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Hard-Learned Lessons

Windell Curole isn't surprised to hear that most Americans think Louisiana "dodged a bullet" during Hurricane Gustav. "Who cares about 200,000 people that got hit by a storm?" he asks rhetorically. Curole is the general manager of the levee district for lower Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes, which were decimated by Gustav. Every day, he sees how important south Louisiana's wetlands are to America's energy needs — and how vulnerable they are to hurricanes and coastal erosion. Sadly, he also sees firsthand the federal government's indifference to the fate of south Louisiana's hardworking communities. They remain the most vulnerable areas on the entire Gulf Coast.

Soon after Gustav cut a destructive swath up the middle of Louisiana, the national media packed up and left New Orleans in a huff, declaring that the storm had spared the Crescent City. It was a classic example of the media deciding in advance what "the story" was, and then missing the real story as it unfolded. If only they had looked a few miles west of the city, they would have seen a huge story that directly affects all Americans. The story is one of how two small Louisiana parishes continue to satisfy America's thirst for fossil fuels while the rest of the country — particularly the federal government — continues to ignore them in their time of need.

The story begins in Port Fourchon, Louisiana's only port on the Gulf of Mexico and a vital component of America's energy infrastructure and economy. Port Fourchon services 20 percent of the nation's total oil supply — domestic and foreign — via its docks and the Louisiana Offshore Port (LOOP), which alone handles 1.15 million barrels of oil a day. Port Fourchon moved $63.4 billion worth of oil and natural gas in 2006, when the price of oil was $66 a barrel; it was $102 a barrel last week. LSU economist Loren Scott "conservatively" estimates that if Port Fourchon were to shut down for just three weeks, total U.S. sales would fall by almost $10 billion, household earnings would drop by $2.9 billion, gasoline prices would rise 22 cents a gallon, and more than 77,000 jobs would be lost.

Lafourche and Terrebonne also are home to two of Louisiana's richest cultures: the Acadians and the Native American tribes that comprise the United Houma Nation ( Brenda Dardar Robichaux, the nation's principal chief, says Gustav affected 13,000 Houmas. The storm wiped out Isle de Jean Charles in lower Terrebonne, home to 100 people from the Biloxi-Chitimacha Band. Some homes floated off foundations while others became piles of rubble. The Houma tribes have lived in Louisiana for more than 400 years, far longer than any European cultures, and have been good stewards of the land — unlike oil and gas companies that chopped up the wetlands and hastened their destruction. Robichaux doesn't know what will happen to her people. "It's really hard to recover when you lose your house and your boat," she says.

Curole, a seventh generation Cajun, notes that Port Fourchon generates roughly $8 billion a year in royalties for the federal government. Continuing that revenue stream is simple, he says: "All you have to do is keep the infrastructure going, which is basically roads and flood protection. We don't need economic development; we just need economic maintenance."

That maintenance has been long promised, but never delivered.

The Morganza-to-the-Gulf Hurricane Protection Project, which includes 72 miles of levees that would protect most of Lafourche and Terrebonne from storm surge, has been discussed for at least 25 years, but the feds have yet to commit real funding to it. Congress approved $882 million for the project in the 2007 Water Resources Development Act, but that cost estimate is more than 15 years old. Because of higher levee standards, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers now estimates the project will cost $11 billion. Many in Congress are balking. Listen up, America: Flood protection and coastal restoration are not pork; they are part of national security — your security.

Louisiana has already appropriated $55 million for the levee project and another $110 million for coastal restoration. Curole suggests a 10-foot levee system right now (the new standards call for more than 20 feet). "A weaker levee has a better chance of stopping water than air does," he says. While some across America chant "drill, baby, drill," Congress must move faster to restore the wetlands that protect America's existing energy infrastructure. Without them — and without the cultures that preserve them — no amount of drilling will matter.

One of Gustav's hard-learned lessons is that hurricanes aren't just a coastal threat. Gustav decimated Baton Rouge, Alexandria and parts of Arkansas. North Louisiana has learned that hurricane protection and coastal restoration are statewide issues. Hopefully, America will soon realize they are national issues as well.

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