Ten Years after Katrina, What the BP Settlement Means for Louisiana Restoration
By Steve Cochran, Director, Mississippi River Delta Restoration Program, Environmental Defense Fund
Ten years ago, just after Hurricane Katrina, I was asked to talk to Environmental Defense Fund’s board about the place where I grew up, the New Orleans area that had been hit so hard.
I remember two things about that discussion. One was my voice breaking unexpectedly (and embarrassingly) as we talked through pictures of the Katrina aftermath and came across places I intimately knew.
As an adult, I had developed a love/hate relationship with my home – loving the beauty, the people, the community and the culture, but frustrated by what I saw as the general tolerance of mediocrity and corrupt politics that limited its possibilities. That frustration had pushed the love down, and I had moved away. But there it was again. Sometimes you don’t know how much you care.
The second thing I remember was saying that the Katrina response was a deep test of our governments – local, state and national. As we know now, in that moment, it was a test they failed. But fast forward to July 2, 2015, the day a global settlement was announced in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill case. It was a day when governments rose to the occasion. The result was literally the largest environmental settlement in U.S. history.
The BP Settlement and Louisiana Coastal Restoration
Under the agreement, Louisiana will receive more than a third of the money – $6.8 billion of the $18.7 billion, and $5.8 billion of that is specifically targeted to restoration. The overall restoration total for Louisiana will likely be just under $8 billion, including early restoration dollars and criminal settlements.
These are significant resources at a critical time. Land loss across the coast of Louisiana, exacerbated by the spill, continues at a fearful rate. But we are making progress against that loss, and with the solid state commitment that now exists, and effective plans in place, these resources will allow us to battle back in earnest, with a clear-eyed view toward success.
In particular, the state plans to re-engage the enormous power of the Mississippi River and its sediment through a series of sediment diversions – using the natural land-building capacity of the river by reconnecting it to the delta it originally built. This science-based, innovative approach is the critical piece in our ability to provide solutions at a scale that can match the challenges in the Mississippi River Delta – now the largest restoration effort under way in the world.
Rebuilding Our Coast to Protect Our Communities
About a month after the spill, I was allowed to sit in on a tribal council of the indigenous United Houma Nation. As the oil continued to pour into the Gulf of Mexico, which it would do for another two months, I listened and watched as a man described, through a quiet voice and uncontrolled tears, how he had always looked to the waters of the Gulf and drawn confidence, knowing he could always provide for his family by accepting its gifts. But now all he could feel was fundamental fear.
Money can’t replace that kind of loss any more than it can bring back the 11 loved ones who lost their lives in the accident.
But we must do what we can – and in that context, the BP settlement is a tremendous step forward, because we can restore the Mississippi River Delta, so it can protect this area in the future.
Details matter, of course, and details remain to be decided as the Agreement in Principle is turned into a consent decree. We need to remain involved and vigilant. But it does seem clear that this agreement combines avoiding years of litigation with levels of funding that can truly make a difference.
With these resources, we can go to work to make sure that the largest environmental settlement in our nation’s history also becomes the most meaningful settlement in a place that, well, I love.