VIDEO: Visiting the Gulf Coast, Part Two: United Houma Nation in the Bayou

Authors: Dan Martin, Director of Operations In May, I flew down to New Orleans to help coordinate several days of meetings and video interviews related to the BP oil catastrophe. Green For All wanted to tell the stories of how the spill was affecting the communities of the Gulf Coast on the ground. When I went down there, I didn't know much about the spill or its impact on the people of the Gulf Coast — just what the media had reported. The people I met there taught me a lot. This is the second of two posts in which I do my best to pass some of that knowledge along. See Dan's first post.

Part Two: Visiting the Bayou

The day after visiting with Theresa Nguyen, we drove to Terrebonne Parrish (County) in the Bayou, approximately one hour outside of New Orleans. Patty Witney, a veteran community organizer, gave us a tour of the area and introduced us to leaders of the United Houma (Native American) Nation. Patty was an incredible guide, giving us a three-hour history lesson about the Bayou region and its people and culture. I found the stories she told completely captivating. One of the main things I took away from Patty's stories was that the oil industry has been doing profound damage to the Bayou and coastal communities since long before the current spill began.

The Bayou itself is a series of natural waterways that wind throughout "the wetlands" — the land's end of the Gulf Coast. These waterways support the vegetation and land that have historically provided a buffer between the Gulf of Mexico and the more densely populated areas of the Gulf Coast, protecting coastal communities from hurricanes by absorbing the greatest impact before the storms can reach them. That's what is supposed to happen. But, thanks to the oil industry, the Bayou is less and less able to provide that buffer, and coastal communities are suffering for it. Let me explain. Oil companies use pipelines to carry oil from the offshore wells to land. When they built these pipelines, they created new water canals to hold them. These new, manmade water canals brought salt water from the Gulf into the fresh water Bayous. This killed the vegetation, which in turn led to the erosion of the land. The wetlands began disappearing. With the disappearance of the wetlands, seasonal hurricanes and tropical storms did more damage. They wiped away more land, which led to more damaging storms, which wiped away more land, in a vicious cycle of destruction and erosion. Now, the Bayou is losing the equivalent of one football field every 36 minutes. The continued erosion of the wetlands means that more and more people will be driven from their homes in the coming years. To make matters worse, it is next to impossible for the people in these areas to get insurance for their homes, or assistance from federal agencies like FEMA. Why? Because they've owned their land and homes for so long — since Spain or France ruled Louisiana — that records no longer exist proving their ownership. Of course, this does not stop the government from collecting taxes every year. Just from helping in times of crisis. You'd like to think that the people of Louisiana got some significant benefit to balance out all this damage. But I was shocked to learn that the state derives no income from the billions of dollars of oil that the industry takes from the ground each year. Under current law, only the federal government can tax the proceeds of the oil industry. Add it all up and you have an industry devastating the Gulf region, the federal government giving little assistance to the people trying to survive and overcome this devastation, and a state unable to finance any support mechanisms of its own.

Epilogue: Coming Home

On my way back to California, I couldn't stop thinking about something Patty said. In talking about the dynamics around oil and the Gulf Coast, she said that it was as if the rest of the country has allowed the state of Louisiana to be treated like the bastard child. It is OK for oil companies to drill on the Gulf Coast, devastate its people, and destroy its land as long as it provides energy and income for the rest of America. This is absolutely unacceptable. At Green For All, we often say that there are no throwaway resources, and no throwaway people. Well, there are no throwaway regions either. The Gulf Coast needs us. It's time to step up.

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