A Painful Déjà Vu for the Gulf Coast
Posted by egehl on May 20, 2010
The feeling of déjà vu has permeated my week. I can’t believe it. Are we really at square 1 again? Do we really have another monumental catastrophe on our hands that has economic, social and environmental implications of mass proportion? It’s hard to believe that in just five years our region will have suffered the consequences of two man-made disasters.
One thing I have learned about living in New Orleans is that you have to get used to being on a really big high or a really big low, and nothing in between. Win the Super Bowl for the first time in 40 years, check. Overcome the worst hurricane in the nation’s history, check. Celebrate Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest, a unique culture, wonderful music and unparalleled food, check. Elect a new mayor full of promise, check. Face an unimaginable environmental catastrophe with far reaching repercussions for years to come, check.
It feels like we live in a bi-polar perpetual state of disaster with pure joy and euphoria injected in between our manic state of survival and recovery. And I have to say it’s exhausting.
I am not sure if the oil spill and its ramifications had really hit me yet until sitting at an all day policy meeting to talk about our region’s response to oil spill legislation introduced on Capitol Hill. During that meeting I looked around the room and saw the same faces sitting around the same table like we were two years ago still reeling from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Here we go again I thought. The beginning of another long journey.
Many of the nonprofit advocates who will be the protagonists yet again in this response have fought tirelessly over the past five years to help people rebuild their lives without much funding, man power or support yet through sheer determination and passion they have successfully been able to solve many problems that government, corporations and even larger nonprofits couldn’t even begin to wrap their brain around.
It’s hard to believe this tireless, yet beleaguered, group of people are right back to ground zero with another daunting challenge on their hands that is impacting our region in every way imaginable—economic, social, environmental, ecological, and health. It doesn’t just destroy the marshes that barely give us protection against hurricanes but also every small business that depends on seafood, tourism and the coastline. It doesn’t just impact the pocket book of fishermen and their families, but also the food and water safety of thousands of consumers.
Over the past five years since Hurricane Katrina many lessons have been learned about disaster response. We have become stronger and savvier when reacting to a hurricane, and have a more intimate knowledge about the people, process and players involved in a recovery. Now while there are uncanny similarities between the 2005 and 2010 disasters, there are also immense differences which are creating an entirely new learning curve.
After the 2005 hurricanes, there were high expectations, large disappointments and vast misinterpretations about what the Stafford Disaster Assistance and Emergency Act was capable of doing. This law by design leaves a lot of discretion to state and local governments to respond to a disaster, which left Gulf Coast communities in the lurch because they needed the manpower of the federal government to deal with a disaster of catastrophic scale.
Ironically today’s disaster is reminiscent of the same challenges we faced in 2005 to implement a full and equitable response because we must yet again deal with a law that lacks specifics, and wasn’t created with a disaster of this size and scope in mind.
Today the Oil Pollution Act (OPA) will be the overarching federal guide on responding to the oil spill, and the law will perform a lot of the assessments regarding the federal government’s response. Unfortunately though like the Stafford Act, the OPA is an obscure scheme that lacks specificity around filing claims especially the more complex ones, receiving payments and loans, and who is eligible to file under the OPA (since the ripple effects of the disaster go far beyond the obvious victims). Yet again a federal law is not equipped to deal with a mass-scale catastrophe and how to address the complicated needs of thousands of people.
While there are legal similarities, there are also significant differences. After the 2005 storms our focus inside the federal government was FEMA, HUD and DHS. Now it’s the Coast Guard, Department of the Interior, EPA and NOAA. The government was liable after the 2005 storms however now a huge corporation, British Petroleum (BP), is responsible for the destructive spill and its entire clean-up. And with a corporation at the center of the mess it changes the dynamics greatly, not to mention creates quite the show of ridiculous finger pointing, evasion of accountability and transparency, and suspicious assessments of the damage.
Bottom line is that the Gulf Coast must deal with another disaster, but navigate an entirely new system, process and players. And that will be exhausting, daunting and frustrating.
While there are several unanswered questions, it is immediately clear that many citizens will need assistance as a result of this catastrophe. However while the strength and resolve of Louisiana is being tested yet again just as we did in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, I have no doubt we will show our resiliency and prove our strength to the world.