (small summer home) on the island talks about erosion and the importance of sustaining the island and the region:
It’s probably the most unique area of its type in the US…It’s something that really alarms me because it’s not only an ecological disaster, it’s a cultural disaster. There’s a whole culture, a very fine culture that’s interrelated and intertwined with that environment. (Asked if it can be saved, he says) We waited way too long. Some things have been irrevocably lost. I’m hopeful but skeptical, how’s that?
The meanings Jerry gives to Grand Isle and the region are obvious. His hopefulness is connected to his understanding of the uniqueness and fragility of Grand Isle.
<31> Evelyn’s landscape, while it expresses faith and hope, is a little different.
Well, there’s nothing you can do. I mean, nature is nature and it’s the strongest thing there is. We’ve tried the rock jetties which is good. Now it’s starting to erode. It can only do so much. [Interviewer] So when you think about the rest of your life, what do you think of for yourself? [Respondent] I’m moving to Thibideaux (LA). They still have some French-speaking people there and they’re not going to be beachfront property for fifty years… I was going to move to Lafayette, but it’s too far away I think. So Thibideaux. [Interviewer] But you’re not going until it’s gone? [Respondent] Well sure! I’m the history of the island. I have to be here.
Even as Evelyn moves she wants to carry Grand Isle with her. She carries the sense of this place as part of her identity. When asked about her hopes and dreams for the community, Evelyn responds
… Well, we’re an island, we’re a barrier island, and we’re just not going to be here much longer. [Interviewer] What are your hopes and dreams for the people on the island? [Respondent] I hope they take all the good things we’ve taught them and always had on the island. I hope they take those things like trusting and opening your house to everybody and we know how to live with tourists… And integrity. That’s the biggest thing I want them to take with them. ‘I’m from Grand Isle.’ You know, I want to make that count for something.
Earlier in her narrative Evelyn says she is preparing her students to leave Grand Isle and enter into a much harsher world. She feels that the fragility of the island, inevitably, will cause it to vanish. Evelyn, viewing Grand Isle as unique even to the region, has hope that her students, as well as others, will take Grand Isle with them.
<32> Anna and Sam, a married couple in their thirties, are more hopeful about the island and their community, but skeptical about the political machinery revolving around the issue of land loss. Both grew up on Grand Isle, lived in Houston for a couple of years after marrying and were drawn back to the island by family. They now run Anna’s father’s supermarket and are investing in a developing marina on the eastern end of the island. Anna and Sam believe that south Louisiana can be saved; however, their interactions with those responsible for slowing erosion have left them bitter and resentful towards those organizations that they feel are taking advantage of their unique place. Sam says,
Like the Corps of Engineers… They had an old man for the Corps that oversaw the project out here. …This man (from Corps of Engineers) bluntly told him (fellow resident), well the only guy I heard that said it; said it truthfully. He said, “If we do it right the first time we wouldn’t have a job.” …It’s like they don’t want to do it right the first time. Anna: I mean we have a lot of uniqueness about us. I hope my daughter never gets to the time when they’re building the campground (house) right across the street from the store .
This sense of uniqueness is characterized by their skepticism of outsiders who would fix the erosion problem. The uniqueness they both confer on Grand Isle and the region  is accentuated by the island’s fragility due to erosion and storms. Anna continues “that’s the only thing we can’t be in control of.” Sam says, “But that’s what makes you appreciate it, is fearing the storms. So, you know in the back of your head that it can be wiped out. So enjoy it while you can; while it’s here.”
<33> Alfonse thinks the community has great resiliency and is hopeful that the island will be preserved, in part, because of the community’s long and deep ties to the land; however, he echoes the skeptical sentiments of Anna and Sam about the politicized nature of erosion.
I see it [land loss] and I see it now. The more they [scientists and engineers] do, the more it eats away. But the engineers, they’re too smart. They went to too many colleges and never come and looked at it. [It’s] not on the book. No, come and see the climate itself. Come do it. Like, not what you read out of a book. But, I guess they get paid not to spend too much money. … But they’ve never been to Grand Isle and they’re going to tell me how to protect Grand Isle.
The spatial uniqueness is conveyed through Alfonse’s aversion to outsiders who he feels claim to know what he has observed throughout his life.
<34> Respondents vary in their thoughts about the future of what they see as a special place, however, land loss is a fact of life on Grand Isle that enhances awareness of place attachment. While respondents share similarities in their thoughts about the uniqueness of their island, their individual self-definitions help to carve out what they choose to accentuate as unique.
<35> Thoughts about erosion and place attachment are also reflected by work and are further detailed in the next theme where seemingly normal occupations are shaped by the respondents’ region.
<36> Definitions of self and attachment to place are linked to how a person makes a living. Work is a major part of our identity. In turn, our work shapes the way we think about place and the meaning we confer on the environment. In Grand Isle, occupation is linked to place through the fishing and related industries, oil, and tourism. Shelly: “Because if I would sell this [her business] and I’d go up that driveway, I wouldn’t know whether to go left or right, you know.” What makes Shelly’s comment relevant is that this is how she chooses to respond to a question about her hopes for herself and family. Shelly’s narrative, more than most, is shaped by her work. Possibilities of displacement are in her thoughts but solutions are evasive. Respondents who, like Shelly, live in Grand Isle express the struggle as well as the pleasure that comes from living and working there.
<37> Shelly’s identification with work is inseparable from Grand Isle. This holds true for most other permanent residents. Clarice, now a postal worker, no longer fishes commercially due to the industry’s decline, but still owns a vessel with her husband who continues to fish. Her identity remains linked to that occupation.
<38> The commercial fishing industry is diminishing in the region and the oil industry is diminishing, as it is part of Grand Isle. Respondents report many leaving commercial fishing and moving into other areas such as service for the sport fishing industry, however, the work of fishing is viewed as a character trait that is hereditary or acquired but cannot be divested of easily. Shelly says, “It’s in the blood and once you’ve got the shrimping in your system, it’s just what you like to do.” The changing environment, characterized by slow and rapid onset land loss, helps to shape constructs about work that are intrinsically linked to place.
<39> The fragility that frames land loss is used by all respondents to characterize the fishing industry. Clarice says, “We didn’t get any price for our crop. And they say with the imports – it was really a bad year this year. So, we could really have sold our shrimp boat last year and we built it ourself and it was kind of hard to do so we kept it.” In speaking about when she and her husband first started with their vessel: “We built it and we made money and we survived.” She no longer fishes, but she uses “we” to talk about the occupation. Shelly speaks about fishing being “in the blood” and here we see that Clarice’s long ties to the industry extend to the present. Clarice’s landscape is shaped, in large part, by her identification with what she sees as the regionally unique occupation of fishing. All respondents talk about adjusting to the decline, but the lifestyle of this work cannot be totally abandoned – it’s too connected to place.
<40> The social construction of place imbues place with symbolic meaning according to the values and beliefs embedded in the self-definitions of individuals (Boyer 1994; Greider and Garkovich 1994) that are, in part, extracted from the larger culture. Residents of Grand Isle are similar to many other Americans; however, Grand Islanders believe that they have a unique culture specific to the region that makes them different from many other Americans.
<41> Residents’ landscapes convey ideas of uniqueness and fragility. Even those respondents who do not live permanently on the island talk about how the island is fragile. Respondents’ narratives of place are framed in terms of the island being unique socially and environmentally. The island’s unique quality is not separate from its fragility. As the land erodes and changes so do the cultural aspects of the island. Traditional forms of work change and it is unknown exactly what will replace it. Neither fishing nor the oil industry can be counted on to sustain life. Development and an influx of upper middle class outsiders also change landscapes. There is a sense of cultural fragility as well as fragility of the natural environment.
<42> While the landscapes of these residents are shaped by the certainty of erosion and the prospect of the ‘big’ hurricane, the framing of their environment in terms of fragility also contains elements of faith that go hand in hand with the land - they will hold on and sustain community while never abandoning the idea of moving ‘up the bayou’. The fragility of place appears to accentuate the unique qualities conferred upon place.
<43> The accrued biographical experience that produces place attachment (Altman and Low, 1992) appears to help produce such hope (sometimes expressed waveringly by respondents) about a place that is always at risk to disaster. The respondents and their families have been part of the island for generations. Their experiences are similar to those that generate place attachment for residents of other places, but in Grand Isle there is an ongoing traumatic event, coastal land loss, that creates a heightened awareness of place attachment.
<44> Environmental psychologists Brown and Perkins (1992) suggest that the fragility imparted by environmental disruptions forces a more acute awareness of place attachment. So in the case of Grand Isle, acknowledgment of place attachment is heightened when a hurricane occurs. However, add to this the incessant slow onset of coastal land loss and a more constant awareness of place attachment is very probable.
<45> Of course, respondents are conveying a narrative about place to an outsider; however, their framing is also linked to the environmental disruptions of hurricanes and coastal land loss. Respondents say that there is no need for others to tell them about erosion. As the ‘old timer’ Alfonse says, “I see it.” Residents are constantly aware of this ongoing event. They use it and other environmental disruptions (hurricanes as well as increased development) to emphasize and further link uniqueness and fragility to place. So it is both narratives about place and constant environmental disasters that account for respondents’ heightened awareness of place attachment.
<46> Coastal land loss due to the slow onset disaster of erosion and rapid onset disaster of hurricanes forces a more constant awareness of place attachment. This place attachment is characterized by landscapes of uniqueness and fragility and is evident throughout residents’ narratives.
<47> Curry and McGuire (2002) argue, “Land and oceans management policy solutions will fail because they are individualistic and fail to recognize the existence of community. The culture and its legal discourse proceed primarily in terms of the individual or corporation and/or the state” (p.181). The community already holds a deep relationship with the land. If any real attempts at saving Louisiana’s coast are to be made then involving these communities thus creating a sense of ownership in process can sustain the various processes that will work over time.
 Research for this article was supported through an EDI/Special Project Grant: B-01-SP-LA-029 from the U.S.Department of Housing and Urban Development ( HUD) and Center for Hazards Assessment, Response, and Technology (CHART) at the University of New Orleans. [^]
 Themes that serve as categories were established and continually reformulated until all the data were incorporated. [^]
 Any interruptions by the interviewer are included in the presentation of the quote. [^]
 More so than others, Clarice’s hope appears to follow from necessity. [^]
 The supermarket Anna operates is on the bay side and across the street, on the gulf side, there are residences. There is a stretch of land of about fifty yards before there are homes (parallel to beach) and then beach. She hopes the land doesn’t erode away to the point where the beach and homes are right on the other side of the rode from her store. [^]
 Anna continually refers to the uniqueness of south Louisiana in her narrative. [^]
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