Whacked by Katrina, hammered by Gustav and nearly drowned by Ike, Louisiana's Grand Isle is the spit of sand and wetlands that President Obama used as a backdrop for his Gulf photo ops last year. With the country in a budget cutting mood, there's somewhere between $5 billion and $20 billion in found money that can be used to restore the Gulf: found because BP owes America for what it broke.
Sue is head of the Grand Isle Community Development Team and she had a simple message for us last week. We were 50 miles away from the gates of hell we came to know as Deepwater Horizon. "Rebuild the gulf's natural barriers," she told a group of New York-based activists called Women In Conservation. "This isn't rocket science;" she said; "it's about water and mud and rocks and concrete."
Media from around the planet have reached out to Audubon's scientists because the Gulf is the Grand Central Station for birds. More than 200 species that migrate to and from Central and South America rely on its beaches, marshes and forests to fatten up before and after their epic flights. Hummingbirds weighing one-eighth of an ounce drop out of the sky after non-stop trips across the Gulf of Mexico, hungry and burning body fat and muscle. And millions of birds including Brown Pelicans breed in these rich coastal lands.
Assessing the damage from a year ago continues to be challenging. Birds that never want to be found still haven't been. Thousands of birds became shark food or were eaten by other predators. And somewhere near 7,000 pelicans, plovers, terns and other birds were found dead.
Just as we're seeing the impacts of the Exxon Valdez spill 20 years later, we don't know yet what effect an oil-infested food chain will have. But we do know that tar balls are still washing ashore on Grand Isle, and that endangered birds are eating the worms in the tar balls. Well-meaning clean-up workers have trampled sandy nesting grounds. They've shaven the beaches to remove oil - and in the process taken away the miles-long lines of seaweed and ocean-growing plants that always wash ashore to serve as food sources and nesting sites.
Last week, Senators Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and David Vitter (R-LA) introduced a bill that would finally use BP penalties -- blood money, for sure -- to rebuild America's richest delta system and the entire coastline of the Gulf of Mexico damaged by the BP spill. I encourage all the lawmakers from the region to come together a craft a solution that addresses this massive disaster. Get together and get it done. A quarter of our energy supplies come through these waterways and their communities; so does 40 percent of the seafood from the continental U.S.
We can create a Gulf coast that rebuilds itself by working with the power of the Mississippi River instead of against it. The Army Corps of Engineers broke this river system in the name of more efficient shipping. Increasingly, a new generation of Corps leaders know they can undo the damage and make those water highways even more useful.
And the human benefit to the Gulf region? It's the restoration of a rich way of life where food and family seamlessly mix with pipelines and energy production. And that way of life thrives when natural fresh and saltwater wetlands create the homes for shrimp, oysters, birds and fish. This is the way of life in the steamy Southeast that we've heard in the melodies of Cajuns and jazz masters for generations.
A year later, we still grieve for the 11 lives lost; we know greed and recklessness caused the BP Horizon blowout, and January's Oil Spill Commission report told us that the drillers have deep, systemic issues to fix.
Sue Galliano, a life-long resident of Grand Isle, is a survivor. So are the other 1,500 people who call Grand Isle home. We owe her an answer. We can use BP penalties to restore the Gulf's way of life by rebuilding its wetlands and its coastline.
There are seeds of hope here. Not a wishing kind of hope, but real potential for change. So, what can you do? Yes, this is a "write your representative" plea. (Find a sample letter here)
Make a ruckus for Sue Galliano, for the critters that call the Gulf home, for a way of life that is a part of America's soul.
This originally appeared in The Miami Herald as an Op Ed on April 19, 2011