Civic and religious leaders gathered Saturday at the Treme Community Center to commemorate the eighth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and called for local and federal action on climate change in view of Louisiana’s rapidly eroding coastline.
“You can hem and haw on why it is happening, but something is happening,” said Charles Allen, who serves as director of Coastal and Environmental Affairs in Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration.
Allen addressed the annual Interfaith Prayer Breakfast with a repeated emphasis that “no job, no effort, is too small” in rebuilding New Orleans and saving the coastline, which has lost thousands of square miles to erosion in recent decades.
“The gospel is getting out there,” Allen said. “There are solar panels in the east.”
Speakers noted the coastal-erosion urgency through disheartening facts: The Louisiana coast is losing about a football field of land an hour. A land mass about the size of Delaware has disappeared in 30 years.
New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond joined the elected officials in addressing the gathering, saying the Catholic Church was there to “share concerns and prayers and calls for action on climate change.”
“Water is a special symbol” across world religions, Aymond said, noting its destructive and cleansing powers. Katrina “brought incredible, unimaginable destruction. ... But the waters brought a rebirth to the city.”
Aymond said the era of climate change “threatens our life, our way of life” and emphasized the need to assist the “poor and vulnerable most affected by storms.”
The archbishop asked attendees at the breakfast to join him in asking God’s forgiveness “for the ways we’ve misused the air, the water and the Earth,” and recalled Pope John Paul II’s warning, 23 years ago, that greenhouse effects from the “gradual depletion of the ozone layer” had reached “a crisis proportion.”
“We know the effects of climate change all too well,” said Norma Jane Sabiston from the Climate Action Committee.
Citing the loss of coastal wetlands, which provide an absorbent buffer against storm surge, Sabiston urged Washington leaders to push for funding the state’s recently developed 50-year, $50 billion plan to restore the Louisiana coastline.
Anne Milling was advocating for coastline erosion in 2006, when her organization, Women of the Storm, went to Washington to prod lawmakers seemingly indifferent to the “devastation and the 220,000 houses destroyed by the storm,” she said. “There were not many visitors from Capitol Hill to New Orleans after the storm,” she said.
“This will always be a sacred time in our lives,” said state Rep. Walt Leger III, a New Orleans Democrat, who grimly recalled Katrina’s aftermath and the “stench and grime” that went along with it.
Leger, the House speaker pro tempore, warned of research about the rising waters that, regardless of the city’s rebirth, could make an island out of New Orleans by 2050.
City Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson-Palmer said Katrina provided “a mandate — not an opportunity — to rebuild” New Orleans, from the failed federal levees to the local housing stock.
She warned against complacency in the face of the rapid redevelopment and changing face of New Orleans.
The prayer breakfast, she said, provided a good check-in point to gauge New Orleans’ progress after the storm.
She spoke up for the tens of thousands of displaced residents who never made it back after the storm that hit New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005.
“We need to work to create an atmosphere so everyone wants to come back,” Palmer said. “We need to work on that.”
Imam Rafeeq Numan gave the benediction at the breakfast. The local Islamic leader had a newfound consciousness of the coastal erosion crisis, he said, and prayed with the attendees that there was time to “restore the things he has created.”