First Person Blog

Voices, video, and photos from Oxfam's fight against poverty

Hurricane Isaac exposes how fragile our Gulf Coast has become

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Telley Madina is a Coastal Communities Officer as part of Oxfam America’s US program. This is the first of two blogs.

Before Isaac hit shore and lumbered through Louisiana and Mississippi,  I relocated my family from New Orleans to the Baton Rouge area. As I struggled to make my way back to New Orleans, searching for roads that weren’t blocked by downed trees or water, I was stunned to see the extent of flooding—in  areas that had never seen it before.

While Isaac clocked in as a relatively mild Category 1 storm, with nowhere near the destructive power of Katrina, the swelling water sent shock waves through our communities. As all of us are scrambling to restore order, we’re also reaching out to our friends and family who are vulnerable and hurting; and wondering what we need to do to prevent the next big storm from washing away more of our homes, businesses, and the culture we love.

Men getting around in water right next to the road in St. John Parish, which has never seen flooding before. Photo by: Telley Madina / Oxfam America.

Isaac hit especially hard in poorer coastal parishes, where the federal government had not invested in flood protection the way it had in New Orleans. Our partners are still reaching out to their communities, with direct aid and with plans for a long road to recovery. Plaquemines Parish, where our good friend Rev. Edwards runs the Zion Travelers Cooperative Center, was deluged after the water topped the levees. Many of the roads are still closed, and the power is still out in many spots; we’ve managed to contact some folks who report the damage is so extensive, and so close on the heels of Katrina’s devastation, that they may not struggle to rebuild again.

Social vulnerability to natural disasters is a reality that seems to get only more vivid and painful as the climate and the ecosystem shift. This time around, all of us are feeling especially exposed and vulnerable. We expect hurricanes to bring water and wind – but this much water is new to us.

As people note regularly, the Louisiana wetlands are disappearing faster than we can count; a football-sized area every hour or so. While that’s hard to comprehend, it’s easy to see in a moment like this. If the marshland is gone, the water is going to come on inland, faster and more furious than ever before.

The only chance we have to protect our cities, our people, and our environment along the coast – and the huge economic engine they fuel – is to invest in projects that rebuild and restore the coast: the marshlands, barrier islands, oyster reefs. Levees can only do so much in the face of this new dangerous degree of exposure.

The recently passed RESTORE Act offers some promise to the coast, as it will direct $5 to $20 billion from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill fines to hopefully serve as a down payment on coastal restoration in Louisiana and make possible similar investments across the other Gulf states. Oxfam has been working to make sure that money is invested in projects that benefit the environment, the economy, and the people who live here.

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