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Rising Tide: Still Standing, Unfatigued, and Enduring

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015

RTX poster from RT-FB.bBack now from New Orleans for the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and Rising Tide X—refreshed and still feeling that positive, creative energy and will to survive and rebuild that we felt at our first Rising Tide (the second annual) in 2007.

We shall see whether there will be any more Rising Tides; if not, the ten-year run ends on a high note, and everyone involved has many reasons to be proud and grateful. If RTX does turn out to be the last one—and even if it doesn’t—the organizers, from 2006 to the present, deserve congratulations and gratitude from the people of New Orleans and vicinity and indeed around the United States. Year after year, since the legendary Geek Dinners in the summer of 2006 (pix here and here), the organizers—all volunteers—have worked overtime to arrange interesting panel discussions on subjects that matter: on the environment, local schools, public safety, Louisiana politics and sports, the BP spill, HBO’s Treme, flood protection, and much more. They have brought in such substantial guest speakers as this year’s civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson, historian John M. Barry, Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honoré, actor and activist Harry Shearer, New Orleans geographer Richard Campanella, and and many more. (Click here for RT history.)

6.2_RisingTidePosterIt shows what a solid public platform Rising Tide has become, that on Saturday, about halfway through the environmental panel, “Category 5 General” Russel Honoré appeared as a surprise guest speaker to join the panel: Anne Rolfes of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter Bob Marshall, and Jonathan Henderson of the Gulf Restoration Network. (General Honoré was RT8’s keynote speaker in 2013.) More about the environmental panel to follow.

Thanks are due also to Xavier University for generously hosting the last five conferences (since 2011), and to all the benefactors who have contributed financially to support the conference; their generosity made it possible to keep the ticket prices low—this last conference was free—and to defray the travel and lodging costs for guest speakers.

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Rising Tides Through the Years

Rising Tide X Is Aug. 29, Tenth Anniversary of Katrina (2015)

Come to Rising Tide 9 in New Orleans on Sept. 13 (2014)

Live-Blogging from Rising Tide 8 in New Orleans (2013)

Rising Tide 8 Update: “Category 5 General” Russel Honoré Is Keynote Speaker (2013)

Rising Tide 7 Is Sat. Sept. 22 at Xavier (2012)

Live-Blogging from Rising Tide 6 (2011)

Live-Blogging from Rising Tide 5 in New Orleans (2010)

Rising Tide III in New Orleans Aug. 22–24: A Conference on the Future of New Orleans (2008)

Making Blogging Sexy: Rising Tide 2 (2007)

Katrina Bloggers Unite! Rising Tide 2 is August 24–26 in New Orleans (2007)

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Rising Tide X illustration by Lance Vargas; Rising Tide I poster by Brad Jensen/Icon Visuals.

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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. 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, letter to President Obama, Aug. 26 

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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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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Honoré Speaks for La. Flood Protection Authority Lawsuit Against Big Oil

Thursday, September 12th, 2013

 

FixTheCoastYouBroke“Put our coast back like you found it”

Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honoré, the keynote speaker for this coming weekend’s Rising Tide conference in New Orleans, has added a further distinction to his already impressive curriculum vitae: He adds his voice to a full-page advertisement published in the Times-Picayune, paid for by Levees.org and the Natural Resources Defense Council, in support of the historic lawsuit filed July 24 in civil district court in Orleans Parish by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East against some 100 oil and energy companies active in Louisiana.

In the ad, Honoré, a native of Pointe Coupee Parish, says:

I wish we could count on our government officials to hold the oil companies resposible. But after more than 100 years of oil operations in our state, our governors and legislators have failed to hold the oil companies accountable. As citizens, the only recourse, you and I have left is the courts. The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East has filed suit against 97 oil companies. The law suit is just asking them to do what our mothers told us growing up: “If you make a mess, you clean it up.”

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“I don’t do politics,” Honoré said in an interview Monday quoted by InsuranceJournal.com. “But I do believe in environmental justice.”

The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East has been under intense pressure from Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal to drop the lawsuit, even though the Authority was authorized to proceed with the suit by Louisiana attorney general Buddy Caldwell. Jindal, who has received some $1 million in donations from oil and energy interests, called the lawsuit “nothing but a windfall for a handful of trial lawyers.”

An August 31 feature in The New York Times focused on the lawsuit and the political force being pressed upon SLFPA-E, including its vice president, John M. Barry, historian and author of Rising Tide, a bestselling book on the great Mississippi River flood of 1927.

Levees.org founder Sandy Rosenthal said that Lt. Gen. Honoré was not compensated in any way for the ad or for his support of the lawsuit.

Read All About It: For more about the lawsuit, see our post “Louisiana Flood Protection Agency Sues Big Oil to Repair Wetlands” (7/25/13) and read the New York Times article “Facing Fire Over Challenge to Louisiana’s Oil Industry” (8/31/13).

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The photograph below was taken by our friend Jeffrey of Library Chronicles. Thanks to Jeff for the tip.

 

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Louisiana Flood Protection Agency Sues Big Oil to Repair Wetlands

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

louisiana-coast
Historic case is compared to 1990s litigation against Big Tobacco

About 100 oil and gas companies must pay to repair the Louisiana wetlands damaged by a century of oil exploration and extraction, according to a lawsuit filed July 24 in civil district court in Orleans Parish by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East. The Authority (SLFPA-E) was established by the Louisiana legislature in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina to ensure the integrity of the state’s flood risk management systems.

John M. Barry, vice president of SLFPA-E (and the widely respected author of the award-winning Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America [1998]), said:

“With this lawsuit, the Authority is carrying out its mandate to help protect southern Louisiana by strengthening our first line of defense against catastrophic flooding. That first defensive perimeter is of course the buffer of land and marsh that cuts down hurricane storm surge before it reaches the levees. . . . The industry recognizes that it is responsible for a significant part of the problem. We want energy companies to fix the part of the problem they caused—and which they promised to address. We want them to do what they said they’d do.”

map-canals-lawsuit-2jpg-7d45582bb7eb802c

The suit has been denounced by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who said in a statement that the Authority has “overstepped its authority.” The governor asserted, “We’re not going to allow a single levee board that has been hijacked by a group of trial lawyers to determine flood protection, coastal restoration and economic repercussions for the entire state of Louisiana.”

The state’s attorney general, Buddy Caldwell, however, has authorized SLFPA-E to proceed in filing its suit.

An attorney for the Authority, Gladstone N. Jones III, has successfully brought suit against Big Oil firms in the past. He told Clancy Dubos of Gambit that the suit has the potential to be bigger than the ongoing BP litigation, and, according to The New York Times, Jones said the plaintiffs are seeking damages equal to “many billions of dollars. Many, many billions of dollars.” Dubos writes, “The case ultimately could seek environmental recovery for all oil and gas activity along Louisiana’s coast. If that happens, this case will be to Big Oil what the Tobacco Litigation was to that industry: a game-changer.” (See Further Reading below.)

The lawsuit asserts that the Authority is obligated by law to restore Louisiana’s coastal land areas, and charges that oil, gas, and pipeline companies that have cut at least 10,000 miles of oil and gas canals and pipelines have damaged the state’s environmental buffer zones that formerly protected the state from storm surge and flooding. As experienced in recent hurricanes, Southeastern Louisiana has been rendered vulnerable to frequent and often catastrophic flooding.

Every year Louisiana loses 25 square miles of land—50 acres every day.

1980–2007

Click the map or here to go to a Lens article about the lawsuit and a slide show of the proliferation of 230,000 oil and gas wells in Louisiana between 1901 and 2007.

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Wetlands protect human settlements from hurricane storm surges, which can rise as high as 25 feet. Every 2.5 to 4 miles of wetlands reduce hurricane storm surges by about a foot; measured another way, each mile of marsh reduces storm surges by 3 to 9 inches. Metro New Orleans, home to about 1.5 million, is now protected by a buffer no more than about 20 miles of wetlands.

The suit summarizes the environmental significance of coastal wetlands and the consequences of oil exploration (quoting from Gambit and from SLFPA-E’s press release):

•  “Coastal lands are the natural protective buffer without which the levees that protect the cities and towns of southern Louisiana are left exposed to unabated destructive forces. This protective buffer took 6,000 years to form. Yet . . . it has been brought to the brink of destruction over the course of a single human lifetime. Hundreds of thousands of acres of the coastal lands that once offered protection to south Louisiana are now gone as a result of oil and gas industry activities. . . .

•  “For nearly a century, the oil and gas industry has continuously and relentlessly traversed, dredged, drilled and extracted in coastal Louisiana. It reaps enormous financial gain by exploiting the resources found there, sharing some of that bounty with the many residents whom it employs. Yet it also ravages Louisiana’s coastal landscape. An extensive network of oil and gas access and pipeline canals slashes the coastline at every angle, functioning as a mercilessly efficient, continuously expanding system of ecological destruction. This canal network injects corrosive saltwater into interior coastal lands, killing vegetation and carrying away mountains of soil. What remains of these coastal lands is so seriously diseased that if nothing is done, it will slip into the Gulf of Mexico by the end of this century, if not sooner. . . .

•  “Oil and gas activities continue to transform what was once a stable ecosystem of naturally occurring bayous, small canals, and ditches into an extensive—and expanding—network of large and deep canals that continues to widen due to Defendants’ ongoing failure to maintain this network or restore the ecosystem to its natural state. That canal network continues to introduce increasingly larger volumes of damaging saltwater, at increasingly greater velocity, ever deeper into Louisiana’s coastal landscape and interior wetlands. The increasing intrusion of saltwater stresses the vegetation that holds wetlands together, weakening—and ultimately killing—that vegetation. Thus weakened, the remaining soil is washed away even by minor storms. The canal network thus comprises a highly effective system of coastal landscape degradation. The product of this network is an ecosystem so seriously diseased that its complete demise is inevitable if no action is taken.” [LNW’s emphasis]

Mark Schleifstein of the Times-Picayune reports, “A study conducted by the late University of New Orleans geologist Shea Penland in 1996 for the U.S. Geological Survey and the Gas Research Institute concluded that about 36 percent of the wetland loss in southeastern Louisiana between 1932 and 1990 was the result of the direct and indirect effects of actions taken by the oil and gas industry.” By a conservative estimate, since 1932 Louisiana has lost more than 1,900 square miles of coastal lands, equivalent to the state of Delaware, and if the present rate continues, some 700 more square miles of coastal Louisiana are expected to be lost in coming decades.

 

Barataria Bay

 

John Barry told The Lens’s environmental writer Bob Marshall, “No one denies—not even the oil industry—that the canals they dredged helped cause this problem. . . . Now, people will say there are other causes, and we’re not denying that. The levees on the river, obviously, are a major cause. But the federal government built those levees, and they’ve been spending billions of dollars on better flood protection and coastal restoration projects in this area. What we’re saying to the oil companies is, ‘It’s time for you to step up now for the damage you did.’ ”

The Flood Protection Authority’s lawsuit is grounded in long-established legal principles and in state and federal law, such as the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899, the federal Clean Water Act of 1972, and the state Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972.

Barry explained to the Times-Picayune that the suit is founded upon three principal legal arguments:

  • Most of the damaging oil, gas and pipeline activities were conducted under federal and state permits that “explicitly require the operators to maintain and restore the canals they dredged,” Barry said. He said the oil and gas industry dredged more than 10,000 miles of canals through the state’s wetlands, which provided pathways for salt water from the Gulf of Mexico to kill fresh and brackish water marshes.
  • The federal Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 prohibits actions that impair the effectiveness of flood protection levees. “Clearly, increasing storm surge makes a levee less effective,” Barry said.
  • A tenet of civil law called “servitude of drainage” prohibits someone taking actions on property that they own or control that sends more water onto someone else’s property. Again, Barry said, the oil and gas projects clearly focus increased storm surge onto the levee system.

The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East is being represented in its litigation by the law firms Jones, Swanson, Huddell, and Garrison, LLC, of New Orleans; Fishman Haygood Phelps Walmsley Willis & Swanson, LLP, of New Orleans; and Veron, Bice, Palermo & Wilson, LLC, of Lake Charles, La.

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Further Reading

Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East press release

Mark Schleifstein (Times-Picayune), “Historic lawsuit seeks billions in damages from oil, gas, pipeline industries for wetlands losses” (includes PDF of lawsuit + video of John Barry)

Clancy Dubos (Gambit), “Historic lawsuit coming against Big Oil

Bob Marshall (The Lens), “Science to be key factor in lawsuit against oil and gas companies for coastal loss

Mark Schleifstein (Times-Picayune), “East Bank levee authority to file lawsuit Wednesday aimed at getting oil, gas, pipeline firms to restore wetlands and ridges

John Schwartz (New York Times), “Louisiana Agency Sues Dozens of Energy Companies for Damage to Wetlands

National Public Radio, “La. Flood Board Sues Oil Industry Over Wetlands

U.S. Geological Survey, “Wetland Subsidence, Fault Reactivation, and Hydrocarbon Production in the U.S. Gulf Coast Region

Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, “Louisiana’s Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast

Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority homepage

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Top photo of oil/gas pipeline canals cutting through Louisiana wetlands, 2010, from Getty Images via Bloomberg; graphic by Dan Swenson for the Times-Picayune; map of oil and gas wells south of New Orleans from The Lens; photograph of Barataria Bay, Louisiana (2011) by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

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New Orleans Is Most Likely Safe from River Flooding

Thursday, May 12th, 2011

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There’s a certain trepidation in writing that headline, but . . .

Despite over $2 billion in damages, possibly to reach $4 billion from the Mississippi River Flood of 2011, including dramatic flooding upriver around Cairo, Memphis, and Vicksburg—and despite scary images and headlines on screen and paper—the city of New Orleans should be safe from inundation from the historically high waters now coursing down the Mississippi toward the Gulf. The flooding is the result of normal springtime snowmelt compounded by record rainfall from two major storm systems across the U.S. during April. (See Mississippi River watershed map below; click to enlarge.)

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has already begun opening the Bonnet Carré spillway upriver from the city (photo below). There will be flooding in the Atchafalaya Basin—possibly around 3 million acres—once water is diverted from the Morganza Spillway, a decision that is expected soon from the Corps of Engineers. And deep-draft shipping may be temporarily suspended by the U.S. Coast Guard if water levels rise to just a little higher than they are now; Americans “upriver” may experience a spike in gas prices as supplies are temporarily interrupted by the halting of oil tanker traffic between Baton Rouge and the Gulf.

Read the Headlines with Some Skepticism

Under the ominous headline “Mississippi River Flooding in New Orleans Area Could Be Massive if Morganza Spillway Stays Closed,” the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported on Wednesday that based upon the best information available from the Corps of Engineers, the staggering volume of water making its way down the Mississippi could cause “levee failures and massive inundation of metro New Orleans, worse than Hurricane Katrina, if the Morganza spillway is not opened to divert river water down the Atchafalaya basin. The bad news for people living along the Atchafalaya: the Corps of Engineers predicts they will flood in either case.” Although the article itself was measured, not alarmist, the headline implied there was a possibility that the Corps might decide not to open the Morganza Spillway. Another headline warned, “Corps Officials Fear Flooding.” Note to the reader: It is the Corps’ job to fear flooding and to try to make sure it doesn’t happen.

Now, reporters don’t write the headlines, and the body of an article is often less alarming than the headline crafted by some news editor. But “Flooding Could Be Massive” sort of got our attention, so we checked around.

An engineer friend in the New Orleans area who knows people at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says the Corps is monitoring the situation very closely all along the river, per established protocol, and just waiting for Major General Michael Walsh to give the word about opening the Morganza Spillway. Major General Walsh is president of the Mississippi River Commission and commander of all USACE districts along the river. Times-Picayune environmental reporter Mark Schleifstein writes that General Walsh is expected to announce his decision to open the Morganza spillway between Friday and Tuesday (May 13 and 17).

Our engineer friend says, “Walsh is going to wait until the last possible moment to give the order just in case something changes in the river or they [the Corps] discover a better alternative. And when I say, ‘last possible moment,’ that is taking into account the timeline between when the order is given and everything that has to happen to safely open the structure. This stuff is really well thought out. The hydraulics, structures and levee engineers there have been working this 7 days a week for the past two weeks. . . . New Orleans is safe for now. Never say never, but we have no reason to panic as of right now.”

[ Click here for City of New Orleans Emergency Preparedness / Flood Fight information ]

(more…)
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Rising Tide III in New Orleans Aug. 22–24: A Conference on the Future of New Orleans

Saturday, August 2nd, 2008

LNW_RT3.medThe third annual Rising Tide conference of Katrina bloggers and activists will convene in New Orleans on the weekend of Aug. 22–24, the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina (8/29/05). The main event is Saturday at the Zeitgeist Arts Center at 1618 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd. (504-827-5858).

John M. Barry is the keynote speaker on Saturday. Barry, a resident of New Orleans and a recognized authority on the Mississippi River, is the best-selling author of Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America.

As usual, there will be a meet ’n’ greet Friday night (TBA), a full day of truly lively panel discussions (Saturday at Zeitgeist), and an optional public service action on Sunday (such as painting a classroom or repairing a house).

Click here for the Rising Tide III blog.

We’ll be there again, as we were last year. (See ‘Making Blogging Sexy’ below.)

More details to come . . .

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