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David vs. Goliath: John Barry, New Orleanian of the Year 2013 

In his attempt to secure funding for coastal restoration and hurricane protection, John Barry refused to back down in his fight against Big Oil and Gov. Bobby Jindal

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From his 26th-floor office atop the Tidewater Building, John Barry can look out his window and see the fragile wetlands of eastern New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish — as well as the northernmost reaches of the Gulf of Mexico, which has crept dangerously close to the edges of the city in recent years. From another window across the hall, he can see Lake Pontchartrain and the fragile network of levees and floodwalls that keep the lake from inundating metro New Orleans during storms.

  In every respect, he sees the big picture of wetland loss and flood protection across southeast Louisiana.

  Since publication of his acclaimed 1997 book, Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, Barry has been recognized as one of the nation's leading experts in flood control policy. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Barry also became one of the most passionate advocates for protecting New Orleans against future floods — and for holding those responsible for past and possible future flooding accountable.

  Barry's advocacy for enhanced flood protection earned him a seat on the board of the newly created Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East (SLFPA-E), the "nonpolitical" successor to the Orleans Levee Board. During most of his tenure on the SLFPA-E board, Barry was the darling of "reformers" who pushed for levee board consolidation after Katrina.

  All that changed last July. That's when Barry convinced his fellow board members to sue 97 oil, gas and pipeline companies that had carved up south Louisiana's wetlands over the past 80 years, and many of his one-time patrons abandoned him.

  All agree that the regional flood authority's landmark lawsuit against Big Oil is breathtaking in scope and scale — and, if successful, will mark the first time the energy industry has been made to pay for massive environmental damage (and heightened flood risks) in south Louisiana. But not all agree the lawsuit should go forward. The backlash was immediate and intense.

  Gov. Bobby Jindal has waged all-out war against the suit and against Barry personally. The governor will have to wait until March to try to convince state lawmakers to kill the suit, but he wasted no time removing Barry from the SLFPA-E board. Measured yet undaunted in the face of Jindal's wrath, Barry formed Restore Louisiana Now, a nonprofit advocacy group that is raising funds and awareness to keep the lawsuit alive — in order to provide funding for the 50-year, $50 billion (some say $100 billion) Master Plan to restore Louisiana's vanishing coast. If Big Oil doesn't pay its share, Barry says, taxpayers will have to pay it — or the coast will disappear forever.

  Now off the flood board and no longer bound by political constraints, Barry minces no words in his defense of the suit — or in responding to Jindal's efforts to kill it legislatively.

  "Think for a second about the idea of legislatively killing a lawsuit that's already been filed," Barry says. "That means you're saying that the industry is above the law. That you can take someone to court, and because of their political power, they're going to go in and rewrite the law after you've taken them to court? That offends me, and it should offend every person in America. I don't care what you think about the lawsuit, whether you support it or oppose it, that's offensive.

click to enlarge John Barry (left) worked with attorney Glad Jones to file the lawsuit against Big Oil.
  • John Barry (left) worked with attorney Glad Jones to file the lawsuit against Big Oil.

  "Even if you hate the lawsuit, the idea that someone can go in and change the law after you've already caught them doing something wrong and you bring them to court, they just rewrite the law? Are you kidding me? This is not right."

  When state lawmakers convene March 10 for the annual legislative session, Jindal will bring the might of his office — and lead an army of energy industry lobbyists — to kill the lawsuit. Barry and Restore Louisiana Now will be outgunned and outspent. It will be a true David vs. Goliath confrontation. In this case, David has more than a slingshot; he has the truth.

  "Everybody knows the industry is liable," Barry says, noting that Jindal's coastal advisor Garret Graves has repeatedly acknowledged industry's responsibility. "A 2002 U.S. Geological Survey study — which included industry scientists — concluded that 36 percent of the coastal land loss statewide was due to industry activity. ... It's hard for them to walk away from that. The USGS is the gold standard."

  In addition, public support for the lawsuit is building. An independent annual survey by Baton Rouge-based Southern Media and Opinion Research (SMOR) found that a majority of voters in every corner of the state opposed efforts to kill the suit legislatively.

  Restore Louisiana Now commissioned its own poll in the 22 parishes closest to the coast — including East Baton Rouge Parish and the Florida parishes. "It was overwhelming in support of the lawsuit," Barry says. "By a margin of 74 percent to 21 percent, voters do not want the Legislature to interfere with the suit. In metro New Orleans, it was 86 percent to 12 percent against interfering. The message has gotten out."

  As he stares down the most powerful industry lobby in the history of Louisiana, Barry draws admirers from many quarters. He recently was tapped to be 2014 king of the satirical Krewe du Vieux Carnival parade. On a serious note, one of his former SLFPA-E colleagues, Stephen Estopinal, who still sits on the flood authority, praises Barry for leading the charge in support of the suit.

  "We took the course we did because we had no other plausible means of meeting our responsibilities," Estopinal says. "John is not an engineer. So what? I am, and I tell you now: John, because of his research and involvement, has as clear an understanding of the future threat as any Ph.D. in storm surge hydrology. You don't have to be an artist to recognize beautiful art, and you don't have to be an engineer to see we are in deep trouble."

  Gladstone Jones, the lead attorney in the SLFPA-E lawsuit, praises Barry as "a tenacious leader [who] was essentially fired by Governor Jindal for trying to do the right thing."

  "While many would have been bitter, John never wavered, never said a bad word about the governor," Jones says. "He stayed focused on the objective: fixing the coast to provide better flood protection. John is that rare person who does the right thing for the right reasons, and he is always prepared to take the political and personal risks that come with being a courageous leader."

  Barry says the real credit goes to Estopinal and others on the SLFPA-E board who continue to support the lawsuit despite Jindal's constant political pressure. "Courage involves risk," Barry says. "What am I risking? Nothing. Other members of the board are willing to risk their jobs in support of the suit. They have courage."

  He then adds with a laugh: "What's going to happen to me — Garret Graves and Bobby Jindal don't buy my next book?"

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