Nine years after Katrina, activists continue efforts to save Louisiana's coastal land

Retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, head of the Green Army environmental alliance, speaks Aug. 30 at Xavier University of Louisiana, in New Orleans, on the ninth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. (Timothy Watson)

New Orleans — Aug. 29 marked nine years since Hurricane Katrina drove a rolling wall of water from the Gulf of Mexico that crashed the levee system around New Orleans, causing a huge flood and epic disaster.

Four-fifths of the city went underwater, an area several times the size of Manhattan. Today, many of those submerged neighborhoods are dry and thriving, thanks to Road Home, the congressional program that provided grants to home- and businessowners whose insurance policies refused to fund full repair. In addition, FEMA and other federal programs have allowed for hundreds of miles of street upgrading and repair of the subsurface piping system have been made and continue.

The city of 455,000 before the flood has nearly 80,000 fewer people today. Many poor people lacked the resources to return. But the smaller city has 600 more restaurants, amid a construction boom, cultural resurgence and a flourishing digital economy.

Urban rebirth was not the agenda when retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré’s Green Army pulled into a Xavier University of Louisiana hall Aug. 30 to commemorate the ninth anniversary of Katrina. The 275 environmental activists focused on strategies to counter the state’s eroding coastline along the Gulf of Mexico, toxic pollution sites affecting schools and neighborhoods across the southern parishes, and a political culture subservient to the oil industry.

 “Don’t expect someone on a big airplane to come save you!” thundered Honoré, the Louisiana-born Creole who led Army troops in September 2005 that brought order to the broken city.

 “The one to save us is us!”

The impact of oil pollution dawned on Honoré in 2005 in an airplane flying over the Gulf, peering down on a black bloom from a broken underwater well.

Co-sponsored with Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a health and justice organization working with communities that neighbor the state’s oil refineries and chemical plants, the Green Army gathering had a strong interfaith dimension, as several ministers spoke and New Orleans Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond gave the invocation.

“I think it’s important that we come together for gatherings like this to ask the question, what more can we do to take care of the creation God has given us and to ask for God’s mercy on how we have not,” Aymond told NCR in an interview before the event.

His predecessor, Archbishop Alfred Hughes, was a polarizing figure for his controversial parish closings and for denouncing Sen. Mary Landrieu for her position on abortion rights. Aymond, 64, grew up in the Gentilly neighborhood and has tried to exert a healing hand: reopening certain parishes, avoiding partisan politics, working with Mayor Mitch Landrieu (the senator’s brother) on neighborhood recovery issues. Aymond has voiced opposition to a Planned Parenthood facility, but has also spoken about homicide and racism as religious issues facing the church.

Since 1960, a coastal forest the size of Delaware has sunk into the Gulf. Sea rise is advancing at a documented pace of one football field of acreage disappearing every hour. Oil companies have carved 10,000 miles of canals for offshore derricks, causing huge wetlands loss. Although the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has overseen a $10 billion upgrade to the levee system surrounding New Orleans, the federal government recently erased more than 20 communities south of New Orleans from the map -- they’re underwater now.

“We see it disappearing and the livelihood of many people affected, so it’s a moral issue and sometimes I think it’s the least talked-about moral issue,” Aymond told NCR.

“We live in a society that is not too attentive to the environment, and a time when we think that’s going to be their problem -- many generations to come -- with a lack of foresight and lack of investment in the future of what our earth is about.”

Aymond broadened the seamless garment concept in saying “it’s not only the foundational issue of abortion, the homeless issue, as well as assisted suicide, and capital punishment -- that’s all about life. But in this issue of environment we’re talking about the quality of our lives and the life of people to come.”

John Barry, an authority on water issues and author of Rising Tide, a prize winning history of the 1927 Mississippi flood, also spoke at the Green Army event. Barry spearheaded a levee board lawsuit in July against nearly 100 oil, gas and pipeline companies for destroying the wetlands. The litigation seeks a negotiated settlement to fund a remediation process for restoring wetlands. Gov. Bobby Jindal, a staunch supporter of the oil industry, pushed a bill through the legislation to make the lawsuit unconstitutional.

Barry spoke optimistically about the appeal underway to overturn the bill, saying, “There are no moral victories in politics, however there are building blocks.”

Honoré recently retired after 37 years in the military and plunged into a new career as a public citizen crusading on environmental issues. In a state where few elected officials are willing to challenge the oil industry’s agenda, he has spoken at sites of disasters, or potential disasters, lending support to community groups.

At Bayou Corne, an upscale subdivision has been abandoned to a massive sinkhole. In St. Tammany Parish, a Republican stronghold across Lake Pontchartrain from the city, opposition has built over a fracking project by a New Orleans company drilling for deep natural gas.

Louisiana ranks near the bottom in most studies of environmental safeguards, and has high levels of cancer near petro-chemical plants.

“I’ve often been asked by people up north to get involved in climate change, but we’re standing in oil in Louisiana,” Honoré told the crowd.

“If everything was good for the economy we wouldn’t have forests,” he declared. “St. Tammany is a tranquil place and they will drill there because they’ve hijacked our democracy.”

“Bayou Corne was destroyed because next to Bayou Corne was an entire salt dome that collapsed [because of drilling]. People ask me, why are you involved in this Green Army stuff? How can I not? After 37 years in the military I come back to our state and see how it’s been hijacked by the oil and gas industry.”

“The pope said it in a letter,” said Honoré, referencing Francis’ July speech to an Italian university, saying, “This is our sin, exploiting the earth.”

Honoré was on a roll: “You know it’s true, and we need to do it!”

[Jason Berry, frequent NCR contributor, writes from New Orleans and is author of Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church.]