Monday, December 01, 2014

Grifting the coast away

In the years ahead, South Louisiana will approach the coastal erosion event horizon; the point beyond which the more heavily populated places (Houma, Thibodaux, St. Bernard Parish.. New Orleans, eventually) will be inevitably lost to the sea.  Of course, the land we've already sacrificed amounts to a catastrophe in its own right.
Marshall reports for The Lens, a digital publication that collaborated with ProPublica on “Losing Ground,” an August investigation of Louisiana’s coastal erosion. The project used map simulations that drew wide media attention for a rendering of how much coastal forest has been swallowed and how far inland the Gulf is rising as south Louisiana sinks.

“Louisiana is drowning, quickly,” Marshall wrote in the main story. “In just 80 years, some 2000 square miles of its coastal landscape have turned to open water, wiping places off maps, bringing the Gulf of Mexico to the back door of New Orleans and posing a lethal threat to an energy and shipping corridor vital to the nation’s economy.”

An area the size of Delaware has disappeared. Acreage the size of a football field sinks in the Gulf on average once an hour. The federal government recently erased more than 20 communities south of New Orleans from the map – they’re underwater now.
But as the threat to more urbanized places rises, the more difficult it will be to ignore. This is not to say, though, that anything will be done to stop it.  Instead, the panic will mostly focus on who can squeeze the most money out of the land before it disappears forever and how.  So as we approach the sad end of this story, expect the true aim of what we'll call "coastal restoration" efforts to bear more toward maximizing profit than toward protecting communities.

One example of such was on display this New Republic article back in October.  The article described Billy Nungesser's plan to save Plaquemines Parish from floods by destroying it with chemical poison.

Nungesser and his critics are not as far apart as it might seem. Plaquemines Parish has made an unholy bargain with the energy industry. But nobody makes such a bargain without a reason; you only do so if you believe you’ve been forsaken. This is the situation in which Plaquemines found itself in 2006. When the White House announced its plan to rebuild the levee system after Katrina, it excluded the lower part of Plaquemines; a Bush administration representative questioned whether including the parish would be “economically justifiable,” given that its total population stood at just 15,000 before the storm. The unsubtle implication of this statement, and others like it in the months that followed, was that much of southern Louisiana would be abandoned to the Gulf of Mexico, cut off from the rest of the country like a gangrenous digit.

The Sierra Club’s Devin Martin believes Nungesser is luring industry to Plaquemines in order to extort the federal government into paying for flood protection. “They can’t justify getting federal funding if it’s just to save poor people in a flood zone,” Martin told me. “They need industry, in at-risk places.” Under Nungesser, said Martin, “the parish has made an art out of how to acquire FEMA dollars.”

It’s true. Since Hurricane Katrina, Plaquemines Parish, with the support of Baton Rouge, has done everything possible to entice fossil-fuel corporations—the very same corporations that have imperiled the existence of the fragile coast—to expand their business on the lower Mississippi. Once situated, the energy plants serve as a blackmail note. When you have industry, in at-risk places, you need insurance. You need levees. And, most importantly, the federal government needs you.

Nungesser, while placing his emphasis differently, doesn’t disagree with this interpretation. “If I had my choice, would I choose this kind of industry?” he asked. “Maybe not. I don’t know. But I do know that we’re going to have another hurricane. I know people don’t want to leave, but it’s coming. With industry there, we have a fighting chance to save these communities.”
But, of course, if the "community" belongs to a coal terminal, nobody will be able to live there.  Which means the only reason we're "saving" this land will be so that someone (say, Billy Nungesser) can sell it.
In 2012, the FBI launched a separate ethical investigation, but again Nungesser was not formally charged. More recently, Nungesser negotiated, on behalf of the parish, the contract to build the Port of Plaquemines on land near his home–land that he now intends to sell. “He put it where he owns land,” said Lawrence. “Now was that a coincidence, or did it happen for a reason?”
As the disaster becomes more and more desperate, the key to understanding Louisiana's coastal policy will not be a question of how many homes can be saved so much as a question of who is cashing out.  Think of this as a (quite literal) liquidation sale of South Louisiana.

It, at least partially, explains the state's tax-incentive driven "Qatar on the Bayou"industrial expansion.  It will probably explain what the city decides to do with the Wisner property once it finally establishes control of it.  And, to a large degree, it explains the nuts and bolts of Louisiana's Coastal Master Plan. 
In the works, for instance, is a last-minute media blitz in which Edwards will play up the links between Garret Graves and Gov. Bobby Jindal. Edwards figures that if Republicans can damn U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu as the handmaiden of the dreaded President Barack Obama, Graves might be similarly vulnerable as Jindal’s proté gé .

Edwards’ commercials, previewed by Louisianavoice.com, will not only stress Graves’ fealty to the floundering Jindal administration but suggest that it produced financial rewards. When Graves was Jindal’s top coastal adviser, his father’s company landed $130 million in Corps of Engineers contracts, of which $66 million was subcontracted out to companies that were suddenly consumed with a desire to make campaign contributions. They gave $250,000 to Graves and $360,000 to Jindal.
Remember Jindal and Graves worked very hard this year to halt a lawsuit that could have sped the process of getting the plan fully funded.  But this is really more about the direction of the money than it is the efficacy of it.

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