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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Rebuilding the Gulf Coast

Air Date: Week of November 11, 2005

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It's been nearly two months since President Bush pledged to "do what it takes" to rebuild storm-ravaged Louisiana. But some residents say there's still not enough money to restore their eroded coast and they fear environmental safeguards are being sacrificed. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Two weeks after hurricane Katrina struck, President Bush stood at a dramatically lit podium in Jackson Square in New Orleans and made a pledge to the battered Gulf Coast.

BUSH: We will do what it takes. We will stay as long as it takes to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives.

CURWOOD: It’s been almost two months since that speech, and some Louisiana residents are wondering whether the government will live up to that promise. They say funding to restore their disappearing coastline is lacking and they worry that environmental safeguards are being sacrificed in the rebuilding effort. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports.

YOUNG: In late September, members of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana gathered in Baton Rouge for their first meeting since Katrina struck.

WILSON: First order of business is to review and approve the minutes.

YOUNG: The group works to stop the erosion and wetlands loss that plague Southern Louisiana. And they just had a personal lesson in the true cost of a degraded cost. There was little natural buffer left to absorb Katrina’s powerful storm surge. But talk at the meeting took a hopeful turn when coalition director Mark Davis said Washington was hinting at an ambitious recovery effort.

DAVIS: …you know, revitalizing the area instead of merely rebuilding it, I think is the thrust…

YOUNG: At least lawmakers now understood the connection between protecting communities and restoring the coast.

DAVIS: If we don’t find a way to make the most of then really, God help us. I don’t know what else you would ever need as an impetus to act.

YOUNG: Davis thought Washington might reconsider the comprehensive, 14 billion dollar restoration project that was rejected in past years as too costly. By early November, the administration’s spending plan was emerging. The president’s first proposal included only a quarter of a billion dollars for work on the shoreline and wetlands. And Davis’s optimism has started to fade.

DAVIS: While we understand that the administration apparently plans more, we haven’t seen it. And every day that passes is a day that another decision is being made by someone not to come back, not to believe, not to invest here. So we still have a great distance to travel before this has been anything other than a missed opportunity.

YOUNG: The president directs more than a billion dollars to levee repairs – what the administration calls a down payment on levee improvements expected to cost many times that. With Congress looking to trim the budget, Davis fears Louisiana could face a Hobson’s choice between rebuilding its levees and restoring its coastline.

DAVIS: If that is the decision, we have to decide what version of failure we want to live with. Because you can’t really plan for secure communities if the map is dissolving from beneath your feet.

YOUNG: A recent report from the National Academy of Sciences finds the current, piecemeal approach to restoration lacking, and urges a broader program with clearly defined goals. Louisiana’s Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu has been asking for more money for such a comprehensive coastal effort. She blames the White House for blocking it.

LANDRIEU: Clearly this administration lacks a vision and understanding about the importance of investing in the coast for those coastal communities, and now for hurricane protection and coastal restoration efforts. Which is just crucial and so obvious now, post-Katrina.

YOUNG: The Administration defends its proposal as just the first phase of spending. And Landrieu is in for some criticism as well. She and other Louisiana lawmakers drafted a recovery bill seeking some $200 billion, some of it for pet projects that had little to do with the hurricane, including an alligator farm and a sugar cane research laboratory. Critics say that cost the state credibility. And another part of Landrieu’s bill has some of her constituents upset.

ALEXIS: When we hear, y’know, ‘waive environmental laws,’ well naturally that’s gonna throw up some red flags and say, wait a minute, hey wait a minute. Slow down.

YOUNG: New Orleans resident and community activist Sharon Alexis was among a group of a half dozen hurricane victims who paid a surprise visit to Landrieu. Alexis says the Senator’s bill could bypass environmental laws for projects related to hurricane recovery.

ALEXIS: If this bill were to stay as it is written presently, it would do nothing more than add insult to injury. We want a safe city to return to.

YOUNG: After the meeting, Landrieu backed away from the proposed waivers. But other bills moving forward could also limit environmental law in the disaster zone.

[SOUND OF GAVEL STRIKING]

MAN: Today’s hearing will come to order.

YOUNG: This senate committee considered a bill to give government-paid contractors working in disaster areas some immunity from environmental lawsuits. It’s co-sponsored by Louisiana’s Republican Senator David Vitter.

VITTER: There could well be a flurry of class action lawsuits to profit from the very quick decisions that needed to be made in a true emergency situation.

YOUNG: The bill ran into stiff opposition from California Democrat Barbara Boxer.

BOXER: I think today we’re looking at what I call the Haliburton Protection Act. The people of New Orleans have suffered enough. To me the most important things is, it sends a terrible signal to the contractors. Don’t worry about it because, you know, you’re off the hook.

YOUNG: It’s not yet clear if the proposals to waive environmental rules will go forward. Additional funding for coastal restoration is also in limbo – it’s attached to a budget bill facing some close votes. Meanwhile, coastal experts say Louisiana’s shoreline and wetlands continue to wash away at the rate of about a football field each minute. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.

 

Links

Army Corps of Engineers – Coastal Restoration Project

Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana

Coast 2050

America’s Wetland

Gulf Coast Citizens Against Enviro Waivers Blog

 

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