The fact is, if you measure in miles I happen to live about as far from the Gulf Coast as a resident of the lower forty-eight can. But because I have a number of friends and colleagues who make their homes and earn their livelihoods in that part of the country, particularly in Louisiana and Florida, and because we currently have active projects in both of those states, I spend more time in that region than one might expect.
My own involvement in the rebuilding effort following Katrina came as a result of introductions to members of the building community in New Orleans who subsequently connected me with local elected officials, government employees, members of non-profit organizations, business leaders, utility company representatives, and lots of just plain folks who had a stake in what was going to happen next and how it would shape their collective future. Over time, I was privileged to work with many of them in educational events, planning meetings, and charrettes.
Images of devastation in the weeks after the storm are still vivid in my memory ... miles of residential streets marked by sprawling craters that could swallow cars whole, endless mud and debris piled high where the sidewalks should have been along both sides of avenues, RVs and small buildings sitting atop other buildings, the shredded skeletons of trees that had once shaded the boulevards, and, seemingly everywhere, the greasy toxic stain from the unimaginable flood of filth that left its high water mark on houses, commercial buildings, highway abutments, and utility poles.
It was a combination of those experiences and witnessing the determination of my new acquaintances there over the next year that led me to successfully lobby to have the site of the 2008 National Green Building Conference relocated to New Orleans, despite the protests of a legion of skeptics who, citing crime and the limited progress of rebuilding efforts at that time, warned that no one wanted to go to there, especially for a conference about sustainability. All those who supported the move were vindicated when the conference attracted its largest attendance ever, a record that is still intact.
For many it remains the annual event's most talked about and memorable location ever, but perhaps more important, the conference helped not only to channel badly needed dollars into the economy there at a critical time but also to focus the discussions of sustainable building and development in the single location of the country that needed them most.
While the so-called elected leadership at all levels of government-local, state and national-squabbled, sniped, and postured, some of us found ways to make whatever contribution we could toward an eventual recovery and positive outcome. The sum of hundreds of such efforts, when added to the sheer will of those who refused to leave the region or entertain defeat, resulted in the undeniable resurgence of the Crescent City and much of the surrounding region.
In the first weeks of 2010 the unbridled joy of long-suffering Saints fans spilled over into Mardi Gras, and residents must have felt that they had finally begun to turn the corner and stand in the sun. The afterglow of the celebration was shattered as suddenly as the drilling platform itself when the Deep Water Horizon exploded, instantly claiming the lives of eleven, and unbelievably marking the beginning of another dark chapter in the lives of countless others.
Today, almost two months after that unthinkable event, thousands of gallons of crude continue to erupt from the ruptured underwater well every day, millions of nature's creatures are threatened and dying, and billions of dollars in damage to the environment, the economy, and all those who depend on the Gulf's bounty for their very survival are being tallied in a dizzying calculation that is hard to keep up with.
On any given day we see sickening images of tortured wildlife, spoiled marshes, wetlands and beaches, empty marinas and idle shrimp boats. We hear the pleas of families in distress, desperate business operators, and tormented local officials begging for assistance and answers-any answers-to the questions of how they can possibly manage to make it through to the other side of a disaster that is still unfolding.
On the evening news I watch and listen as a bizarre scene plays for the cameras. Governor Charlie Crist is on a Florida beach with Jimmy Buffet. Crist is declaring that the beaches are clean and the hotel rooms and restaurant seats are ready and waiting. He makes it clear to all that "we are open for business." I almost expect an 800 number to appear on the screen and hear "operators are standing by!"
Meanwhile, Mr. Margaritaville stands lamely alongside looking somewhat sheepish. I can't help wondering if he may be trying to figure out a re-write of that lyric about "all those tourists covered with oil".
Governor, we understand that before you are called on to direct those skimmers that will try to intercept at least some of the crude that is headed your way you must first try to skim as many dollars as possible off anyone who might be willing to bring them across the state line, but do you have to be so damned transparent about it? Could you at least mention something about the environment and any concerns you may have?.
Immediately afterward we are treated to a commercial featuring BP chief executive Tony Hayward looking most sincere while the images behind him show clean sand, clean boats, clean booms, clean birds ... hell, even clean cleaners. Is it just me or does anyone agree that his message might be a little easier to believe if it was being delivered by somebody without so much recent negative television exposure and, pardon me while I momentarily abandon political correctness, a somewhat less British accent?
One day we see and hear the governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, pointing to a hapless pelican that cannot even attempt to flee from the rust colored tide of death that bathes the beaches of his state. We share his anger at the words of the embattled oil company CEO who had earlier told an interviewer that he "wants his life back." In the next breath he is bemoaning the administration's decision to temporarily suspend the issuance of new offshore drilling permits. He declares that we don't have to choose between protecting the environment and continuing to chase the almighty oil dollar. I don't know, Governor, under the circumstances we might have to think about it.
The next day we hear the President of the United States, fury flashing in his eyes, declaring that he does not want to find out that while the oil company is spending millions of dollars putting a public relations campaign on network television and in full page newspaper ads-and is showering its shareholders with billions of dollars in quarterly dividends-that they are simultaneously "nickel and diming" fishermen and others in the Gulf region who desperately need financial help to get through another day.
At the same time, reporters are pointing out that the flow figures the U.S. government has been publishing as the supposed total estimated range from the well may actually only be the low range estimates. Since the fines on BP are predicated in part of the size of the spill there are billions of dollars at stake. Has anyone stopped to take a headcount in the hen house today?
But something bigger is wrong with all of this. Something is missing. Why are we not seeing and hearing the President Obama and Governor Jindal together, fighting this catastrophe shoulder to shoulder? Whose handlers have decided it is not politically expedient to be seen as allies in this battle? Did they each decide that the other is too toxic to be in the same camera shot with? Or is it just politics as usual, both trying their best to appear leader-like but carefully positioning so as to avoid any oil linking them during the inevitable blame-fest to come?
Gentlemen, I have news for you. Increasingly we could not care less about the politics of the situation. For us, it is personal. We are not worried that you might get tar on your wingtips or oil stains on your suit pants. In fact, we wouldn't mind seeing the bunch of you roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty for once.
When you were running for office you made sure those voters you were courting saw the outcome of the election as something personal. You told us it was not about politics, rather it was about something more important. You made us trust you enough to let you take a turn at the controls.
Set the politics aside and show some leadership. It has never been more personal.