John M. Barry: The writer who changed Louisiana’s coastal conversation

John M. Barry‘s books have informed and moved people, but his greatest accomplishment may well be having singled-handedly (at first) changed Louisiana’s conversation about saving our coast.

Barry did this by working diligently and persistently to convince his fellow members of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East (SLFPAE) to launch a lawsuit against what were originally 99 oil, gas and pipeline companies for damage their work inflicted on wetlands under its jurisdiction. The lawsuit drew the wrath of Louisiana’s political gods at the time — Governor Bobby Jindal and the oil and gas industry. Killing the levee board lawsuit became Jindal’s obsession.

Land loss in south Louisiana.

Unlike much of Louisiana’s governing processes, the super levee boards created in the wake of the federal levee failures in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, were designed to move the politics out of what was recognized as an essential work of the state — protecting citizens and their property from flooding.

Members of the authorities (east and west) were nominated through a process of committees, who then submitted limited lists of nominees to the governor from which to choose.  Terms for the members were fixed — they did not serve at the pleasure of the governor. As a result, Jindal could not replace the board with one more compliant to what had until then be the time-honored Louisiana political position that we knew the oil and gas industry had damaged our coastal wetlands, but our leaders (whose campaigns were financed by that industry) did not want the oil and gas industry to pay for that damage.

Louisiana Oil and Gas Infrastructure.

Barry’s term had expired by the time Jindal launched his war against the levee board. Barry was not renominated. Instead, he formed the non-profit Restore Louisiana Now where he led the public campaign to explain the logic behind the lawsuit and the fight to prevent Jindal and legislators from killing the lawsuit.

The official count is that 19 bills were filed in the 2014 session seeking various ways of killing the suit. One managed to pass but it was later declared unconstitutional because the Senate had violated its own rules in the manner it handled the bill.

The lawsuit bounced between state and federal jurisdictions before landing in the federal district court in New Orleans where it was struck down. Subsequent appeals upheld the decision.

But, while the rush was on to try to kill the levee board lawsuit, parishes operating in the Coastal Zone — where the damage occurred — started filing suits against oil and gas companies for coastal damages using their standing under the Coastal Zone Management Act. A total of six suits have been filed thus far. More are expected in 2018.

Governor John Bel Edwards succeeded Jindal in office and has been encouraging the other 14 parishes in the Coastal Zone to launch similar suits. Edwards deputized the Department of Natural Resources to be his vehicle to input in the suits after Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, who campaigned publicly against the suits in 2015, sought to intervene in the suits to displace the parishes.

We’re a ways away from resolving the suits and we’re a long way from saving our coast. But, we will never go back to the days when everybody but the oil and gas industry is asked to do their fair share in what will be an intergenerational, multi-billion dollar effort to stop south Louisiana from sinking into the Gulf of Mexico.

We have John Barry to thank for that. And for his great books!

John Barry in his New Orleans office.