The aftermath of the flood: John M. Barry discusses the long process of restoring Louisiana

Despite residing just under 1,300 miles from New Orleans, Lafayette College students and staff had the unique opportunity to hear about the current environmental issues plaguing the region.

Monday afternoon, Van Wickle 108 was filled with members of the Lafayette community in order to hear the lecture of historian John M. Barry, the prize-winning author of “Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America.” The talk was presented as part of “Confluence,” a series of interdisciplinary programs associated with rivers, inspired by Alison Saar’s exhibit, “Breach,” informed by the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927.

The focus of Barry’s lecture, which would later be presented to the Louisiana State Legislature, was to highlight the influence of the oil and gas industries on the damaged Louisiana coastline. Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Barry was asked to chair a bipartisan working group on flood protection and later served on the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority East. Many policy-makers and constituents were quick to blame inadequate levees for the degree of destruction following the hurricane, but Barry quickly gained awareness of the influence of the oil and gas industries as well.

“It is the levees,” Barry said, “but that’s only part of it.”

Barry used photographic evidence to intensify this point. If you take the levees and dams out of the equation, there’s no water overflow in the basin. But when you bring oil and gas into the equation, there’s suddenly damage.

“I suggested, ‘Make a stand; make a statement,’” Barry said, “that turned into a New York Times article: ‘The Most Ambitious Environmental Lawsuit.’”

Barry was the architect of the lawsuit against Shell, BP, Chevron, Exxon Mobil and 93 other oil, pipeline and gas companies. He cited 37 scientific studies on the impact of oil and gas activities on wetlands loss, and concluded that roughly 36.06 percent of the land loss is at the fault of the oil and gas industry.

Barry said that he hopes that the lawsuit teaches three things, “Obey the law, keep your word, and take responsibility for your actions.”

Even though there were no Louisiana residents in attendance, Barry said that the repercussions on gas prices and the job markets affect everyone.

Following the presentation, students and staff alike were engaged by the relevance of the issue. Sustainability Fellow Miranda Wilcha ’16 discussed the connections between a class she had taken and the presentation.

“Multiple sources had talked about the levees and how poorly the army core of engineers had created them,” Wilcha said. “It was shocking that oil and gas and their canals had such an influence on flooding when previously it had been very simple to think of it as a ‘levee problem.'”

One student also discussed the themes of environmental awareness in the presentation.

“It’s interesting to me that there are people out there who are fighting for environmental justice, but aren’t driven by environmental activism,” Karolina Vera ’17 said.

Written by Katie Gonick ’20.

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