‘Rising tide’ of opposition didn’t surprise Barry

    Long before he became a national literary figure – before the runaway success of “Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America” and its apocalyptic implications for coastal Louisiana – John M. Barry was a largely invisible graduate assistant football coach on Benny Ellender’s 1973 Tulane staff.
    Every Tulane and LSU fan remembers 1973, which marked the occurrence of the great olive-green-and-blue, 100-year flood. We’re talking Tulane 14, LSU 0, a high-water mark for Green Wave football, which has spent most of the last 40 years struggling to recreate a storm surge of more than a few inches.
    “Rising Tide” has sold several hundred thousand copies, but Barry recalls his first two published articles as moments of journalistic pride. The instructional stories were published in Scholastic Coach magazine: “Flexible Blocking Calls,” which detailed how offensive linemen could make audibles at the line of scrimmage, and “Maximizing the Tight End,” which showed how a tight end could be put in motion before the snap to create all kinds of chaos.
    Barry isn’t claiming former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs stole his idea for the H-back, but there are two things very clear in his daunting resume: Barry knows football and he really knows flooding. And his job now, as a man gifted with writing parables that resonate with a global audience, is to use images to proclaim a stark truth.
    You want truth? In the last 75 years, about 2,000 miles of critical marsh and wetlands – roughly the size of the state of Delaware – have disappeared from Louisiana’s coast. That’s a lot of football fields.
    “Everybody knows two things: the land outside the levees cuts down the storm surge that hits the levees,” Barry said. “If it’s a cypress forest, it takes a lot off the storm surge. It also cuts down on wind velocity. If it’s a marsh, it doesn’t take a heckuva lot off (the storm surge), but it does take something off. Everybody also knows, and the oil and gas industry and the governor’s office concede, that contributors to land loss are oil and gas operations.”
    When Barry was appointed to the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East in 2007 by former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, his high-profile cache as a coastal restoration advocate was trumpeted as a sign that Louisiana was beginning to get serious about coordinating its restoration efforts.
    Each of the authority’s new members drew straws for staggered terms, and Barry originally was appointed for two years and then reappointed in 2009 by Gov. Bobby Jindal for a full four-year term. But when the authority decided last July to file a controversial lawsuit against 97 oil, gas and pipeline companies to force them to pay either to restore the damaged wetlands outside the levee system or pay fines for the damage that can’t be repaired, Barry’s cache with Jindal was gone with the wind.
    Jindal, who opposes the suit because he claims it is not congruent with the state’s coastal restoration policy, decided not to reappoint Barry to a second, and final, four-year term.
    And now, Barry said, the governor is marshaling efforts in the upcoming state legislative session to nullify the lawsuit, even though two parishes – Plaquemines and Jefferson – have filed suit against oil and gas companies themselves, with other parishes also ready to hit the courthouse steps.
    “We certainly knew the industry was going to take us on and try to crush us,” said Barry, who now runs Restore Louisiana Now, a nonprofit group advocating for coastal restoration. “We didn’t expect any support from the governor, but we were surprised by the vehemence of his opposition.”
    Barry spent many years covering politics in Washington, D.C., so he knew the suit certainly would create a political tsunami, especially in a state whose economy is tied to the largely unfettered success of the oil-and-gas industry.
    Before the authority filed suit, its members discussed their plans in executive session with Garret Graves, the governor’s coastal czar, to fill him in, Barry said.
    “Garret certainly never blessed our efforts – I want to be clear about that – and we knew he would have preferred us not to do it, but he never gave us the slightest indication that the response would be as strong as it has been,” Barry said.
    The oil and gas industry recently asked a court to throw out the suit, and Barry knows industry officials and the governor’s office will be playing hardball in March to kill it through legislative action.
    “There are several ways that they might go about it, and they probably can come up with one I can’t think of,” Barry said. “The simple way is to say only the state can sue for coastal restoration issues. However, that also attacks all the other parish lawsuits, and that makes it a much harder push politically to kill it.”
    The bottom line is that real coastal restoration will take $50 billion simply to slow the loss of land and $100 billion to actually add land, Barry said.
    “We have a master plan, but there’s no money for the master plan,” Barry said. “Hope is not a plan. I wish we could get the money from Washington, but I don’t believe there’s any stomach in Washington for sending $50 billion, much less $100 billion, our way, particularly in this fiscal climate.”
    An industry-supported study by the U.S. Geological Survey indicated that 36 percent of the state’s land loss was attributable to oil and gas operations, and other studies that “did not have the benefit of industry participation” put the percentage higher, Barry said.
    “Here we have an industry which has signed contracts agreeing to repair damage they have done, and there are laws requiring them to repair that damage,” Barry said. “We’re not saying they’re responsible for all the land loss. If the industry is found not liable, fine. If the industry is found liable, that’s when you get the expert witnesses involved.”
    Barry said the state’s current coastal restoration plan calls for taxpayers to spend $61 million to close oil field canals – something that is the oil companies’ responsibility.
    “Forget about any indirect damage these canals caused because of saltwater intrusion and so forth,” Barry said. “These are oil field canals that they’re supposed to plug, and now taxpayers are paying to plug them. That makes no sense. The most anti-tax governor in the country is having taxpayers pay to close oil field canals.”
    Barry believes any BP settlement will result in $5-$6 billion for coastal restoration, “which is still trivial compared to the need.” Also, the state’s increased share of offshore oil royalties, scheduled to begin in 2017, will bring in about $100-$200 million a year, but that will be offset by about $73 million a year the state will have to pay the federal government for its share of the upgraded levee system.
    “That $73 million erases a pretty big chunk of that offshore revenue,” Barry said.
    So, for now, Barry is hoping a lawsuit aimed at assigning real damages will move forward, for the sake of future generations.
    “On the day we filed the lawsuit, a reporter asked me why I was doing this,” Barry said. “My answer was, ‘Because I love New Orleans, and I want the city to survive.’”
    The clock is ticking.
    “We have a crisis here, but it’s slow moving,” Barry said. “It’s not so slow moving that you can’t see the difference in the landscape from the time you enter high school to the time you leave college. In that period, the changes are dramatic, but that’s still not fast enough to show up on a camera on the nightly news. The political reality is if we’re relying on Washington to fix our problems, we’re pretty irresponsible and living in a dream world.”
    Like Tulane 14, LSU 0, but with real consequences.
    Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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