Over the past 11 years, Louisiana’s sometimes contentious relationship with water has been on full display. We have a lot of water. We have rivers, streams, bayous and lakes. We have brackish wetlands that teem with fish and wildlife. And we have the Gulf of Mexico.
Most of the time, water is our friend and ally. Occasionally, it gets riled up and we — people and our possessions – get caught in its way. Since 2005, water has come at us horizontally and vertically. The horizontal strikes were wind-driven and associated with hurricanes — Katrina, Rita, Gustav, and Ike are the core of that litany. Hurricane Isaac in 2012 was a little different. The winds were not so strong, but there was significant storm surge, but much of the damage it caused were the result of the intense rains that the slow-moving hurricane brought with it.
In the Floods of August, rain was the culprit. Record amounts of rain (nearly 7 trillion gallons) in a short period of time (about 48 hours).
What is striking about the storms that begin and end the litany is the way our systems broke down. Katrina brought wind, rain, and storm surge that knocked out power and communications, destroyed roads, and shattered the supply chain for food and goods. In August, the intense rains and the resulting flooding did much of the same thing. Water has repeatedly exposed the fragility of the complex web of infrastructure that supports modern life.
Kohlie Franzten grew up in Lafayette but was living in Jefferson Parish in 2005 when he evacuated his family as hurricane Katrina bore down on the New Orleans area. He thought it would be a long weekend. The devastation then meant that his family stayed in Crowley with his in-laws for longer than expected. Long enough to get caught there by Hurricane Rita three weeks later. Now, 11 years later, he’s still in Acadiana.
Frantzen, whose father Dan co-founded Stone Energy, was stunned by what he saw across south Louisiana in August. Not by the flooding so much, but by the breakdown in systems that was so similar to what he had seen and experienced in 2005.
The food supply chain in south Louisiana was disrupted as a major food distributor in Baton Rouge was flooded. Not only that, the backup system in Michigan was disrupted by storms there. Luckily, things rebounded quickly, but it drove home the fragility of critical systems and drove home to him the accuracy of an observation of his business partner Dylan Ratigan that food and sustainability are security issues.
Frantzen and Ratigan are an unusual business pairing brought together in search of business opportunities for combat veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Ratigan is a former TV business journalist. Frantzen has his roots in the oil patch, but is also an attorney who has connections in the entertainment industry.
Together, they have formed Helical Holdings, a company that produces all green, off the grid, fully connected hydroponic farms in a box. The boxes are called Helical Outposts. To date, only two have been deployed — one in Lafayette at John Paul the Great Academy, the other in Virginia, about 45 minutes outside of Washington — but they have survived blizzards (in the mountains of Virginia) and floods (here last month) and not lost power, not stopped producing food, and not losing communications with the outside world.
I’m not ready to go all Jon Landau and say ‘I’ve seen the future of resilient, sustainable Louisiana and it’s the Helical Outpost,’ but that future will likely be something very much like it.
The Outposts produces more power than it uses thanks to solar panels that sit on top of the shipping container that is used to deploy it. All the parts of the 1,440 square foot green house (including the white ground cover seal) are inside the container when it arrives. That includes the tools needed to assemble it and the seeds to start and sustain the growing process. It produces clean water without needing a clean source to start. And it’s connected to the outside world via satellite communications.
The Outposts were designed with the intent to be used in Third World or disaster areas. But, Frantzen now sees a huge potential for them in this country as community gardens and community centers. And, in a pinch, they can be the source of community resilience in disasters.
That all-in-one, plug-and-play approach is what separates the Outposts from other approaches to farming. And Frantzen said that is a direct outgrowth of his roots in the oil patch, “where we build floating cities that depend on GPS and satellite communications.”
The precise manufacturing skills that go into creating the Outposts are also outgrowths of the oil and gas industry. If the business can gain traction, manufacturing the Outposts and pulling together the technologies that make them work could provide a path to transitioning the skill sets of oil and gas workers to an entirely new industry.
Frantzen and I met at a meeting of the Lousiana Water Economy Network held at the Main Branch of the Lafayette Parish Library on the last day of August. It was a little over two weeks after the rains had stopped, but water still had people out of their homes and businesses in some areas. Frantzen’s introduction of the Outposts centered on the technology and the productivity of the hydroponic greenhouse that is part of it, but the opportunities building an industry around this concept holds in providing a place where the skills of laid off oilfield workers was a persistent part of the conversation.
Kohlie Frantzen is my guest on Where The Alligators Roam this Sunday at 5 p.m. on KPEL. We’ll get a lot deeper into the conversation then. I hope you’ll join us, either on the radio, via the live stream, or through RadioPup, the free mobile app for Android and iOS.