By Tom Aswell
He glances down at the cellphone lying on the tabletop in the State Capitol restaurant and says almost apologetically, “I never had one of these until two years ago.” He laughs at his own reluctance to accept modern technology. “When I got it, somebody sent me a message welcoming me to the 20th century. Not the 21st, but the 20th.”
That is the first impression one gets of John M. Barry, the soft-spoken point man in the ongoing lawsuit by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East (SELFPAE) against 97 oil and gas companies over the destruction of the state’s coastal wetlands.
He speaks in a voice so low that we were forced to move to another table, away from the television that had been directly above us and which kept churning out obnoxious lawyer ads, an irony not lost on the restaurant’s only two customers.
Barry, a gifted researcher and writer is author of several bestselling books, among them 2005’s The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, which was named the year’s outstanding book on science or medicine, and his stark 1998 chronicle Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America. Rising Tide won the Francis Parkman Prize of the Society of American Historians for the year’s best book of American history. It was also named as one of nine pieces of literature essential to understanding America by GQ.
He owns a home in Washington, D.C., and when asked if he is originally from that area, he confides that he was born in Rhode Island but also owns a home in New Orleans. Then he dropped a small biographical bombshell: one of his first jobs was as an assistant football coach at Tulane University.
“I was on the coaching staff of the 1973 team that beat LSU (14-0) for the first time in 25 years,” he said with a trace of understandable pride. The first money he ever earned from writing, in fact, was from a story he sold to a coaching magazine about ways to change blocking assignments at the line of scrimmage. Sports Illustrated in 2006 chose one of his stories about football for an anthology of the best football writing of all time.
Four decades removed from that historic game, Barry is on another history-making quest: that of convincing an oil-friendly state legislature to help make big oil repair the damage done to Louisiana’s fast-eroding coastline and marshlands.
Lest one think he was originally chosen to serve on SELFPAE because of his celebrity status, it should be known that following Hurricane Katrina, the Louisiana congressional delegation asked him to chair a bipartisan working group on flood protection and he sits on advisory boards at MIT’s Center for Engineering Systems Fundamentals as well as the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and on the board of the Society of American Historians and American Heritage Rivers. He has been a keynote speaker at a White House Conference on the Mississippi Delta and is co-founder of the $100 million Riversphere in New Orleans, the first facility in the world dedicated to comprehensive river research.
“I don’t get paid for what I’m doing now,” he said. “I spend most of my time on the road talking to newspaper editors and legislators, making my case for the lawsuit. I’m living off my savings. I still get royalties from the books, but it isn’t enough to live on.”
He chuckles at a suggested comparison to Don Quixote and then continues. “I’m meeting with every individual legislator who will listen.” He is attempting to convince lawmakers not to intervene and terminate the litigation.
Those meetings pit him against Gov. Bobby Jindal and Jindal’s hand-picked front man Garret Graves—at least until Feb. 17 when Graves will step down as chairman of the Coastal Restoration Authority, to be succeeded by Jerome Zeringue, former Terrebonne Parish levee authority director. There is some speculation that Graves will seek the 6th District congressional seat being vacated by Rep. William Cassidy, who is running against incumbent Mary Landrieu for the U.S. Senate.
Despite Jindal’s opposition to the lawsuit and his decision not to reappoint him to the authority, Barry refuses to disparage the governor. “I’ve known him since before he ever ran for office. I don’t agree with him on the issue of the litigation but on balance, he’s been a good governor,” he said. “He could be a great governor if he would get the oil companies to take responsibility for the damage they’ve done to our coastline. The lawsuit isn’t the problem. The problem is the loss of our coast land.
“It’s not my suit anymore,” he is quick to add, pointing out that he no longer serves on the Authority. But that is not to say he doesn’t have a keen interest in the litigation. Because of his ongoing interest, he has formed an organization called Restore Louisiana to fight attempts by the oil industry to either get the lawsuit declared groundless, illegal or unconstitutional or to resist any movement by the Legislature to intervene to stop the lawsuit.
Barry said a 2006 study by the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) revealed that 76 percent of the land loss was caused by the oil industry. “The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said Louisiana has the lowest enforcement rate in the nation,” he said, adding that DNR has looked the other way too many times when big oil’s interests conflicted with that of Louisiana’s citizens.
Barry said the difference between his fight and that of fictional character Don Quixote is that “everyone knows we are right. Our polls show that 70 percent of the people feel that the oil companies are the problem because they have not lived up to their promises to clean up their messes,” he said. “Garrett (Graves) said the authority’s job is to protect the levees. He said he has $18 billion for coastal restoration, but $14 billion of that has been spent on the levees so there is no $18 billion going forward.
“Gambit magazine of New Orleans said I had a lot of courage, but what I’m doing doesn’t require courage,” he said. “What can they do to me?” At the same time, however, he acknowledged that there has been considerable political pressure on authority members who support the litigation. “Steve Estopinal, an engineer, has had his job threatened and Paul Camp had to change jobs.
“I’m on the road a lot and that’s not been easy. I don’t like being away from my family, but my motivation is simple: I want the Louisiana coast to survive. That’s why I’m on the road 10 hours per day.”
Tom Aswell, publisher of LouisianaVoice, earlier this week sat down with author John Barry, former vice president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority, to discuss the authority’s litigation against 97 oil and gas companies. Because of the importance of the pending litigation and the opposition of the Jindal administration to efforts to hold the oil companies responsible for the damage done to the Louisiana coastline, this story is being posted simultaneously by CenLamar, Something Like the Truth, LouisianaVoice and Forward-Now.