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Ten Years After, and Looking Ahead

Thursday, August 27th, 2015

A Time for Celebration, but Not for Complacency

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Has it really been ten years already? Indeed it has: a long ten years. And the work of rebuilding, the labors of love and determination, dedication, devotion, and sometimes of desperation—aided by countless volunteers from all around America and the world—are incalculable, and we hope that what they have rebuilt and reinforced will last for a very long time to come. Merci beaucoup.

We wholeheartedly join in celebrating the New Orleans area’s rebirth and rebuilding since Hurricane Katrina and the federal flood that ensued—we’ll be there this weekend for the 10th annual Rising Tide conference and other events. And we are grateful for the efforts of elected officials to dedicate funding for the rebuilding, and we welcome President Obama and FEMA director W. Craig Fugate and others to New Orleans to participate in the events.

At the same time, while the eyes of the world turn to remember and honor this anniversary—this momentous event so charged with tragic intensity, such widespread human suffering—we remain worried, skeptical about the long term. We feel compelled to sound a cautionary note about coastal Louisiana’s environmental predicament and the state’s political submissiveness to the oil and gas industry. Consider that even as President Obama is launching efforts “to reduce carbon emissions and slow the impacts of climate change” (in the words of WhiteHouse.gov), his administration has also given Shell Oil permission to drill in the Arctic. What we need is a new (early period) Huey P. Long for the environment.

Katrina10Now, this Katrina 10 weekend, the politicians, even the most eco-friendly among them, will spellbind us with reassuring words we want to hear, about resilience (Mayor Mitch Landrieu will say the word at least 189 times), accomplishments and promises delivered that make their administrations look good, and perhaps rightly so, but they all hesitate to stand up to ExonMobil, Shell, BP, and other oil and gas giants. If it weren’t so, wouldn’t the oil companies pay more than a pittance in corporate taxes?

I would ask you to respect this important time of remembrance by not inserting the divisive political agenda of liberal environmental activism.”

—Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, in a letter to President Obama 

We could not disagree more. Since we read it in the paper a few days ago, we haven’t been able to stop thinking about the very serious facts that Oliver A. Houck of Tulane Law School laid down in a letter to the editor of The New York Times:

How to Save a Sinking Coast? Katrina Created a Laboratory” (front page, Aug. 8), in which I am quoted, understates the seriousness of Louisiana’s predicament and its conflicting responses.

Whitehall Canal, in the Barataria-Terrebonne estuary.Jeff Riedel@NYTThere is no hope of restoring the coastal Louisiana we once knew. Sea rise is accelerating, the substrate is collapsing, and the oil and gas industry has torn the surface to shreds. Some 50 miles of marshes that protected New Orleans are largely gone. The Mississippi no longer carries sediment loads sufficient to offset these losses. We can maintain a few salients like New Orleans and create several deltas. That’s the best-case scenario.

Like many coastal areas, however, Louisiana continues to try to have it both ways, promoting restoration as well as more development on soils that are sinking more rapidly than anywhere in North America. The state’s future is the state’s choice, of course, except that, in the end, nature will have its say. The question is whether we face that fact and deal with it. The answer is not just what we do with the Mississippi. It is what we do with ourselves.

Much Stronger Flood Protection for New Orleans Metro Area

Now, in the ten years since Katrina, some substantial improvements have been made to the area’s flood protection system. Congress has allocated $14.5 billion to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to rebuild, reinforce, and install new protections. Times-Picayune reporter Mark Schleifstein describes it as “a $14.5-billion network of levees, floodwalls and pumps that nearly eliminates flooding for most so-called 100-year events and substantially reduces flooding from much larger hurricanes.” The Corps is also spending about $1.2 billion to improve the city’s drainage system, which accounts for the major work currently being done along Napoleon, Jefferson, and other avenues under which closed culverts convey excess water out of the city. The new system stood up well against Hurricane Isaac in September 2013; experts said that without the post-Katrina reinforcements, Isaac could have flooded the city as badly as the disastrous Hurricane Betsy of 1965, which struck almost exactly forty years to the day before Hurricane Katrina.

There have been other important structural changes that should improve the area’s safety from flooding. One of the main “delivery systems” of the inundation of New Orleans and vicinity was the convergence of the Intracoastal Waterway with the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MR-GO, known locally as Mister Go): The convergence forms a funnel that directs storm surges from Lakes Borgne and Pontchartrain directly at the heart of Orleans Parish, a low-lying bowl between the river and the lake, enclosed by levees. This danger was predicted before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built MR-GO in the 1950s and ’60s. Following Katrina, a closure structure was built across MR-GO at Bayou La Loutre, completed in July 2009. Closer to New Orleans, a strong $1 billion, 1.8-mile surge barrier was constructed to close the funnel at the convergence of the Intracoastal Waterway and MR-GO. This barrier, completed in 2011, was designed to prevent storm surges from entering the Industrial Canal and Intracoastal Waterway—and, hence, reinforces New Orleans and vicinity’s defenses against flooding.

So, naturally we are grateful for the federal and state funding that has made these major improvements possible. And yet we remain skeptical for the future, doubtful of the realism and practicality of the state’s legislature, which continues to allow the oil and gas industry free rein. A lawsuit against 97 oil companies brought by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East (SLFPA-E) in July 2013 was strangled by Gov. Bobby Jindal and a compliant majority of the Louisiana legislature.

Will New Orleans, Est. 1718, Live to Have a 400th Birthday?

John BarryA former vice president of the flood authority, historian John M. Barry (right), mentions that lawsuit and the environmental catastrophe that it could have helped ameliorate in an authoritative overview he wrote for The New York Times titled “Is New Orleans Safe?” (Barry and the lawsuit were profiled by Nathaniel Rich in The New York Times Magazine last October: “Waterworld: The Most Ambitious Environmental Lawsuit Ever.”) In “Is New Orleans Safe,” Barry says that it is technically, geologically possible for New Orleans to survive despite the odds, if the right steps are taken, partly by “living with water” and also by intelligent use of diversions to rebuild sedimentary deposits from the Mississippi River.

But then he gives a sober assessment:

. . . the political reality is that taxpayers around the country are not going to be sending Louisiana tens of billions of dollars anytime soon, especially while Louisiana’s politicians avoid dealing with another major cause of land loss.

Oil, gas and pipeline companies have dredged an estimated 10,000 miles of canals through the coast; ensuing salt water intrusion killed plants, without whose roots land dissolved. Companies also sucked so much material from below ground that the surface sank. . . .

On the 10th anniversary of Katrina, there will be much congratulating over how far the city has come. Mayor Landrieu has declared rebuilding over and is preparing to make New Orleans an international showpiece for its 300th anniversary in 2018. If the city and state focus on the one existential threat they face. New Orleans could have a sustainable future. But if focus dissipates, if politics blocks action, the 300th anniversary will most likely be the last centennial the city celebrates.

And so, if you see an elected official during this weekend’s events in New Orleans, please urge him or her to help press the oil and gas industry to share in the efforts to rebuild a sustainable coast for Louisiana. It’s not easy but it’s not as naive or impossible as it may sound. Ask them—they’re people too—to shift toward renewable energy sources, to give up some of their profits, or look beyond their next reelection, and to support the practicable, realistic projects that geologists and engineers have devised that could slow the degradation and help regenerate the wetlands around southern Louisiana.

Some ideas for coastal restoration can be found in our interviews with Ivor van Heerden, Harry Shearer, Mark Schleifstein, and in the Coastal Conservation Conversation panel held at Loyola University in New Orleans in August 2014. For the nitty-gritty of paying for the state of Louisiana’s master plan for coastal restoration, click here for a PDF of “Turning Coastal Restoration and Protection Plans Into Realities: The Cost of Comprehensive Coastal Restoration and Protection,” published by the Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy on August 18, 2014 (discussed at the Loyola panel mentioned above).

Sorry, didn’t mean to bring you down. Just trying to keep it real. In medieval and renaissance banquets there was often a skull on the table as a reminder to the guests (memento mori). We’re just trying to help make sure that there is a four hundredth birthday for the great, low-lying city we love so dearly.

Now, let’s pass the bottle and celebrate a job well done . . .

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Further Reading:

Is New Orleans Safe? by John M. Barry (New York Times)

Ten Years After Katrina (New York Times interactive)

Mapping Katrina and Its Aftermath (New York Times interactive)

Rebuilding Nature in Wake of Katrina (NYT slide show)

A decade after Hurricane Katrina, new books, new insights, old memories (New Orleans Advocate)

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Wetlands photo and John M. Barry photo by Jeff Riedel for The New York Times.

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Rising Tide X Is Aug. 29, Tenth Anniversary of Katrina

Saturday, August 15th, 2015

DeRay Mckesson, Social Justice Activist, Is Keynote Speaker

We are registered and all kinds of psyched for the 10th annual Rising Tide conference—“the premier annual new media conference in the GulfSouth”—to be held on Sat., Aug. 29, at Xavier University in New Orleans. Admission is free,  and the lineup is great. Check it out.

The keynote speaker will be civil rights activist (detail of) DeRay Mckesson Sid Hastings:for WDeRay Mckesson, a former school administrator recently profiled by The New York Times Magazine for his organizing genius in using Twitter and other social media to publicize police violence in Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore, Charleston, and beyond, and in popularizing the Black Lives Matter movement. Rising Tide organizer Mark Moseley says Mckesson is “at the forefront of an innovative digital movement to expose and resist systems of racial oppression.” (More about DeRay Mckesson and the NYT profile below.)

Another guest speaker we’re eager to hear—we met him at an RTX planning meeting in May—is former New York Times reporter Gary Rivlin, author of the new Katrina: After the Flood, recently published by Simon & Schuster. Rivlin has been praised by Nathaniel Rich as “a sharp observer and a dogged reporter . . . unerringly compassionate toward his subjects.”

Panel Discussions on Environment, Transportation, and Schools

RTX poster from RT-FB.bIn the great Rising Tide tradition, there will be informative talks on such perennial concerns as the environment, and education, and transportation in New Orleans.

The environment panel—of keen interest to this blog—will be moderated by Anne Rolfes of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade (based in Lafayette) and including Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter Bob Marshall (now of The Lens, formerly of The Times-Picayune) and Jonathan Henderson of the Gulf Restoration Network. (Click here to see Anne Rolfes and Bob Marshall at Rising Tide 6 in 2011, commenting on the BP oil spill.)

The talk about transportation around New Orleans—“a conversation about how New Orleans makes infrastructure an obstacle course”—will be moderated by Megan B. Capone of Public Transit Tuesdays, with Dan Favre of Bike Easy, Rachel Heiligman of Ride NOLA, Jeff Januszek of Fix My Streets, and Amanda Soprano from #NOLATwitter.

The education panel, “Education in New Orleans: The Next 10 Years,” is moderated by Dr. Andre Perry, columnist and 2014’s keynote speaker, and brings together Amanda Aiken, principal of Crocker Elementary; Sharon Clark, principal of Sophie B. Wright Charter School; Karran Harper Royal, parent advocate; Jamar MckNeely, CEO of the Inspire Network; Dana Peterson, deputy superintendent, Recovery School District; and Lamont Douglass, parent and PTA member at Wilson Elementary.

Among other attractions, BrassyBrown.com—“Where women of color are first in line”—presents Black Women Writers, “10 Writers for 10 Years”; Cynthia Joyce, editor of the new anthology Please Forward: How Blogging Reconnected New Orleans After Katrina; Scott Sternberg talks politics; and Dr. Beth Blankenship surveys social services and domestic violence issues in post-Katrina New Orleans.

And there’s much more. See the Rising Tide blog for further details about the program and the participants, how to register—it’s free—and more.

Click here for Levees Not War’s live-blogging and other coverage of Rising Tide, since 2007.

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Johnetta Elzie & DeRayMckessonNYTMag

More about DeRay McKesson

In a profile of Mckesson and Johnetta Elzie in The New York Times Magazine (shown at MoKaBe’s Coffeehouse in St. Louis) titled “Our Demand Is Simple: Stop Killing Us,” Jay Caspian Kang writes about the protests in Baltimore following the death-by-police of 25-year-old Freddie Gray:

One protester was DeRay Mckesson, a 29-year-old former school administrator who has spent much of the past nine months attending and catalyzing such protests, from Ferguson, Mo., last summer and fall, to New York City and Milwaukee in December, to North Charleston, S.C., in April. Mckesson, who is from Baltimore, had returned to his hometown not long after Gray’s death to join the protests. . . .

Since Aug. 9, 2014, when Officer Darren Wilson of the Ferguson Police Department shot and killed Michael Brown, Mckesson and a core group of other activists [including Johnetta Elzie] have built the most formidable American protest movement of the 21st century to date. Their innovation has been to marry the strengths of social media—the swift, morally blunt consensus that can be created by hashtags; the personal connection that a charismatic online persona can make with followers; the broad networks that allow for the easy distribution of documentary photos and videos—with an effort to quickly mobilize protests in each new city where a police shooting occurs.

The Los Angeles Times reports that Mckesson and Elzie have helped launch the National Police Violence Map at MappingPoliceViolence.org, a collection of data on police violence fatalities—at least 197 black people have been killed by police so far in 2015—for which they were honored with the PEN New England 2015 Howard Zinn Freedom to Write Award.

Rising Tide has had many distinguished keynote speakers over the years, solid authorities on all kinds of important subjects—from historian John M. Barry and and Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré  to actor Harry Shearer and Treme creator David Simon—but this year’s guest speaker may be one of the most compelling yet. Mckesson will certainly bring a brave and passionate commitment to social justice and a can-do spirit about democracy that we all need to hear.

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Click here for links to previous Rising Tide posts here at Levees Not War. We’ve been going, as often as possible, since 2007, and we hope to see you there.

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Top photo of DeRay Mckesson by Sid Hastings for The Washington Post. Rising Tide X illustration by Varg. Photograph of DeRay Mckesson and Johnetta Elzie by Christaan Felber for The New York Times Magazine.

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In Defense of Brian Williams, New Orleans’ Loyal Friend

Friday, February 6th, 2015

WilliamsKatrina

Now He Really Is Under Fire

The veracity of the leading network news anchor, Brian Williams of NBC Nightly News, is in question—by his own fault—and now the sharks and wolves smell blood. A feeding frenzy ensues.    [ cross-posted at Daily Kos ]

Williams has apparently fabricated a story in which a military helicopter he was aboard in Iraq in 2003 was shot down. Other accounts say that his helicopter was never fired upon. He apologized on air on Wednesday night with a less than candid account, and critics aren’t satisfied—but we don’t care.

We Stand with Brian

Our confidence in Brian Williams is not shaken, and we called NBC Nightly News (212-664-4971) to say please keep him on the air. E-mail NBC Nightly News at nightly@nbc.com. We do not claim that he’s done nothing wrong—it looks pretty clear he repeatedly told a lie, with embellishments—but he has done so much good, particularly for New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, that “all is forgiven.”

In a particularly rich nugget of hypocrisy, Howard Kurtz, an analyst at Fox News, says, “The admission raises serious questions about his credibility in a business that values that quality above all else.” We will not dignify that remark with a response other than to say consider the source: that’s about what we’d expect from fair and balanced Fox News, without which arguably there would have been no Iraq War for Brian Williams to report from. Other conservative voices are piling on. (Just check #BrianWilliams on Twitter—or, better yet, don’t bother.)

There is a tradition of news anchors going to places in the news, among the most famous of which was CBS anchor Walter Cronkite’s trip to Vietnam in 1968 (transcript here), followed energetically by Dan Rather. (Rather went so often to dangerous places—such as to Afghanistan in 1980—that he acquired the nickname “Gunga Dan.”) Such on-the-ground reporting from war zones is often courageous, is surely good for ratings, and brings an enormous spotlight to the place or the issue in the news. It was in this tradition that Williams was in Iraq in 2003. (The New York Times’s television reporter Alessandra Stanley gives a well-rounded overview here. More below.)

In response to Williams’s admission of error (though not of lying) there is much righteous indignation and moral outrage, some of which has elements of accuracy. Of course, many competing news outlets would love to see the leading network news program weakened, its ratings and standing lowered, its anchor disgraced, possibly removed, as CBS anchor Dan Rather was dumped in 2004 following a dubiously sourced report about George W. Bush’s National Guard service.

We do not know what is behind all this—why this story is coming out now, or what really happened.

brian_williams_katrinaWhat we do know is that we and the people of New Orleans and Louisiana and the Gulf Coast have great reason to be steadfastly grateful to Brian Williams for keeping the national spotlight firmly fixed on the region during and after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in August and September 2005. Williams camped out in the Superdome the night before Katrina made landfall, and was on the ground to report the damage and the resulting flood after the federally built levees and outflow canal walls failed.

For months, for years, he reported about New Orleans and environs, its struggles, successes, setbacks, and brave efforts and plucky initiatives to keep the good times—and life itself—rollin’. On the first anniversary of Katrina, on August 29, 2006, Williams took President George W. Bush on a walking interview through the Lower Ninth Ward—a Q&A in which Brian was visibly not taken in by Bush’s rosy account of things. (Transcript here.)

Brian-@-bayou1And in April 2010, after BP’s Deepwater Horizon well blew out and killed 11 workers, Williams reported live from Venice, Louisiana (around the “birdfoot”). On the fifth anniversary of Katrina (August 29, 2010), he anchored three straight nights of news reports from New Orleans and interviewed President Obama, Brad Pitt, and Harry Connick Jr. (Other national networks also commemorated the event with special reports, and Anderson Cooper too was a reliable, loyal friend to New Orleans and environs.)

NBC, through coverage by the late Tim Russert, Martin Savidge, environmental reporter Anne Thompson, and Rachel Maddow at sister network MSNBC, has consistently been the network most dedicated to keeping public attention on Louisiana’s environmental struggles. Brian Williams has been the most prominent and consistent of those nationally broadcast voices.

There are more reasons than these why NBC should hold steady and not even think about making Williams step down, but his loyalty to New Orleans and vicinity explains why we are willing to look the other way and remember that he is not the only prominent person of whom factual integrity is expected who has let the public down.

Damage Control, and Reputation Repair

To be sure, Brian Williams is very well compensated: The New York Times reports that his latest contract for serving as managing editor and chief anchor of NBC Nightly News reportedly brings him $10 million a year. That kind of money could help a lot of jobless, hungry families. (He’s not the only American with an extremely large salary.) Maybe he could create some goodwill by donating one of those millions to the Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America, and maybe another to Doctors without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières). Just a thought. (We, too, in our own modest way, contribute to those organizations.)

Brian, Illegitimi non carborundum

A member of our staff who minored in “cod Latin” reminds us of the well-worn phrase Illegitimi non carborundum—“Don’t let the bastards grind you down” (a motto often used by General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell in World War II).

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Click here for a news media contact list.

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With an Apology, Brian Williams Digs Himself Deeper in Copter Tale,” New York Times (2/5/15)

After a Decade Building Trust, an Anchor Starts a Firestorm With One Wrong Move,” Alessandra Stanley, New York Times (2/5/15)

Brian Williams Admits He Wasn’t on Copter Shot Down in Iraq,” New York Times (2/4/15)

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Nathaniel Rich on the “National Crisis” of Louisiana’s Disappearing Coast

Thursday, October 9th, 2014

Waterworld.NYTM.cover

“I expected that a lawsuit taking on the entire oil and gas industry—perhaps the largest environmental lawsuit in the history of the planet—might receive major national coverage.” —Nathaniel Rich

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In “Behind the Cover Story,” Rachel Nolan speaks with Nathaniel Rich, a New Orleans resident and author of last Sunday’s powerful and authoritative New York Times Magazine cover story “Waterworld: The Most Ambitious Environmental Lawsuit Ever”—about how he came to write the piece, and possible consequences if the lawsuit fails . . .

Along the way, Rich hails The Lens of New Orleans as “a fantastic local investigative news site.” We could not agree more. 

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Behind the Cover Story: Nathaniel Rich on the Legal Battle Over Louisiana’s Land Loss

You have lived in New Orleans for some time now. How did you first become aware of the massive land loss in Louisiana?

I was ignorant about coastal land loss before I moved to New Orleans four years ago, but that changed quickly. Louisianians have known about the loss of their wetlands for decades, but relatively few people outside the state seem to be aware of the problem or its scope. This is disturbing because it is a national crisis, endangering the existence of New Orleans as well as a large percentage of our energy infrastructure and shipping trade. It’s not just nature lovers who should be concerned. Anyone who cares about energy independence, trade or national security should be concerned.

Awareness of the issue is growing, however. Several excellent reports have been published in the last few weeks. One was published through a partnership between ProPublica and The Lens, a fantastic local investigative news site. Called “Losing Ground,” it’s a graphic representation of coastal land loss. Another is “Louisiana Loses Its Boot,” by Brett Anderson, published in Medium. Anderson makes the case for a new official state map that would reflect Louisiana’s changing shape.

How did you first hear about this lawsuit, and come to think that John Barry might be interesting to write about?

nathanielrichphoto-articleInline-v2I learned about it when Barry announced the lawsuit at a press conference last July. I expected that a lawsuit taking on the entire oil and gas industry—perhaps the largest environmental lawsuit in the history of the planet—might receive major national coverage, but it hasn’t come close to getting the attention of, say, the Keystone pipeline.

Barry is a true obsessive, and I’m drawn to writing about obsession. I was fascinated to see a writer abandon a successful writing career, at least temporarily, in order to devote himself to a cause. In my experience, writers are happiest when they are alone in a small room with their work, so Barry’s decision to sue 97 oil and gas companies seemed to me especially radical, and indicative of an unusual personal commitment.

Oil and gas companies conceded responsibility for 36 percent of the land loss. Why don’t the companies pay for 36 percent of the damage to the coast—at the very least as a P.R. move?

Because nobody is making them. The oil and gas industry did not become the most profitable industry in the history of human civilization by accident. Why would an oil company volunteer to donate millions or billions of dollars when nobody is requiring them to? P.R. campaigns come a lot cheaper than that. Shareholders wouldn’t stand for it. Besides, every oil company has a different level of liability. You need some authority to determine how much each company owes. That’s what the lawsuit intends to do.

Who or what is responsible for the rest of the lost land?

Levees, primarily, mostly those built on the Mississippi River by the Army Corps of Engineers. The levees prevent flooding, which deposits sediment into the marshes and builds land. Of course without levees you couldn’t have cities in southern Louisiana. This is one reason it’s difficult for the state to press the oil and gas industry for reparations. Historically, Louisiana has pushed aggressively for the construction of levees, which may be an even greater cause of land loss than the canals and wells dredged by the industry. Thousands of dams built on the Mississippi’s tributaries, which reduce the river’s sediment load, are another factor. Then you have global warming. The land is sinking, and the sea is rising. It’s a pitiful combination.

If this lawsuit fails, what does the future look like for Louisiana?

If the Coastal Master Plan is not fully funded, the coast as we know it will be gone. Over the next century the towns and cities will be abandoned. New Orleans, if it continues to exist, will be an island. The coast might be doomed regardless, but the Master Plan at least gives it a fighting chance.

What might this whole fight in Louisiana mean for Bobby Jindal’s presidential ambitions?

I’m not a political analyst, so I couldn’t speculate with any authority about the next presidential election. Nearly everybody I interviewed in Louisiana, however, believed that Jindal’s extreme hostility to the lawsuit was motivated, at least partially, by his national political ambitions. He is in his final term as governor, after all, and he won’t likely run for state office again. Politically he no longer has much to gain, or lose, in Louisiana. But if he wants to run for president, he will need to win the support of big money. The defendants in the levee-board lawsuit include the Koch Brothers, ExxonMobil and Shell Oil—three of the Republican Party’s top donors. As William Goldman wrote: Follow the money.

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Read “Waterworld: The Most Ambitious Environmental Lawsuit Ever” by Nathaniel Rich in The New York Times Magazine (10/5/2014).

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 Photo of Nathaniel Rich by Meredith Angelson for The New York Times.

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Highlights from “The Most Ambitious Environmental Lawsuit Ever” in The New York Times Magazine

Monday, October 6th, 2014

Whitehall Canal, in the Barataria-Terrebonne estuary.Jeff Riedel@NYT“The idea of making the industry live up to its legal responsibility is not going to die.”John M. Barry

Yesterday, Sunday, Oct. 6, The New York Times Magazine published a cover story titled “Waterworld: The Most Ambitious Environmental Lawsuit Ever.” Aside from the cover of Time, a story does not get much more prominent coverage than a cover article in the magazine of The New York Times. Nathaniel Rich, who has written intelligently and sensitively about New Orleans (see here and here), now gives an overview of the environmental reasons why the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East (SLFPA-E) last July filed a suit against nearly 100 oil and gas corporations for failing to honor the terms of their licenses to do business in the wetlands of Louisiana and have caused catastrophic environmental damage to the state’s land. Rich also profiles the leader of that lawsuit, author and environmental activist John M. Barry, who was until recently the vice president of SLFPA-E, and the unprecedented efforts of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, with the help of compliant or fearful legislators, to kill the lawsuit in the state legislature rather than let it work its way through the courts.

Read All About It—And Restore Louisiana Now

Following are some highlights from “Waterworld.” We hope you will forward this post, or the article itself, and also check out John Barry’s new foundation, Restore Louisiana Now. We also urge you to join us in pressing the Jindal administration and the Louisiana state representatives to support efforts to make the oil and gas industry pay for the damage it has done and to restore the critical wetlands that act as a buffer against hurricane storm surge. Scientists say about every 2.5 square miles of wetlands absorbs a foot of storm surge. The oil and gas industry has already conceded responsibility for 36 percent of land loss—but they have not paid for damages. Jindal’s plan, apparently, is to let industry off the hook and to let the Coastal Master Plan for restoration to fall on the taxpayers—a curious position for an anti-tax politician.

This politically ambitious governor, who imagines he has a chance at becoming president of the United States, continues in his efforts to bend the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East (intended to be politically independent) to his will. The lawsuit’s attorney has requested that a federal judge rule on the constitutionality of a controversial bill, pushed for and eagerly signed by Jindal, that would kill the lawsuit. The judge will hear that motion, along with motions filed by oil companies to dismiss the suit, on Nov. 12.

From “Waterworld: The Most Ambitious Environmental Lawsuit Ever”

Each hour, Louisiana loses about a football field’s worth of land. Each day, the state loses nearly the accumulated acreage of every football stadium in the N.F.L. Were this rate of land loss applied to New York, Central Park would disappear in a month. Manhattan would vanish within a year and a half. The last of Brooklyn would dissolve four years later. New Yorkers would notice this kind of land loss. The world would notice this kind of land loss. But the hemorrhaging of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands has gone largely unremarked upon beyond state borders. This is surprising, because the wetlands, apart from their unique ecological significance and astounding beauty, buffer the impact of hurricanes that threaten not just New Orleans but also the port of South Louisiana, the nation’s largest; just under 10 percent of the country’s oil reserves; a quarter of its natural-gas supply; a fifth of its oil-refining capacity; and the gateway to its internal waterway system. The attenuation of Louisiana, like any environmental disaster carried beyond a certain point, is a national-security threat.

Canals dredged by the energy industry south of Lafitte.The land loss is swiftly reversing the process by which the state was built. As the Mississippi shifted its course over the millenniums, spraying like a loose garden hose, it deposited sand and silt in a wide arc. This sediment first settled into marsh and later thickened into solid land. But what took 7,000 years to create has been nearly destroyed in the last 85. . . .

Beneath the surface, the oil and gas industry has carved more than 50,000 wells since the 1920s, creating pockets of air in the marsh that accelerate the land’s subsidence. The industry has also incised 10,000 linear miles of pipelines, which connect the wells to processing facilities; and canals, which allow ships to enter the marsh from the sea. Over time, as seawater eats away at the roots of the adjacent marsh, the canals expand. By its own estimate, the oil and gas industry concedes that it has caused 36 percent of all wetlands loss in southeastern Louisiana. . . .

A better analogy than disappearing football fields has been proposed by the historian John M. Barry, who has lived in the French Quarter on and off since 1972. Barry likens the marsh to a block of ice. The reduction of sediment in the Mississippi, the construction of levees and the oil and gas wells “created a situation akin to taking the block of ice out of the freezer, so it begins to melt.” Dredging canals and pipelines “is akin to stabbing that block of ice with an ice pick.”

The oil and gas industry has extracted about $470 billion in natural resources from the state in the last two decades, with the tacit blessing of the federal and state governments and without significant opposition from environmental groups. Oil and gas is, after all, Louisiana’s leading industry, responsible for around a billion dollars in annual tax revenue. Last year, industry executives had reason to be surprised, then, when they were asked to pay damages. The request came in the form of the most ambitious, wide-ranging environmental lawsuit in the history of the United States. . . .

When John Barry met with Congressman Bobby Jindal (2006): In Washington, where Barry lives for part of the year, he met with a freshman representative from the state’s First Congressional District, which includes much of southeastern Louisiana: Bobby Jindal. He begged Jindal to demand action from the White House [following Hurricane Katrina]. New Orleans couldn’t count on its mayor, or on the governor, he said; the city needed a hero on Capitol Hill. After speaking for two hours, Barry recalled, Jindal said that taking a leadership position on Hurricane Katrina “didn’t fit his timing for running for governor.” (Jindal, who declined to comment for this article, was elected governor in 2007.) “I left in total disgust,” Barry said. . . .

The state did have a plan in place to rebuild the barrier islands and coastal wetlands. Originally published in 2007 and revised in 2012, the so-called Coastal Master Plan was endorsed by scientists, as well as the oil and gas industry. . . . The state, however, had not figured out how it was going to finance the Coastal Master Plan. The main source of funding would be the settlement from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil-spill lawsuits, which is expected to be as much as $20 billion. That would leave about $30 billion.

Barry believed that other oil and gas companies should also contribute. His argument was simple: Because the industry conceded responsibility for 36 percent of land loss, it should pay its part: $18 billion would be a start.

near Myrtle Grove, La.[Barry] knew that nearly every company that has operated in the marshes since the 1920s has used permits obliging them to maintain and repair any environmental damage it caused. In 1980, Louisiana began adhering to a federal law that required companies operating in the marsh—a list that includes ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, Shell, BP, Chevron and Koch Industries—to restore “as near as practicable to their original condition” any canals they dredge. After consulting with legal experts, Barry became convinced that most companies never filled in their canals and that the state had failed to enforce the law. In fact, many of the projects listed in the Coastal Master Plan called for plugging canals that should have been restored years ago. . . .

“Louisianians who make money in oil buy politicians, or pieces of politicians, as Kentuckians in the same happy situation buy racehorses. Oil gets into politics, and politicians, making money in office, get into oil. The state slithers around it.” These sentences, written by A. J. Liebling in 1960 at the dawn of the deep-water offshore-drilling era, seem quaint when read today. Louisiana no longer slithers in oil; it drowns in it. It is also high on natural gas, thanks to the recent boom in hydraulic fracturing. And at some point along the way, the state, which has the oil and gas, ceded political control to the industry, which needs the oil and gas. . . .

One peculiarity about the fight over the lawsuit is that few industries are in greater need of coastal restoration than oil and gas. The next major hurricane that hits the Gulf Coast will put at risk billions of dollars of industry infrastructure—refineries, oil tanks, terminals and pipelines. This is why the industry endorsed the Coastal Master Plan. A second oddity is that Jindal, a hero of the anti-tax faction of the national Republican Party, who last year tried to eliminate the state’s corporate and income taxes, has now put himself in the position of allowing the largest single bill facing his state—for the balance of the Coastal Master Plan—to fall almost entirely upon taxpayers.

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Check out Restore Louisiana Now, and see the video  from the Coastal Conservation Conversation held at Loyola University on August 20 (highlights video clips here). Thanks to Ms. Anne Mueller of The Lens, a major sponsor of the Conversation.

Also, see Nathaniel Rich’s new piece in The New Republic, “Louisiana Has a Wild Plan to Save Itself from Global Warming (too bad the state is being destroyed from within),” and his review of Richard Campanella’s Bourbon Street: A History and Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital for The New York Review of Books, “The Heart of New Orleans.”

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Land Loss in 1984 compared with 2014

1984–2014

 

Map source: Jamon Van Den Hoek, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Map note: Land areas are derived from Landsat imagery. Photographs by Jeff Riedel for The New York Times.

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Louisiana’s Vanishing Wetlands and “Most Ambitious” Enviro Lawsuit Featured in New York Times Magazine

Friday, October 3rd, 2014

John BarryThis weekend you’ll want to go to your nearest newsstand and buy a copy of the Sunday New York Times and go straight to the Magazine for an article of major importance. The cover shows an oil industry “shortcut” canal sliced through Louisiana’s Barataria-Terrebonne estuary, overlaid with the words “Every Hour, an Acre of Louisiana Sinks into the Sea. Who Is to Blame?” The article, by Nathaniel Rich, focuses on the “high-stakes fight [that] has broken out over who is to blame—and who should bear the astronomical cost of restoring the coast” as the Louisiana wetlands continue to vanish into the Gulf of Mexico. Every year Louisiana loses 25 square miles of land. Every day, 50 acres.

Rich spends quality time with John M. Barry (right), the widely respected author of the award-winning Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America and vice president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East that filed an historic lawsuit in July 2013 to force about 100 oil and gas companies to pay for damages to Louisiana’s coastal wetlands. (Click here for more about the lawsuit; see also “Understanding Louisiana’s Environmental Crisis” on our Environment page.)

We’ll have more to say about this well-written article in the next few days—just wanted to alert you that it’s coming, and to urge you to “read all about it,” and spread the word. Buy the Sunday paper—help keep the presses rolling.

Nathaniel Rich, by the way, a novelist, is the son of New York magazine contributing writer and former New York Times columnist Frank Rich. In July Nathaniel reviewed Richard Campanella’s Bourbon Street: A History and Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital for The New York Review of Books in a fine piece titled “The Heart of New Orleans.”

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Photographs by Jeff Riedel for The New York Times.

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BP Found Grossly Negligent in Deepwater Horizon Spill

Saturday, September 6th, 2014

U.S. Coast Guard:European Pressphoto Agency

Could Be Fined $18 Billion

The fire you see here may be BP’s capital reserves going up in flame.

A federal judge has ruled that BP was “reckless,” grossly negligent, and primarily to blame for the April 2010 blowout of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that killed 11 workers and sent untold millions of gallons of crude oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. In New Orleans on Thursday Judge Carl J. Barbier of the District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana apportioned to BP 67 percent of the responsibility, 30 percent to Transocean (which owned the rig), and 3 percent to Halliburton, the cement contractor on the well. Only BP was found to be grossly negligent. (Click here for the ruling.)

Throughout the legal proceedings, BP has maintained that it is not primarily responsible, but that Transocean and Halliburton are mainly to blame. (In related news, earlier this week BP asked a federal judge to remove oil spill claims administrator Pat Juneau for “conflicts of interest”—i.e., he would be too generous to Louisiana residents, too expensive for BP.)

By finding BP grossly negligent rather than merely negligent (a critical legal distinction), Judge Barbier ratcheted up the possible financial cost to BP up to as much as $18 billion in new civil penalties, “nearly quadruple the maximum Clean Water Act penalty for simple negligence and far more than the $3.5 billion the company has set aside” for fines, according to The New York Times. Under the Clean Water Act, The Times-Picayune explains, “the penalty for each barrel of oil spilled is up to $1,100 if a polluter is found to be negligent. That increases up to $4,300 per barrel with a finding of gross negligence or willful misconduct.”

BP, which has consistently downplayed its responsibility and the severity of the catastrophe, claims that 2.45 million barrels of oil were spilled into the Gulf, while U.S. Justice Department attorneys calculate the amount as 4.2 million barrels.

Halliburton has already agreed to pay $1.1 billion in damages to property and the commercial fishing industry, though that settlement has yet to be approved by the District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.

In a sternly worded, 153-page ruling that includes a detailed timeline of events, Judge Barbier described a “chain of failures” that led to the explosion and oil spill. The New York Times summarizes:

Vital seals and stoppers were left leaky along the casing of the well, the judge found, while BP then skimped on tests that might have shown the problems caused by the shoddy work. When tests were run, the results were interpreted with optimism at best and dishonesty at worst, and several critical decisions made by BP were found by Judge Barbier to have been “primarily driven by a desire to save time and money, rather than ensuring that the well was secure.”

In a central episode, Judge Barbier highlighted a phone call between a senior BP employee on the rig and an engineer in Houston that took place roughly 40 minutes before the explosion. In the call, the two men discussed the results of a pressure test that should have prompted quick action to prevent an impending blowout. BP did not mention this call in its own investigative report, an omission Judge Barbier found suspicious.

Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell said in a news release, “This is an important milestone in the process of recovering the damages and penalties due to Louisiana. I will continue fighting for the recoveries Louisiana is entitled to for the damages we have sustained.”

BP says it will appeal the ruling.

See also: 

Other BP oil spill–related news compiled by The Times-Picayune

Times-Picayune on what the national media are saying about the BP oil spill ruling

BP Lashes Out at Journalists and “Opportunistic” Environmentalists (Mother Jones)

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Levees Not War on the BP Oil Spill

BP Celebrates Earth Day with Bonfire, Oil Spill: Well Leaks 210,000 Gallons a Day into Gulf of Mexico  (4/26/10)

“Oil-Spotted Dick”: Cheney’s Oily Fingerprints in the BP Disaster  (5/5/10)

BP Oil Flood Brought to You by U.S. Supreme Court?  (6/10/10)

More LNW coverage here.

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Top photo by U.S. Coast Guard/European Pressphoto Agency. Bottom photo (oiled bird on Louisiana’s East Grand Terre Island) by Charlie Riedel/AP.

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Come to Rising Tide 9 in New Orleans on Sept. 13

Thursday, September 4th, 2014

RT9The Tide Rises Again | Everyone’s Invited

The ninth annual Rising Tide conference on the future of New Orleans will be held on Saturday, Sept. 13, at Xavier University in New Orleans. The keynote speaker will be educator and activist Dr. Andre Perry, formerly of New Orleans and now at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Rising Tide website

Rising Tide on Facebook

Click here to register today!

The conference opens at 9:00 a.m. at Xavier University, 1 Drexel Drive, in Mid-City (click here for map), and runs to about 5:00. Pre-registration is only $10 per person, and the public is welcome. Coffee and breakfast snacks are available, and lunch, catered by Lucky Rooster, is served ($10 extra for lunch, please).

Schedule of Panels and Keynote Speaker

9:00 | Registration, coffee warm-up, etc.

10:00 | Panel: Using Mobile Devices to Uncover Seemingly Lost Historical Memory of the Confederacy, Leprosy, and White Supremacy in New Orleans

New Orleans residents, both natives and more recent arrivals, enjoy participating in the city’s collective historical memory. Nevertheless, much of the past remains unexamined and often unknown. This is a panel presentation on digital iterations of South Louisiana’s historical memory. Three online and mobile tours will reveal stories about Louisiana’s past that have been misrepresented or ignored in historical memory. With Jessica DauteriveKevin McQueeney, and Michael Mizell-Nelson, University of New Orleans.

11:30 | Panel: Building Capacity in Marginalized Communities

Presented by the Young Leadership Council (YLC), this panel will focus on the cultural, economic, educational, and social challenges that New Orleans’ most vulnerable communities face, and how the YLC and other such organizations have mobilized vast volunteer-based networks to create, fund, and implement new programming in response to those needs.

Scott Sternberg, Moderator • Curry Smith, executive director, YLC • Kelley Bagayoko, legislative aide to state representative Helena Moreno • Alyssa Wenck-Rambeau, director of finance at New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center • Warren M. M. Surcouf, project manager for Fat City Friends, v.p. of development for the YLC board of directors

Lunch break

2:00 | Keynote Speaker: Dr. Andre Perry

Dr“Education is like water; put down your reform rake.” Rakes don’t organize water very well. Likewise, charter schools, vouchers and lotteries aren’t the proper tools to deal with the root problems of New Orleans education. New Orleans public schools must become a “unified school district” if the needs of children, families and communities are to be met. Getting, private and parochial school parents to believe we’re all in this together has been and will be the essential problem that needs solving.

Andre Perry, Ph.D., is the Founding Dean of Urban Education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was associate director of the Loyola Institute for Quality and Equity in Education in New Orleans and served as the CEO of the Capital One–University of New Orleans Charter Network, composed of four charter schools in New Orleans.

Dr. Perry is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and a columnist for the Hechinger Report on education journalism. He has appeared on NBC, CNN, NPR, Al Jazeera America, and in The New Republic. In his book The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (University of New Orleans Press, 2011), Perry illustrates the tensions in post-Katrina education reform in New Orleans. He also contributed a chapter to Resilience and Opportunity: Lessons from the U.S. Gulf Coast after Katrina and Rita (Brookings Institution Press, 2011).

3:00 | Panel: Saga at Treme: The Story of How A Quest for Personal Resilience Exposed Incompetence and Waste in Government

City planner Amy Stelly: “Saga at Treme will be presented through PowerPoint and a discussion that focuses on tips and strategies for effectively engaging government through email communication. The session will also feature a discussion with the players who started the ball rolling. They worked to build community support at the grassroots level and have chosen to vocalize their displeasure as our engagement with the City of New Orleans continues to heat up.”

4:00 | Panel: Religion in Post-Katrina New Orleans

A conversation among representatives from diverse faith/spiritual communities over how such communities have been instrumental in the recovery of people’s spiritual health and emotional/psychological well-being since the flooding of New Orleans in 2005.

Charlotte Klasson, New Orleans Secular Humanist Association • Matt Rousso, Maryknoll Mission Education Office and St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish • Tahera “Ty” Siddiqui, New Orleans Lamplight Circle • Rev. William Thiele, The School for Contemplative Living • Rev. Tom Watson, Senior Pastor, Watson Memorial Teaching Ministries

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More about Rising Tide

Previous featured speakers have included Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, commander of Joint Task Force Katrina; David Simon (co-creator of HBO’s Treme and The Wire); the actor and activist Harry Shearer; N.O. geographer and historian Rich Campanella; Treme-born writer Lolis Eric Elie, director of the documentaryFaubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans; former Tulane professor of history Lawrence N. Powell, author of The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans; Mother Jones human rights and environmental reporter (Ms.) Mac McClelland; and authors John BarryDave Zirin, and Chris Cooper and Bobby Block.

Click here for a listing of previous Rising Tide programs, with links to videos and more.

Like Rising Tide on Facebook (don’t forget to share!), follow Rising Tide on Twitter (remember to retweet!), and check for programming updates on the Rising Tide Conference Blog or Rising Tide website. Visualize Rising Tide at the RT Flickr site.

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