Who’s Listening?

From Esther Liu…
“If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Scientifically, the answer to this philosophical question is no, but pragmatically, a collapsing tree would still emit some sort of noise, regardless of who’s listening. Consider an alternate scenario. Suppose a huge tree is about to topple over, potentially damaging the entire ecosystem. A group of informed individuals sends out warnings about the potential danger, but no one is listening. Does that group make a sound? Does that group have a voice? Looking at past and present situations along the Gulf Coast, particularly in Louisiana, the answer would appear to be no.

Flashback five years to Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans. Three years before Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, Mark Schleifstein, environmental reporter for The Times-Picayune, and colleague John McQuaid, reported the inevitable coming of “the big one,” the hurricane that hit New Orleans head-on. After interviewing engineers and hurricane experts, Schleifstein and McQuaid reported that the levees surrounding New Orleans were simply too low to truly protect the city in the case of a huge hurricane. Even with the backing of engineers and researchers, Schleifstein felt like no one seemed to listen or care. With little public reaction to their reports, nothing was done to fortify the levees. Then, Hurricane Katrina hit, the levees collapsed (which no one really expected) and the city of New Orleans was completely submerged. Schleifstein, whose own family was suffering from the flood, stayed in New Orleans to cover the event. He continues to report on the environmental issues in Louisiana.

Many others continue to call for serious examination of potential hurricane and environmental impact on Louisiana cities. For years, scholars and wetland experts have warned that the constant erosion of the wetlands leaves cities more vulnerable. But it wasn’t until Katrina that the nation began to pay attention. “Disasters cause action. People won’t do anything until there’s a crisis,” said Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network. “We are doing everything we can to get the message out there right now, while people are focusing on our situation.”

Like Gulf Restoration Network, other nonprofits, including Women of the Storm, a New Orleans organization formed after Hurricane Katrina, are working to get people throughout the world to pay attention. Anne Milling, founder of WOS, insisted that although media covered the impact extensively, “You can’t understand it unless you see it yourself.” The group of New Orleans women have led large groups to Washington to meet with members of Congress. Their grassroots efforts to get attention have revolved around building relationships. “The primary issue is creating synergy,” Milling stated. “We are doing whatever it takes to educate the public, even if we have to do it one person at a time.”

Sarthou agrees that the process of educating the public has been slow, especially when media sometimes provides misleading information. She noted that two years after Katrina, many people across the country thought the city was still underwater because the media images on TV were from a few days after the storm. “You have to be current. The only way you catch the public’s attention is to ensure the information you provide is not stale,” she said, noting that confusing communication can frustrate the public and muddle the real issues. Over time, people stop listening.

She and others are hoping people will pay attention to an important piece of information released earlier this month. The official US Oil Spill Commission released its final verdict on their investigation of the British Petroleum oil spill. According to the report, BP purposefully ignored safety advice from Halliburton because they wanted to save time and money. The report also found the monitoring software from both Halliburton and Transocean did not equip the rig with adequate alarm systems. An isolated incident? No, say many experts.

According to Windell Curole, general manager of the South Lafourche Levee District in Louisiana, this is not unusual for oil companies. The seventh-generation Louisianan and wetlands expert explained that oil companies are under pressure to drill as quickly and as cheaply as possible to meet deadlines. They take shortcuts, resulting in disasters like the Deep Water Horizon explosion. Is this information being considered by those who are supposed to be regulating and policing the oil industry? Is anyone listening?

BP workers monitoring the beach.

BP workers monitoring the beach along Grand Isle, LA.

Government coastal officials and nonprofits devoted to protecting the coast say they hope that events like hurricanes, floods and oil spills will finally raise national awareness about an even greater underlying problem facing Louisiana — the disappearing wetlands.

Dr. Bob Thomas, director of Environmental Communication at Loyola University, traced the history of the gradual disappearance of the coastal wetlands of Louisiana, known as “America’s Wetlands.” Since 1932, Louisiana has lost enough land to rival the size of the state of Delaware due to natural subsidence, dredging and levee-building. “On average, Louisiana loses a football field of wetlands every 38 minutes,” said Dr. Thomas, noting that the wetlands serve as a buffer against hurricanes and storms, as well as a primary source of the nation’s economy. “That’s a lot of important land to be losing,” commented Thomas. And yet there is little meaningful media coverage concerning this problem. Thomas and others contend that this issue has been ignored for years: “Do you think this kind of land loss would be tolerated if it was happening in the northeast?”

Simply traveling down the coast of Louisiana reveals how much land has disappeared under water.

Individuals and groups like Schleifstein, the Gulf Restoration Network and the Women of the Storm are trying to make their voices heard in order to implement real change and get meaningful resources to solve the problem. Another tireless proponent of getting the word out, especially after the oil spill, is Kurt Fromherz. The media specialist for Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana, said that Nungesser has been criticized for speaking out about the way the oil spill has been handled. His parish received very little attention after Katrina, so Nungesser is adamant that this will not happen in the wake of the oil spill. Fromherz insisted that it’s important for political representatives to make sure BP is held accountable and that the public is kept informed. If no one is aware of the issues, and no one is reporting or publicizing what is really going on, what are the chances for effectively solving the problems and preventing another accident?

Despite the many experts working through government and media channels in an effort to get attention and rally support, observers agree that the issues seems to be falling on deaf ears. They continue to ask, how many trees have to fall before we wake up and take action?

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