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Pain, Fairness, and Responsibility: New Orleans

Pain, Fairness, and Responsibility: New Orleans

This week brings both the 41st annual Earth Day (read Rabbi Saperstein's statement here), and the one-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and BP oil disaster. Please join us in remembering the lives lost, recognizing the on-going environmental injustices across the Gulf Coast and around the world, and taking action for a restored Gulf and a greener future.

rj_greening_final logo.jpgThe following sermon was delivered on April 8, 2011 following the recent CCAR Convention in New Orleans.

Pain, Fairness, and Responsibility: New Orleans
Shabbat Metzora, 5771
Rabbi Marc A. Gruber, Central Synagogue of Nassau County

Previously dubious Speaker Dennis Hastert stated, "I saw things here I never expected to see in my lifetime, in my country. You have to be here firsthand on the ground to grasp the extent of the damage." I echo Representative Hastert exclamation. My attendance at the convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis last week, led me to learn more about Louisiana, and particularly the New Orleans area, and not just regarding environmental concerns, but also issues of economic justice.

This description is adapted from an interesting study I read this week called The Post-Katrina, Semiseparate World of Gender Politics by Pamela Tyler, published in the Journal of American History {94 (Dec. 2007), 780-88}.

Following the devastation of the Gulf South following hurricanes Katrina and Rita, a prominent group of women in New Orleans created a non-partisan advocacy organization called Women of the Storm.

When these women approached Congress for Federal assistance in early 2006, only 5 percent of the House and 12 percent of the Senate had seen the wreckage, 498 lawmakers had no plans to do so. The persistence of the Women of the Storm helped turn the tide and thaw the apathy. Through spring and summer of 2006, members of Congress flowed into New Orleans.
As of August 2007, fifty-seven senators and 122 representatives had accepted the women's invitation to travel to New Orleans, totaling 57 percent of the Senate and 28 percent of the House, up from 12 and 5 percent, respectively. Particularly gratifying to the Women of the Storm was the response of the previously dubious Speaker Hastert, who stated, "I saw things here I never expected to see in my lifetime, in my country. You have to be here firsthand on the ground to grasp the extent of the damage." Similarly, an initially crusty and skeptical Senator John McCain, after his tour in March 2006, stated emphatically to the press, "You can't appreciate the enormity of it until you come down here. We have an enormous long-term environmental challenge here. . . I am for doing what is necessary." Hastert's and McCain's conversions were representative of the reaction of most visiting lawmakers.

My reactions five years after Katrina were much the same. I was shocked at what I saw and the descriptions of problems residents were facing securing help. At times, I thought that I was visiting a third world nation, not a part of our United States of America.

This year the theme of our convention was the Prophetic Voice in the 21st Century. I enjoyed this convention and, for the most part, found sessions interesting and stimulating. I even attended an eminently practical session entitled: If You Knew Jeremiah Like I Knew Jeremiah taught by Professor Jason Kalman from faculty of the Cincinnati campus of HUC-JIR. Yet one session has left me with mixed feelings of helplessness and hope, and disparate sentiments of depression and motivation. Renee and I participated in a full day workshop about Environmental Justice in the greater New Orleans area. This trip was organized and led by the CCAR's Justice and Peace Committee and the Religious Action Center. The workshop was an offsite tour with Patty Whitney, the Executive Director of the Bayou History Center, who also works with Bayou Interfaith Shared Community Organizing (BISCO) in coastal communities, and Mike Murphy, the Community Outreach Director for the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic.

We experienced first-hand environmental threats and opportunities in the Mississippi River Delta. We started our day with a trip up the industrial corridor and met with representatives of the Norco community. These people successfully organized and fought to have the nearby energy plant pay them for their homes so they could move their families to a safe place. Next we proceeded to an environmental justice site called Bonnet Carret Spillway to see for ourselves what the situation is along Lake Pontchartrain. We toured the area inhabited by the fisher-folk community of Mary Queen of Viet Nam to understand how Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon spill have affected their families. We ended the day learning about the environment's impact on the food and hospitality industry from renowned chef Susan Spicer of Bayona at her Lakeview restaurant, Mondo. The trip featured various organizations around New Orleans that are working to bring justice to many persons and communities who have been injured by long term and the recent environmental calamities.

Our first stop was the community of Norco, twenty-five miles west of New Orleans. Formerly a plantation, many of its inhabitants, descendants of slaves, have resided there for generations, too poor and uneducated to be able to move in search of better opportunity. A petroleum refining plant was built literally across the street from their homes; these neighborhoods are called fence-line communities as they are separated from the refineries by a chain-link fence. The residents began to experience a rise in health related disorders such as skin conditions and cancer. The locals call the area Cancer Alley. After decades of unsuccessful appeals for help, the local neighborhood association received help from the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. This is a grassroots non-profit organization that works with fence-line communities to hold industry accountable for its pollution and to work on moving these communities to areas with healthier air, cleaner water and a better living situation for their families and children. The name Bucket Brigade is derived from their use of the EPA-approved bucket to sample the air to document the pollution in their neighborhoods.

Next Colleen Morgan, Director of Bayou Rebirth, taught us about the issue of wetlands depletion at the Bonnet Carret Spillway and a nearby nature preserve. The loss of wetlands significantly contributes to flooding. When the wetland ecosystem is destroyed the earth cannot absorb water; the result is flooding.  The natural system in the coastal regions is disturbed by human habitation and impairs the earth's resilience. We partner with the forces of nature to create a catastrophe. This seems to be a constant element of our collective arrogance.  Colleen founded Bayou Rebirth in 2007 partly in response to the environmental and community needs present in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Bayou Rebirth envisions a revitalized and restored city through local and visiting citizens' connection to the ecology of the coastal wetlands. These coastal wetlands not only protect the city from storm surges during hurricanes, they also support an intricate and unique biodiversity.

Our day continued with a tour of East New Orleans. I could not believe the volume of destruction. For mile after mile homes lay devastated; they had been flooded to their roofs and were still uninhabitable. A large Vietnamese community lives in this area. These people originally fled North Viet Nam when the communists came to power six decades ago. In 1975 when Saigon fell, they fled Viet Nam, ultimately settling in New Orleans. The climate was familiar and they could continue living as fisher-folk and subsistence farmers. We toured the community with Daniel Nguyen of the Mary Queen of Viet Nam Community Development Corporation which provides resources to community members and advocates on their behalf. In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Mary Queen of Viet Nam Community Development Corporation assisted with emergency relief and organized Vietnamese-American residents to play an active role in the rebuilding of the community surrounding New Orleans East area. Together with community partners, their work encompasses health care, environmental and agricultural concerns, education, housing, social services, economic development and culture and the arts.

We learned about how the unsealed waste dumping in their area has polluted the canals alongside their homes. This water is used to irrigate their backyard farms and consequently the pollutants enter the vegetable food chain. This is coupled with the pollution from the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe which has crippled the fishing industry which is the main livelihood of this community, and many others. The food they raise and catch is now tainted and the negative health consequences will multiply if these issues are not addresses quickly.

We concluded our workshop more pleasantly. We visited Chef Susan Spicer at her Mondo Restaurant where we learned about the mixed impact of the hurricanes and Deepwater on the food and restaurant industry. We also took time to sample her fare and process our day.

I learned much that day. Two facts stick in my mind. First, every forty five minutes to an hour a football field sized
area of wetlands is lost along the Louisiana coast. Second, the people of Louisiana have been denied royalties from offshore drilling since the Governor Earl Long, who was institutionalized for mental illness while serving as governor, told President Truman that he would accept all the royalties or none. The consequence of his ultimatum is that, until 2007, Louisiana received nothing instead of the 37.5% offered by Truman. In 2007 Congress enacted legislation and President Bush signed it into law giving the Gulf States 37.5% of the royalties from offshore drilling in Gulf waters to share. This formula will go into full effect in 2017.

Melinda Deslatte reported for The Associated Press, December 20, 2006:
After years of lobbying to receive a greater share of Gulf of Mexico oil and gas drilling royalties, Louisiana officials now are looking at how they want to handle the new stream of cash, about $13 billion expected over the first 30 years.

The money is earmarked for storm protection, flood control and coastal restoration, but state officials must choose the projects and determine how best to spend the dollars. . . .

Although the arrogance and stupidity of Earl Long and his advisors brought on the injustice, the inequity disturbs me. The people of this region bear the burdens of the oil and natural gas extraction and processing and the country as a whole reaps the benefits.

The day left me feeling helpless. I am well educated and well read. I keep abreast of current affairs. I had no understanding of the environmental injustices plaguing this region. The issues are much deeper and more complex than time allows me this evening. My quandary is I see these injustices, among many, some closer to home, and I am overwhelmed by the magnitude of the remedy and my ability to help. What can we do to help the people of Louisiana? What does it mean to be prepared for disasters, perhaps even here on Long Island? How do we prevent and remedy environmental injustice?

This evening I have begun to educate you by sharing my experience and my anxiety. I pray that awareness will lead to education and education to imagination and action.

As you have heard me say, totalism prevents us from any action. So we must always heed the words of Rabbi Tarfon who taught that we are not responsible for completing the task, but we are not free from engaging it.

I am heartened by the local people in Louisiana who are working to remedy injustice for themselves and for others who cannot do so for themselves. They are listening and acting. They are speaking truth to power.

The RAC can help us find a way to join our efforts with others to make a difference for good in our world.

I am grateful to Rachel Cohen of the RAC and my colleagues Seth Limmer and Joel Mosbacher for the opportunity to learn first hand, for the opportunity to be disturbed.

Rabbi Marc A. Gruber has served Central Synagogue of Nassau County since 2002. Rabbi Gruber is on the
Steering Committee of the Reform Jewish Voice of New York State and serves as co-chair of the CCAR Committee on Disability Awareness and Inclusion.

Spotlight on Greening Reform Judaism: During the month of April, the URJ is highlighting resources that help our congregations in their greening and tikkun olam efforts. Learn more about Greening Reform Judaism.

Published: 4/22/2011

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