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Where's the aid for the oft-ravaged Gulf Coast?

Women of the Storm on Capitol Hill to call for Katrina relief in 2006.
Women of the Storm on Capitol Hill to call for Katrina relief in 2006. (Susan Walsh/associated Press)
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By Kathleen Parker
Wednesday, July 28, 2010

When people think of New Orleans, most think of jazz, hurricane cocktails, Katrina -- and now the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

But there's another stormy concoction barreling toward the nation's capital -- in the nicest possible way. They call themselves "Women of the Storm," and they want new money to go with old promises to restore the Gulf Coast.

Meet Anne Milling, who formed the organization with a diverse group of women after Hurricane Katrina to educate policymakers and communicate the needs of their communities. A lifelong volunteer, Milling speaks with the distinctive New Orleans accent as she describes her group and its mission. Think of them as happy warriors -- nonpartisan and nonpolitical -- who have learned that you can get more with honey than with vinegar.

This isn't to say that they're demure. After Katrina, Milling and 130 others twice hopped a chartered plane to Washington, raised blue-tarp umbrellas and visited congressional offices, urging elected representatives to visit their hurricane-ravaged region and help the coastal region recover. More than 50 senators and about 150 representatives made their way to Louisiana to see the devastation for themselves.

Milling's group plans to stage a reenactment in September, in the wake of Katrina's five-year anniversary (Aug. 29), this time bearing a petition with, they hope, hundreds of thousands of signatures demanding money to restore the gulf ecosystem damaged by the BP oil spill.

The petition has been posted online, along with a video of local and national celebrities calling for all Americans to "Be the One" to help save the coast. Some of the familiar faces include James Carville and Mary Matalin, musicians Dave Matthews and Lenny Kravitz, actors Sandra Bullock and John Goodman, chefs Emeril Lagasse and Leah Chase, "Mad Men" actor Bryan Batt and Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. Each holds up an index finger, reminiscent of Iraqi voters without the purple stain, and entreats viewers to "be the one" to save the pelicans, sea turtles, seafood, coastal culture, wetlands and so on.

In a crisis-saturated world sodden with cynicism and conspiratorial ennui, these women inspire. And their petition, which has attracted more than 100,000 signatures since it was posted a week ago, offers a vehicle for channeling the frustration many Americans feel toward what sometimes seems a hopeless situation.

A signature may not seem like much, but it will help Milling & Co. make their point. Which is: The Gulf Coast crisis affects all Americans, not just coastal residents. Indeed, about 30 percent of the nation's seafood comes from waters off Louisiana. The oil spill has resulted in an indefinite ban on fishing in 35 percent of federal waters in the gulf, while the long-term environmental effects are still being determined.

Meanwhile, the fishing communities and coastal culture unique to the area have been destroyed. As just one example, Venice, La., 50 miles from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, is facing extinction. Tourism has taken a huge hit as beaches have closed and vacation packages have been canceled.

The port of New Orleans, one of the nation's busiest, is expected to lose business as cleanup efforts hinder traffic flow. Finally, the region provides 30 percent of the crude oil and 13 percent of all natural gas produced in the United States. While a moratorium on drilling may be a popular notion given the circumstances, the impact from loss of jobs and revenue will be felt beyond Louisiana.

Milling hopes to recruit women from other coastal states to join her in pressuring Washington to act. She notes, always graciously, that Washington is good about creating programs but not so good at following through with funding.

Congress passed the Water Resources Development Act of 2007, specifically authorizing projects that would do much to restore the gulf wetlands. But so far, no money. Environmental groups with which Milling's group have been working published an open letter Tuesday to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus urging him to call for immediate funding of the act.

Among the priorities is reconnecting the Mississippi River with its delta wetlands and restoring barrier islands.

For an administration that favors shovel-ready jobs and has stimulus funds idling, not to mention about $32 billion in BP monies, the gulf restoration project would seem a worthy and urgent target. A perfect storm for a region that has seen too many.

kathleenparker@washpost.com


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