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Posts Tagged ‘Gulf Coast’

The Inadequacy of Our Disaster Laws

Posted by egehl on June 15, 2010

It seems that my state doesn’t experience just any ole disaster.  We knock them out of the ballpark and raise the bar to a completely new level.  Because really, what’s the fun of being like everyone else?  You think you’ve seen disaster, well not until the Gulf Coast comes on the scene because apparently we really love the term “the worst [fill in the blank] in our nation’s history”. Maybe it’s our hidden talent, or perhaps just really bad luck. 

As we reach day 56 of this oil spill–more like gusher–what the country doesn’t realize is that this tragedy will yet again shine a light on the inadequacy of our nation’s laws.  The hardships being endured by the Gulf Coast now, and from the storms of 2005, will change policies that have far reaching implications on how we will react to disasters in the future.  

The lessons learned from Katrina and the oil spill will drastically alter how this nation reacts to future disasters—both environmental and natural incidents— because our catastrophes have busted open any preconceived notion of what a disaster is.  Unfortunately it’s taken the turmoil of two unprecedented events in five years to serve as a wake-up call for how we need to strengthen and improve our disaster response and recovery framework. 

Sadly 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.

It has become abundantly clear that the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA), the overarching federal law since 1990 that has jurisdiction over any oil spill, is insufficient to address the catastrophe currently facing the Gulf Coast.  This law was created following the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, which at the time was our nation’s worst environmental disaster, to address oil spills going forward.  However the Gulf Coast has far surpassed the Alaskan threshold created 20 years ago and it’s evident the OPA was not created with today’s disaster in mind.

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 a claim under the OPA (since the ripple effects of the disaster go far beyond victims on the front line).  And the oil spill liability cap in OPA is ridiculously low at $75 million. 

Ironically this is very reminiscent of what we went through with Katrina and the Stafford Act, which is the overarching federal law for traditional natural disasters like hurricanes, floods and tornadoes.  By design the Stafford Act places most of the responsibility on state and local governments to respond, which clearly didn’t work when Katrina happened and the federal government needed to play a much larger role. 

For the second time, the Gulf Coast must come up against another federal law that is not equipped to deal with a mass-scale catastrophe and how to address the complicated needs of an entire region and thousands of people.  To make things even more complicated, because the oil spill is an environmental disaster and falls under the OPA that means the needs associated with a traditional disaster response under the Stafford Act cannot kick in. 

Response to an oil spill stands in marked contrast to the more commonly understood emergency response framework under the Stafford Act for non-oil spill emergencies, and disasters where state and local officials have the authority to take direct actions to protect life and property.  

Under the OPA, a state only has representation to monitor the response to the incident but does not have the authority to independently conduct any response activities.  For example, Louisiana Governor Jindal has made several requests to the federal government for assistance and, while the responses have expressed support, the over-riding message has been that the OPA simply does not authorize the federal government to respond to an oil spill with disaster programs and assistance as does the Stafford Act.

In addition under the OPA, it is the responsible party, such as BP, that has the authority to conduct response and clean-up activities.  Identifying BP as the responsible party differs from the traditional emergency management role.  This non-traditional response framework presents some unique challenges as local governments, accustomed to being the first line of defense in a disaster or emergency, are not being fully incorporated into the response efforts by BP and the Coast Guard. 

The oil spill has not been declared a federal disaster because the OPA doesn’t call for that.  Louisiana has made multiple requests to federal agencies for assistance to implement programs that would ordinarily be triggered in a Stafford Act major disaster declaration.  Unfortunately because this isn’t a Stafford Act related disaster, certain things like crisis counseling and disaster unemployment that would have launched immediately aren’t happening. 

Not that I want another hurricane, but we would have known exactly what to do, who to ask and how the laws work.  We have learned a lot in 5 years yet have had to start over with this environmental disaster.  

Two weeks after the oil rig exploded, Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) made plans to hold a press conference to announce the introduction of a Stafford Act reform bill.  This bill has been in the works for 4 years and incorporates many lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina.  How ironic that as we begin to digest the ramifications of a new disaster and the inadequacies of the policies associated with it, the experiences we went through 5 years ago are now coming into light through massive reform to our largest disaster law. 

Like the need to reform the Stafford Act, I predict our current situation will shape future reform of the OPA. 

The benefits this country will gain in how we react to future catastrophes are on the backs of the Gulf Coast.  I hope everyone keeps that in mind as we hopefully never have to go through something like Katrina and the oil spill again.

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The Top Kill Didn’t Work, Now What!?

Posted by egehl on June 1, 2010

While the rest of the country barbequed, relaxed, vacationed and hung out with family and friends over the long weekend, the Gulf Coast received disappointing news that the top kill BP used to stop the oil spill didn’t work.  So now what!?

On Saturday, BP engineers said that the “top kill” technique had failed and, after consultation with government officials, they had decided to move on to another strategy.  The top kill was the latest of many failed attempts to stop the spill.  A technician who had been working on the project to stem the oil leak said that neither the top kill nor the “junk shot” came close to succeeding because the pressure of oil and gas escaping from the well was simply too powerful to overcome.  He added that engineers never had a complete enough understanding of the inner workings of drill pipe casing or blowout preventer mechanisms to make the efforts work.

Engineers will now try once again to solve the problem with a containment cap and it could take four to seven days for the device to be in place.

The whole thing feels so completely unpredictable and out of our control, and it’s difficult to be a helpless bystander.

BP has started work on two relief wells but officials have said that they will not be completed until August, which is a very scary thought.  It’s incomprehensible to think about the damage that could be done if this oil continues to gush into the Gulf for 3 more months. 

The latest failure will undoubtedly put more pressure on the federal government to take more control over the repair effort because the public is quickly losing faith in BP.

The Gulf Coast will be holding its breath in the days and weeks ahead.  And we hope to have the nation’s continued support, patience and prayers.

Oh and did I mention that today marks the beginning of hurricane season… yeah, let’s not go there.

Posted in Economy, Environment, Politics, Rant | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

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.

Posted in Advocacy, Economy, Families, green, Health, Rant | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Women’s Role in Protecting Our Environment

Posted by egehl on May 3, 2010

I was thinking this morning that it’s a shame “the worst” must be a description associated with my state yet again.  The worst natural disaster in history and now the worst environmental catastrophe since the Exxon Valdez spill.  As an oil slick barrels toward our fragile coastline and dwindling wetlands, I am reminded again how much we take our environment for granted until it’s at risk.

I am saddened by the explosion and destruction of the Deep Horizon exploration rig in the Gulf of Mexico which resulted in the presumed deaths of 11 people and injuries and stress to many more who were able to survive the catastrophe.  The looming threat from the oil spill to my state’s wetlands and local communities will have a huge impact on our economy and protection against future storms as the oil destroys more of our natural defenses.  In addition, our commercial fishing industry–a critical $2.4 billion economic engine for the region–is in grave jeopardy, which will impact thousands of families and businesses. 

Since Hurricane Katrina, our state has struggled so hard to promote the restoration and protection of our coast because of land loss.  Our coastline has barely recovered after five years so it’s difficult to think of it being hurt on top of what’s already happened—and just a month before hurricane season. 

Recently we celebrated the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, and the catastrophe in the Gulf is a reminder of how fragile our environment is and the consequences that can happen due to human interference. 

Women play an important part in environmental protection and in fact right now two women are playing a significant role in the oil clean up, Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano and EPA Secretary Lisa Jackson.   Ironically Lisa Jackson is from New Orleans which is advantageous for Louisiana as she helps to lead the Administration’s efforts to address the oil slick.

On a local level I got an email this morning from a good friend, Sharon, who is the Executive Director of Bayou Interfaith Shared Initiatives (BISCO), a nonprofit organization in Thibodeaux, LA that is part of the efforts to prevent the oil’s mass destruction.  She is working with local, state and federal officials and making sure that the local people are part of the discussion and solution.   BISCO will be one of the first groups to respond on the ground when emergencies like this occur and their leadership will help guide government officials.  Sharon’s leadership is another example of the influence women can have when their communities need help. 

Worldwide everyday women play a significant role in preserving our earth as mothers, consumers, small business owners, bread winners and activists.
 
Environmental issues such as climate change, clean water, air pollution and preserving natural resources are important to women and their families, and women have the opportunity to inspire and lead others to act consciously about how their actions can help or harm the earth.  Women make up the majority of the earth’s population and are vulnerable to detrimental changes to the planet therefore we have a vested interest in taking care of it.  
 
Especially in third world countries, millions of women are struggling with environmental risk factors that can harm them.  These include issues such as air pollution, contaminated water, lack of adequate sanitation, disease vectors and degraded ecosystems.  Women depend on natural resources for their economic and physical health, and providing for their families. 
 
Nearly all of the United Nations millennium development goals have implications for women and the environment.  Since 2005, the U.N. has supported women’s roles in protecting biodiversity, indigenous knowledge and overseeing environmental resources.

Women should be empowered so that their actions lead to a healthier, more peaceful planet.  Because women have a special vulnerability when it comes to the earth’s sustainability, their involvement with environmental efforts is crucial.  And there are many efforts taking place worldwide that are addressing climate change, corporate accountability, United Nations reform and women’s political participation. 

Women can be real catalysts for change for our environment through their everyday actions, by holding political office to lead a national response, or through their grassroots organizing to empower their local communities to be informed and poised for action.

Posted in Families, Global, Health, Lifestyle, Sustainability | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »