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Historian John Barry: The Well-being of the United States Is Linked to the Vitality of the Gulf Coast


  Regional levee board member and historian John Barry painted a bleak picture for members of the Oil Spill Commission in recent testimony, saying that failure to act soon to shore up Louisiana's coast will have dire economic and environmental consequences for the entire nation.

  Noting that Louisiana has lost an area larger than the state of Delaware to coastal erosion, Barry said, "If you place Delaware between New Orleans and the sea, it wouldn't need any levees. Land loss has made populated areas in Louisiana and Mississippi vastly more vulnerable than did nature. They are vastly more vulnerable than they were even 50 to 60 years ago. And that land loss is continuing."

  Barry also cited figures underscoring Louisiana's strategic economic and energy significance to the rest of the nation. For example:

  • The majority of all domestic oil and gas is produced offshore of Louisiana.

  • Louisiana is home to 19 refineries (15 percent of the nation's refining capacity), all within reach of hurricane storm surge.

  • The life cycle of more than 90 percent of all fish and 98 percent of all commercial species in the Gulf of Mexico depends on Louisiana marshes.

  • By weight, 40 percent of all commercial fish caught in the U.S. is caught in Louisiana waters.

  • Five of the 15 largest ports in the country are in Louisiana, and 18 percent of all waterborne commerce in the United States passes through Louisiana waters.

  • Twenty percent of all U.S. exports (56 percent of all U.S. grain exports) travel down the Mississippi River.

  "The continued erosion of the Louisiana coast threatens all of that," Barry told the commission. "The national economy and national security depend on protecting and preserving the economic infrastructure currently in place."

  As proof of that claim, Barry noted that gasoline prices spiked $1 a gallon after Hurricane Katrina interrupted gulf supplies and refining. Katrina also knocked out access to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, he said. "That's just the impact on national energy supplies, not the port system," Barry added. "There is simply no other way to give the interior of the nation — the body of the nation — cheap, efficient access to the sea. ... So, what's at stake is the well-being of the entire nation." — Clancy DuBos

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