"Les Naturalistes, 2013" (detail), by Ysabel LeMay
By Anne Gisleson
One night in February, John Barry rode a mule-drawn float through the carnival crush of the Faubourg Marigny, an old Creole neighborhood in downtown New Orleans. Chosen to reign as King of the Krewe du Vieux parade, he flourished an oversized quill pen with an ostrich plume instead of a scepter and wore a velvet tunic emblazoned with a gold fleur-de-lis. His royal float was edged in fat black droplets of oil threatening forlorn snowy egrets, glitter-dusted wetlands flora, and too-blue water. Barry, the author of best-selling books on the great Mississippi flood of 1927 and the deadly flu epidemic of 1918, had become something of a local hero for spearheading a high-profile lawsuit aiming to make oil and gas companies restore coastal land damaged by their work.
Infamous for its lewd satire, the Krewe du Vieux’s theme this year was Where the Vile Things Are. The floats included “Dick Dynasty,” which featured effigies of local politicians, dildos, ducks, and lots of beards; “Welcome to Dizneylandrieu,” which referred to New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu’s perceived drive to sanitize and gentrify the city; and “The Guv @ Twerk,” which showcased a nearly naked ten-foot-tall animatronic Bobby Jindal bumping his lumpy papier-mâché ass against an oil rig. On the same float, a totally naked Jindal straddled a wrecking ball aimed at the state of Louisiana, likening the governor to “fellow exhibitionist” Miley Cyrus.
The crowds at the curb were several people deep, many of them yelling, “Hey, John Barry! Hey, John Barry!” In his mid-sixties, with gray receding hair and deep-set eyes, Barry has the tough conviction and agitated focus of a football coach, which he was for years before becoming a journalist, author, and activist. That night, in royal battle dress, he was promoting the lawsuit and the issue of coastal land loss, throwing gold plastic go-cups designed by artist Dawn DeDeaux, on which Barry was depicted as John of Arc, the Blade of Orleans in stern profile and stiff armor, oil rigs menacing the murky water behind him. Go-cups are a fixture of Mardi Gras, and Barry’s was possibly the wordiest one ever thrown at a parade. It was covered with about a page of text shrunk down to tiny font, starting with: “It took nature 6000 years to create the Louisiana coast, yet only 75 years for humans to destroy one-third of it. That damage has put New Orleans and the entire region on the verge of collapse.”
To parade-goers squinting to read their cups before pouring beer into them, this rhetoric might seem both hyperbolic and familiar; Louisiana has spent much of this century responding to crises and existential threats. Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill impacted the state deeply, and they also exposed our latest, and oldest, disaster—coastal land loss. This slow-motion phenomenon has recently coalesced to a crisis point in public awareness because of the blunt, empirical reality that some places along the coast are just gone, have become open water. In the last eighty years 1,900 square miles of southern Louisiana have disappeared into the Gulf of Mexico. A chunk of coast the size of a football field disappears every hour, and in forty years, we’re projected to lose another 700 square miles. While we’re losing whole communities and ecosystems, we’re also losing our first line of defense against hurricanes, the buffer zone that slows storms coming in from the Gulf of Mexico (as a local saying goes, “The levees protect the people and the land protects the levees”). The state has developed a fifty-billion-dollar Coastal Restoration Master Plan, but it’s largely unfunded.
Louisiana’s accelerated land loss is compounded by both man-made and natural factors. The Army Corps of Engineers’ management of the Mississippi River protects lives and property and keeps the river viable for the nation’s shipping, but this system of levees, upriver locks, and dams also traps sediment and nutrients, preventing the river from creating delta land as it’s done for thousands of years. Other factors include global sea-level rise, erosion from storms, over-development, and the impact of invasive species on the tenuous balance of the ecosystem—water hyacinths, huge yellow-teeth rodents called nutria, voracious wild hogs that chew through levees.
Then there’s Big Oil. The United States Geological Survey claims oil and gas companies, through the drilling and dredging of nearly ten thousand miles of canals and pipelines across south Louisiana, are responsible for roughly a third of the state’s wetlands degradation. Some put the number as high as 81 percent. Subsidence from drilling and extracting causes land to sink. Canals, dug razor-straight through the winding bayous and marshes, pull saltwater from the Gulf into freshwater ecosystems. Plants and trees die, swaths of root systems degrade, land disappears. There’s been very little compliance by the richest industry in the world to repair the damage.
Which is where John Barry and the lawsuit come in. Barry had served as vice president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, a cumbersomely named regional board in charge of levee protection in the New Orleans area, since its inception in 2006. The Authority was forged during the painful civic self-examination following Hurricane Katrina’s lethal federal levee failures. The Army Corps of Engineers admitted to building substandard flood protection for the region, but our own local patronage-plagued levee boards were also ineffectual in terms of oversight and maintenance. It was designed to be politically independent and stocked with experts—engineers, geologists, scientists who specialize in hurricane modeling and flood management.
Barry came up with the idea for the lawsuit out of frustration over the lack of funding for the Coastal Restoration Master Plan, the reluctance of the state to fully acknowledge the role of the energy sector in the land loss crisis, and the non-compliance of oil companies to “keep their word and fix what they broke.” The suit aims to make ninety-seven oil and gas and pipeline companies comply with the contracts and permits they themselves signed. This includes restoring the land damaged by their activities to its previous condition. In some cases, however, the land has already become open water and can’t ever be restored, leaving the levee system increasingly vulnerable to storm surges and more expensive to operate, so the suit also asks for money toward those amplified costs. In the summer of 2013, the flood authority’s board members—all uncompensated—voted unanimously to move forward with the lawsuit.
Governor Jindal’s reaction to the suit’s announcement was widely described in the press as “ballistic.” His administration claimed it was the irresponsible action of a rogue entity hijacked by greedy trial attorneys and led by a fame-seeking writer, threatening the economy and the implementation of the Coastal Restoration Master Plan. Jindal, who receives large campaign contributions from the oil industry (including the Koch brothers, who are also named defendants in the suit), demanded that it be withdrawn, and vowed legislative action if it were not. Then the governor made it clear that Barry would not be reappointed to the flood authority. The governor was true to his word. Jindal began stocking the board with his own anti-lawsuit appointees, some with no flood-control qualifications at all. By openly politicizing this group, Jindal appeared to be undoing one of the state’s most important post-Katrina reforms.
I’d been curious about Barry for years, ever since I read his award-winning Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, which occupies a couple hallowed inches on bookshelves across the region. He seemed to have broad reach that connected to unexpected places beyond the page. A distinguished scholar at the Center for Bioenvironmental Research at Tulane, he also coached the college’s football team in 1972. He helped develop strategies to curtail pandemics when he served on a federal infectious diseases board of experts; he was the only member who wasn’t a scientist. He’s worked with the White House, the United Nations, and the World Health Organization.
When the lawsuit was filed in July of 2013, I happened to be halfway through his most recent book, Roger Williams and the Creation of the AmericanSoul. It was an interesting convergence—reading about Roger Williams’s lonely, radical struggle for individual rights in the chilly existential wilderness of seventeenth-century New England, and also about the flood-control board taking on the most powerful industry in the state. Both stories, commandeered by John Barry, concerned the law, the land, and individuals confronting formidable authorities.
Growing up liberal in Louisiana, with forebears who owned plantations (and then lost a few of them to river crevasses, bad management, and divine justice), I’ve struggled all my life to parse out issues of history, politics, morality, and geography—what’s universal and what’s driven by our coordinates on the planet. Rising Tide is such a revered book down here because it assiduously connects those big themes, largely through the stories of individuals. Barry explores the dire consequences of our leaders looking after their own interests instead of those of the people.
From where the I-10 slices through downtown New Orleans, the former Tidewater high-rise on Canal Street looks as though it were topped with a two-story, prewar metal building—an architectural afterthought not integrated with the structure, a building on top of a building. The top two floors, accessible only via a tiny and unreliable elevator on the twenty-fourth floor, have been unoccupied for the last several years, except for Barry, whose office is on the twenty-sixth floor. He’s been trapped in the elevator and there’s no bathroom up there, “but for me it couldn’t be better,” he said when I visited shortly before Carnival. “The isolation is great. It’s my aerie.” Inside his spacious, well-furnished office—less writer’s garret than solo command center—visitors are greeted by a three-foot alligator plush toy on the floor, jaws open as if guarding the door, and a panoramic view of the Mississippi River.
It was early afternoon and Barry was hungry. He’d been in lawsuit meetings all morning and had just biked from a firm on Poydras Street. In a deserted break room he prepared microwaved soup and peanut butter on toast, interrogating me about my writing while the small appliances did their quiet, tidy work. The disarray of his office suggested momentum: running clothes were laid across a pile of boxes and coffee mugs seeded throughout the papers on his desk. The personal chaos was countered by the grandeur of Barry’s vista, which I couldn’t stop looking at. When I commented on it, he said, “I have a better view than some lawyers I know.”
The view perfectly frames the Mississippi River–spawned drama playing out between the built and the natural environments. From the right of the window, you can follow the curve of the wide, brown river past the tall skyline along Canal Street, which slopes down abruptly in the historic French Quarter. The river continues past the gantry cranes, draw bridges, and locks of the once-breached and deadly Industrial Canal; past the century-old Domino Sugar refinery; past the seething ExxonMobil/Chalmette refinery, down to where human enterprise becomes less and less distinct as the land stretches toward the blurred horizon of the Gulf of Mexico, which is advancing closer to the city every day.
After talking about the urgency of the land loss issue, the merits of the suit and the public support for it, I asked him about the criticism that he and the levee authority had operated in secret rather than holding public hearings or consulting other state levee boards or lawmakers. Barry said it was strategic; the influence of industry in the legislature is too strong. They had to be armored with facts when they announced the suit—this is the damage to the land; this is the permit language for each square inch of the canals; this is where the law has been broken. He said, “No one has challenged any of our substantive facts.”
Barry explained that his natural inclination “is what the military calls situational awareness,” a kind of street-level, field-level vigilance. This idea also shows up in his book Power Plays: Politics, Football, and Other Blood Sports, in which Barry wrote that as a coach he wondered “about force, dominion, might, sovereignty, rule, authority, and how those aspects or synonyms of authority affect the shape of society.” These are unmistakable concerns in all of his books, played out on the individual, social, and historical levels. I asked him if his advocating for the lawsuit was a continuation of decades of writing about dynamics of authority. “Not exactly,” he said. “But there is a place it comes from that is consistent. I get really, really annoyed with lying. It drives me nuts. Especially public policy lying.”
This indignation is clear whenever Barry speaks in public about the lawsuit, emphasizing that he’s not some kind of radical environmental activist, but rather a “law and order activist.” Hands on his hips, jacket pinned back absently, he’ll often begin, “This suit is grounded in basic American concepts: keep your word, obey the law, and take responsibility for your actions.”
This year, the end of Carnival season dovetailed into the start of Louisiana’s legislative session, which ran from March to June. A buckshot spray of bills—nearly a dozen—were filed to attempt to kill Barry’s lawsuit, which the industry and its backers called “frivolous.” Nonetheless, they were anxious to get it out of the courts. A federal judge and the state attorney general had already ruled that the flood authority had legal standing to file the suit, so they had to retroactively change the rules.
Though vastly outgunned by the oil lobby, the suit entered the session strong, Barry believed, with widespread support from good government and environmental groups, editorial boards, polls of residents, and three former governors, both Democrats and Republicans—all of whom called on the legislature to leave the lawsuit be and let the courts decide the outcome. The longtime head of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association publicly threatened that the oil industry would leave Louisiana because of the lawsuit. But then under oath, he was discredited: turns out he couldn’t name one company that was considering moving its business elsewhere. By the time I visited him, Barry had been working on the suit full-time for well over a year; his schedule was now crowded with meetings with legislators, reporters, and civic groups across the state. He’d given up the solitary, scholarly life he loves, but it seemed that the lawsuit returned him to the intensity of his former coaching life.
The Louisiana State Capitol is an anomalous Art Deco skyscraper surrounded by formal gardens on the edge of downtown Baton Rouge: it’s the tallest state capitol building in the country. Built in an architectural style that evokes WPA populism on this side of the Atlantic and fascism on the other, the capitol is hemmed with carved reliefs depicting scenes from the state’s history—man is brawny and boxy, wildlife stern and ornamental. There is no soaring aspirational dome, no white marble or Hellenic columns. Governor Huey P. Long railroaded the capitol’s design, financing, and construction, which was completed in 1932. The governor meant for the twenty-three-foot-tall beacon on top to symbolize the aspirations for the state’s future—a new era in Louisiana, the end of the long-time domination of its social and economic elite. More than thirty types of marble line the interior of the building, which is so refined in detail that even the chrome door plates in the women’s room feature impressive miniature pelicans. Massive brass light fixtures brood rather than illuminate inside the lobby, maintaining a burnished twilight. Long was assassinated in a nearby corridor, and the place feels more mausoleum than monument to Louisiana’s most famous politician, who governed over a time of great hope and great corruption. On a middle-school class fieldtrip we were shown gouges in the dark marble wall where the bullets supposedly hit. Later I heard they were most likely the work of some clumsy furniture movers.
On one of the final days of voting this legislative session, I caught a glimpse of Barry working the lobby just off chambers of the State House of Representatives. His high profile had made him more of a liability than an asset; if he was seen talking to a legislator, an oil industry lobbyist would appear soon after him. But today the house was scheduled to vote on the only anti-lawsuit bill that had made it to the floor: SB 469, the final legislative attempt to kill the suit. SB 469 would prohibit certain local government entities in the coastal zone from suing for oil-related damages. Orchestrated by a couple of oilmen-legislators, the bill had come together so quickly that there had been almost no opportunity for public input or debate.
While waiting in the balcony for the vote, I admired a carved wooden frieze of the wetlands that wraps around the walls, a replicating pattern of egrets, herons, irises, and palmettos—dense, abundant, and unbroken. In the 1930s, when the frieze was etched, the land must have seemed that way. But then my gaze was pulled down to the screen of a tablet belonging to a man in a suit, who was scrolling through aerial images of wetlands, the kind that had been accompanying stories about the lawsuit: feeble stretches of land lacerated by the straight lines of canals, “skeleton trees” or dead cypresses craggy and accusatory in the spreading water.
When SB 469 finally came up for vote, Representative Joel C. Robideaux, who took the lead in arguing for the bill in House Chambers, didn’t seem to know that a federal judge had already given the suit legal standing. He “didn’t recall” why the legislature had voted for the levee authority reform in the first place, and he couldn’t say whether he had voted in favor of that reform. A couple times, pro-lawsuit advocates, a bipartisan contingent, gave their fellow reps some fourth-grade civics lessons on the separation of powers. Lawsuit opponents said they wanted to protect the industry against a rogue entity, complaining that the suit was hatched in secrecy. Toward the end of the debate, which Barry would later call “desultory,” one rep, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate who believed the bill immunized oil and gas against damages, asked, “Who runs this place?”
Going into the session, Barry really believed his side would win. If all of the coastal lawmakers had voted against SB 469, which polls showed a majority of their constituents favored, it would not have passed. But promised votes changed overnight, and the oil lobby was formidable. In chambers, as the green overtook the red on the board keeping track of who was voting for the bill, I thought about Barry watching on the edge of the house floor. He’d suffered the tyranny of the digital scoreboard plenty in his life, but never with stakes this high. The final vote count was 59 to 39. Afterward, I tried to catch up to Barry, but he was already gone.
About a week later, back in his aerie, Barry waved me in as he finished up a conference call about SB 469. The overhead lights were off and the HVAC system struggled against the June heat. Though the bill had passed, the fight wasn’t over. Jindal had surprised everyone by not signing the bill. A local environmental law scholar had circulated a paper claiming that its ambiguous language could jeopardize not only pending and future suits against oil and gas companies, but also billions of dollars in BP claims that the state had in progress. Out of an “abundance of caution,” Jindal sent the bill to Attorney General Buddy Caldwell to vet its language.
Caldwell, a Republican, advised Jindal to veto the bill. Roughly eighty legal scholars from across the country agreed. So did various other governing bodies most affected, like the New Orleans City Council and Jefferson Parish. Just that morning, I’d woken up to an editorial from the state’s largest paper decrying the bill’s vague language and the last-minute maneuvering to get it to the floor. SB 469 had become a rallying cry, and the lawsuit had taken on a new public life.
Barry was wearing a faded blue Vermont t-shirt with a moose on it, and he looked tired, though he said he wasn’t. The alligator on the floor was half-submerged in papers, envelopes, and other fallout from the campaign. When his call ended, he joined me at a table that was also buried in papers and ephemera: a balsa wood glider, some miniature jars of restaurant jam, a stack of those gold Krewe du Vieux go-cups. Barry was still hopeful. Jindal had blinked. Then again, he said, the most hopeful are also the most desperate. A window of a few weeks was still open for Jindal to change his mind and veto. Barry spooled out some possible scenarios: Jindal could sign; he could veto and then call a special session to revamp a more palatable bill. A couple of the flood authority’s board members’ term lengths were under dispute and might expire soon, so the governor could tilt the group against the suit.
But openings remained: there were plenty of constitutional grounds to contest the bill, which was so hastily assembled and sloppily written that the language might not even apply to the flood authority. The attorney general could even take over the suit and be shielded from political interference altogether. Barry contemplated the overall gains of the campaign: there was renewed support for the flood authority reform; every newspaper in the state took a favorable editorial position; every poll showed public support for the suit. The debate over causation in coastal land loss had moved forward considerably. Two other parishes had filed similar suits. Most importantly, there was a huge amount of documentation, evidence, and legal argument compiled against the industry, waiting to be deployed. “As long as the lawsuit is alive,” Barry said, “leverage exists.”
I asked how it felt to put all of that into motion.
“It sort of felt like you had this great edifice, the oil industry, and we started driving a wedge into it and it seemed so solid, like a rock, and we kept driving the wedge, but then I thought a few more blows and this whole thing’s gonna shatter,” Barry said. He was looking past me with an unselfconscious look of concentration, as though staring at a patch of ceiling over his bed in the middle of the night, contemplating the features of this industrial monolith. “And then, I had the feeling that all this weight at the top of the edifice was squeezing down, would pop that wedge right out and the force would continue unaffected and seal that gap we started to open up. But now there are options. Now I think the edifice has more anxiety than I have.”
Then the phone rang, and Barry stood up to take a call from a reporter. He walked over to his desk, his back to me.
“Oh, he signed it,” he said, voice flat and steady. “Okay. Well, I think Jindal has jeopardized the state.” The office’s stagnant air felt momentarily charged. “We’ll see him in court.”
After hanging up, he remained standing, facing his marvelous view with a tight smile. I knew he wouldn’t be sitting back down at the table. “I guess you heard that.” Surprised that the news hit so abruptly and slightly embarrassed to be present when he got it, I had to ask Barry the obvious mic-in-your-face post-game question: “So, how are you feeling?”
“Well, I’m in thinking mode, not emotional mode.” SB 469 had just become the highly flawed and legally contestable Act 544. It wouldn’t kill the flood authority’s suit outright, but defendants could use it down the road to have the suit dismissed in court. “You can write that I didn’t get mad and throw things around the office,” Barry said. But my notebook and questions were far outside his sphere of attention, which seemed to be expanding and taking up more space in the stuffy room, filling with new angles, risks, openings, and contacts, his thoughts forking toward the next move.
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