After one quick visit on May 2 — slightly less than two weeks after the Deepwater Horizon explosion — President Barack Obama returned to coastal Louisiana last Friday, May 28, to survey the worst environmental calamity in U.S. history. His visit came right after BP's initial "top kill" attempt failed to stop the flow of oil in the midst of the ongoing disaster, which was then in its 38th day. Even if subsequent top kill efforts succeed — and everyone in south Louisiana has been praying that they would — the oil that has already gushed forth from the Gulf floor is wreaking unprecedented damage on America's wetlands. If early efforts to cap the well fail, it may well take until August to stop the flow via a relief well that is still being drilled. Whenever the oil flow stops, Louisiana faces a heretofore unequaled environmental disaster.
The reaction across America to the mounting crisis has been one of shock and disbelief, but here in Louisiana there's a large dose of anger to go with it. Our anger should be America's anger, because what happens to our coast happens to all of America — environmentally, economically and culturally.
As a sign that America "gets it," the president's visit was welcome, if a bit overdue. A CNN poll last week showed that a slim majority of Americans disapproved of the Obama administration's handling of the crisis. A poll of Louisiana voters no doubt would have given the president even lower marks. The president himself admitted on the eve of his visit last week that "it took too long for us" to accurately gauge the extent of the oil leak, and he accepted full responsibility for the efforts going forward. The really bad news for the president is that there's little his administration can do to cap the gusher in the Gulf. Unfortunately, the people who caused this disaster are also the folks with the technology needed to stop the flow and clean up the mess. For his part, the president should focus on four long-term responses:
• Hold BP and its officials accountable for every penny of immediate and long-term damage to our coast, to our wetlands, to our economy, and to our culture. This starts with an honest and thorough investigation into the disaster's causes, BP's response, and the full extent of the environmental damage. The repercussions must include the possibility of criminal as well as civil penalties. Never forget that 11 men died in the explosion. Their families deserve to know how and why they died — and who, if anyone, was responsible.
• Make sure BP does not cut corners or gloss over the cleanup. Thick muck is washing up on beaches and creeping into fragile marshes, wreaking damage that will take years — possibly decades — to repair. State Sen. Norby Chabert, D-Chauvin, whose district includes southern Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes, took to the Senate floor last week and called the disaster an "environmental Armageddon." It was not hyperbole. The damage from the oil flow exceeds that of the Exxon Valdez many times over. A Band-Aid approach to the cleanup, with feel-good photo ops and "green" TV ads, will not do. BP and the feds must be in this for the long haul.
• Once the exact causes of the blowout are determined, don't overreact. America needs every drop of domestic oil, obtained safely and responsibly. It's entirely possible that adequate safeguards and protocols were already in place, but BP just didn't follow them. If additional regulations are needed, Congress and the president should not hesitate to impose them — and Big Oil must recognize safety comes first.
• Finally, don't squander the opportunity presented by this disaster. Just as Hurricane Katrina gave south Louisiana enormous challenges as well as opportunities, the president should recognize this catastrophe also presents the feds with the chance, finally, to rebuild Louisiana's coastal wetlands. This will require a significant and sustained infusion of cash, but the cost of not doing it is far greater. Fortunately, the state already has a long-term plan for wetland restoration. All that's needed is the federal will to make it happen.
Frankly, after all the letdowns attendant to this ongoing disaster, America owes us nothing less.