By Kortney Scroger
NEW ORLEANS, Jan. 19, 2013 – The Water Team had a day full of interviews last Friday, all of which centered primarily on the issues of wetlands and wetland loss in Louisiana.
According to local scientists and researchers who study these matters, a combination of factors, including population growth and reduced sediment deposits that have historically come from upriver are causing rapid loss of wetlands in Southern Louisiana. Wetlands are important to the environment because they help cleanse water, and they provide habitat to important animals and organisms in the food chain.
These discussions got us to thinking about what visuals we would need in the film to illustrate these points.
The answer to that question unexpectedly presented itself as we were driving back to New Orleans from one of our meetings outside the city. As darkness fell, we spotted a roadside sign that read, "Airboat Tours by Arthur."
Almost immediately, we decided that shooting video and stills from an airboat would be a good way to acquire imagery. We called from the car and made reservations for just before sunset the next evening.
We arrived on Saturday a few minutes before our appointment time, not sure exactly what to expect.
We walked into the office and the first thing that caught my eye was an 11-foot-long stuffed alligator. We were greeted by a friendly woman, who we would soon learn was Arthur's wife. She had us sign the obligatory release forms, took our money, and prepared us for our journey, which included warning us that her husband, Arthur Matherne (our tour guide), is very passionate about his job and can talk VERY fast when he gets excited. This is something we learned quickly.
Soon thereafter, Arthur pulled up on his airboat. He welcomed us, and the team climbed aboard. Armed with our cameras, we began our journey.
Arthur, who makes his living by running these bayou tours, began by gently guiding the boat through a canal -- lined by waterfront homes -- that leads to vast, open wetlands that stretched for miles in all directions.
About five minutes into the ride, and with the residential neighborhood now well behind us, Arthur revved the boat’s motor and shouted, "Now would be the time to put on your ear muffs!" By which he meant large, plastic ear coverings like those worn at shooting ranges, or by ground control crews at airports.
Next thing we know, we are speeding through the water at about 60 mph – so fast that it feels the ear muffs might fly off my head and the wind might yank the video camera out of my hands.
Meanwhile, Arthur is making the boat do 360-degree turns in the water and simultaneously talking a mile a minute about the wildlife whizzing by, about the depth of the water in any given place, about the air temperature, and just about anything else that pops into his head.
The craziest part of this excursion occurred about halfway through the tour. At the beginning, Arthur had casually mentioned that airboats could go just about anywhere.
However, that brief allusion early on did not prepare me for what was about to happen. Still driving at a swift pace, Arthur turned the boat towards dry land! As chief videographer, I was seated in the very front of the boat. Arthur showed no signs of slowing down.
So, I gripped the camera tightly and hoped for the best. The airboat jumped the bank, hopped up a fairly steep hill, spun around 180 degrees, and came to rest on dry land.
Clearly proud of himself, Arthur hopped off the boat, and in his rapid-fire Cajun accent, again announced that “Dis here boat can go anywhere, anytime.”
After recovering from the shock of having just “sailed” on dry land, the team and I stepped off long enough to catch our breath and have Arthur take a group photo of us. Then, it was back on board for the rest of tour.
That airboat ride with Arthur is an experience I will never forget. It gave the team a unique and up-close perspective of the Louisiana wetlands, a beautiful and vital natural resource. We also had a few heart-stopping moments along the way and lots of laughs.
Members of the Water Team finished the day with smiles on their faces, a memory card filled with footage of Southern Louisiana, and the unforgettable Cajun airboat pilot Arthur Matherne.
Follow the Yellow Brick GPS Road
By Haley Huntington
New Orleans, January 17, 2013 -
After a solid 14 hours on the road from St. Louis, we finally arrived In New
Orleans on Thursday night (technically, Friday morning).
The team made several stops along the way, however. First, we followed the path of the
Mississippi to Thebes Landing, an RV Park and camp ground located on the river’s
banks and owned by local resident Neal Day. Thebes has drawn a lot of attention
over the last seven months because of rock blasting by the Army Corps of
Engineers, which has worked to ensure that the Mississippi has remained navigable for commercial shipping.
Although a Thebes business owner for only three years, Day was practically an expert on the history, culture and
commerce in area. It helps that he grew up and went to school in Southern Illinois.
With his full head of silver hair and a commanding voice, the
tall, rugged Day braved the cold wind and provided great insight as to what it
was like for tiny Thebes, population 500, to be suddenly thrust into the
Day also knew a great deal about the history of
Thebes. Pointing to a structure atop a hill about a quarter of a mile away, Day
explained that the building was the local courthouse in which the slave Dred
Scott had been imprisoned in the 1850s while awaiting trial!
For those in need of a refresher on their U.S. history, Scott was
an African American slave who unsuccessfully sued for his freedom and that of
his wife and their two daughters. In what is popularly known as the“Dred Scott
Decision,” the U.S. Supreme Court voted against Scott 7-2, finding that neither
Scott nor any other person of African heritage had the right to declare
citizenship in the United States, and furthermore, had no standing in a U.S.
federal court. The case enraged both sides in the slavery debate and is often
cited as a contributing factor to the Civil War and its aftermath.
Day had to run to meet friends for a prime rib lunch, so we thanked him and went on
our merry way to our next destination: Memphis, Tennessee. The world-famous
Beale Street (and its restaurants) were must-sees, as was Elvis Presley's
After some sustenance and sightseeing, the team began
the six-hour haul to New Orleans. Hilarious family stories, fits of
interpretive dance by team members, and some napping helped us pass the time.
We were glad to finally arrive in New Orleans to get a few hours of
sleep before another packed day of
But more importantly, we were excited for a break from our
confused GPS sassily telling us to "make the next available U-Turn" every 10 seconds.
All Aboard the Dredge Potter
By Kortney Scroger
ST. LOUIS, Mo., January 16, 2013--Ever wonder what it would be like to float in the middle of the storied Mississippi River? Today, the Tapped Out documentary team did just that.
Our adventure began just after 8 a.m. Tired of freezing in what feels like arctic conditions to us Northwesterners, all of us were bundled up against the cold, wearing multiple pairs of wool socks and fleece beanies.
We embarked on an hour-long car ride headed South to the small riverbank town of St. Genevieve, Mo. The sight we beheld after our long journey was well worth the wait. It was the vessel we were about to board: The Dredge Potter, a 72-year-old Army Corps of Engineers workhorse that works the river 24/7/365 to keep the shipping lanes open and navigable for commerce.
After shooting some footage from the parking lot, the first challenge was getting to the dock. Because of the Mississippi’s low water levels, the river has receded by some 30 feet.
The MediaLab crew, loaded down with heavy camera equipment, cautiously tottered down a steep rock embankment. Awaiting us was a boat to transport us to the Potter, located out in the middle of the Mississippi.
Capt. Thomas George was our tour guide for the afternoon. When we first began filming George was apprehensive in front of the camera. But once he began talking about the dredge and what he and his 50-person team do each day, it felt as if we became part of his crew.
When we concluded George's formal interview, we went on a tour of the ship, which is four stories tall and more than 1,400 feet long. The captain first took us first to the "dustpan" end of the dredge, where all of the waste picked up from river, such as tree branches and rocks, are deposited.
The objective of a dredge is to clear the river of sediment and debris that could impede traffic. The current low levels of the river require significantly more dredging in order to provide ships with the necessary depths. In an average year, the crew works at roughly 30 sites along a 300-mile stretch of the Mississippi. Because of the Mississippi’s current conditions, the Potter dredged doubled in the past year.
From the dustbin, we headed to the control and engine rooms. Throughout the tour it was evident that Capt. George and his crew truly love their jobs and believe in what they’re doing to help keep the Mississippi River navigable for those who rely on it. Love of their work is a good thing considering they live on this boat for days at a time.
Our ride on the Potter with Capt. George and his crew provided us with countless visuals and some answers to our most burning questions.
But it is becoming apparent that we still have more to learn about water than we ever could have imagined.
By Haley Huntington
ST. LOUIS, January 15, 2013 – Day Two brought the Tapped Out team some intriguing, yet opposing views.
In the morning, we visited Washington University of St. Louis to speak with Dr. Robert Criss, a professor of geochemistry. Immediately after, we headed to the offices of the St. Louis District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).
After getting slightly lost in the long hallways of Rudolph Hall at Washington University, we finally located the office of Dr. Criss. All of us were thankful to be doing an interview indoors after spending much of our first day outside in 20-degree weather.
We began setting up our equipment, but found ourselves bumping into things stacked around the room.
“Oh, you can move those boxes,” said Dr. Criss. They’re just full of rocks.” Clearly, we were in the office of a geologist.
Right off, it became clear that we were in for a day of diverging opinions regarding water scarcity and quality. Dr. Criss was quick to tell us he’s no fan of the dredging, demolition and other engineering currently underway on the Mississippi River. Essentially, Criss said he believes that human intervention prevents the river from doing its job, which is to move water and sediment – on its own.
Dr. Criss provided interesting insights into how current the drought has been portrayed in the media. He made it clear that we should always be hesitant to believe everything we see and hear in the mass media without researching issues ourselves.
By looking at charts and graphs on Dr. Criss’ computer of the Mississippi’s historical flows, we learned that there have been several years in which the drought was as bad, and even worse, than current conditions. In Criss’ opinion, we may be down, but not out.
Since Dr. Criss was singing a significantly different tune than what we had previously heard, the team began to think more deeply as we made our way to downtown St. Louis for our visit with the Army Corps of Engineers.
We suddenly had a lot more questions about the dredging and rock removal occurring on the Mississippi, such as “Where does the sediment go when it is removed?” “Are these practices sustainable?” “What impact does the dredging have on river ecosystems?”
We went through the equivalent of airport security in order to enter the Young Federal Building where a host federal agency offices such as the Government Services Administration, the Labor Dept. and many others, are co-located.
Mike Peterson, Director of Public Affairs for the St. Louis District of the Corps of USACE, gave us a tour of the offices. Mike told us that he and his colleagues have done more than 500 interviews about drought in the past few months. Nonetheless, many heads turned with puzzled gazes as we waddled about the hallways lugging our camera equipment.
We visited the Corps’ Water Control Division, where I played photographer. My job was to shoot stills and supplementary B-roll footage, while my "Tapped Out" teammate Katie Baumann probed specialists about the operations of dams, levees, and locks.
I quickly became mesmerized by the six large television screens streaming real-time data of water levels and CFS (cubic feet per second) in various rivers and waterways within the 28,000 square mile area that the St. Louis ASACE District oversees.
As a visual learner, I found one of the most insightful and entertaining portions of our day to be our trip to the Applied River Engineering Center (AREC). We entered a spacious room with six rivers flowing through it. The rivers were indeed real. They were just modeled on a much smaller scale.
Each model, which represented a particular section of a river, simulated the actual flow patterns of the waterways, including the Mississippi. The team got up close and personal with these mini-rivers, and got to witness how and why manipulation of a river occurs from an engineering standpoint.
Though dredging may not be ideal, the models did show how the method allows waterways to remain open during a drought such as the one currently affecting the Mississippi.
Having now heard both sides of the human intervention argument, the team has a much more well-rounded view of the issues. In a documentary such as Tapped Out, which aims to examine complexities, showcasing multiple viewpoints is crucial, especially since policies and activities can affect individual stakeholders very differently. Opposing opinions will help us produce a film that is thoughtful and informed.
At the conclusion of our visit to AREC, we hopped into the minivan and headed for the McKinley Bridge just outside of downtown, where we got to witness the full-sized magnitude of the model structures we saw at AREC. They are much larger in person!
To ensure that the next day’s filming would not not hindered by frost-bitten videographers, we paid a visit to the nearest Target store to outfit ourselves apparel more appropriate in 20-degree weather.
We can’t wait to see what’s up next! Stay tuned for Day 3 on the “Big Muddy!”