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  January/February 2006
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Profile: Acts of Faith
A Catholic social worker believes stewardship can save lives as well as souls
By Marilyn Berlin Snell

Rob Gorman
Rob Gorman and his family live in the vanishing parish of Terrebonne, which means "good earth." "Where my father-in-law ran cattle in the '30s, it is now open water."

Louisiana has been called the Bangladesh of the United States because of its tendency to flood. Much of its wetlands delta—the seventh largest on Earth—is less than three feet above sea level. These wetlands are the lifeblood of thousands of fishermen, vital habitat for marine animals and migrating birds, and the last line of defense when walls of ocean water are pushed inland by hurricanes. Every 2.5 miles of wetlands can absorb about a foot of storm surge. The problem is that Louisiana is losing the equivalent of a football field's worth of wetlands every half hour. For one local man, arresting this rapid erosion is God's work.

"Stewardship is a biblical notion and an urgent moral issue," says Rob Gorman, 52, executive director of Catholic Social Services for the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux, about an hour southwest of New Orleans. Gorman cofounded the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana in 1986 and currently chairs the Louisiana Interchurch Conference's Commission on Stewardship of the Environment. "Stewardship isn't a stretch for folks in bayou country," he says. "For instance, it's pretty common after storms to have to go out in boats and lasso floating caskets out of church graveyards and drag them to safety. People see the connection between faith, stewardship, and protection of the environment in which they live."


In Chauvin, Louisiana, some residents—including Gorman's sister-in-law—fled as Hurricane Rita's floodwaters crashed through their doors.

When I meet Gorman at his office in Terrebonne Parish, however, five days after Hurricane Rita flooded 6,000 homes and 3,000 businesses there in September, he has precious little time to talk about moral imperatives.

"This is the worst flooding we've had in the history of this area, and Rita didn't even hit us full-on," he says. (Hurricane Katrina's wrath missed most of Louisiana south of New Orleans.) "The south winds churned the Gulf waters and pushed them up into the marshes. If we'd had a healthy barrier-island and wetlands system, it would have absorbed some of that. Our flooding didn't come from rain but from storm surge."

As Gorman fields phone calls from his staff and disaster-relief agencies—sometimes bracing a phone to each ear and having two separate conversations while using hand signals to communicate with the steady stream of assistants who enter his office—he nods toward a land-loss map of Louisiana that shows its coastal contours in 1853 and 1989. It's a disturbing comparison. The state is disappearing: Barrier islands are being eaten away, and vast areas of wetlands have become open water. In the past 75 years alone, coastal Louisiana has lost an area larger than Rhode Island.

According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, approximately 30 percent of the land loss is due to natural causes, while 70 percent can be attributed to both direct and indirect "human effects." Some of these include levees built by the Corps to prevent flooding and aid navigation and 10,000 miles of canals, dug for oil and gas exploration, pipelines, and transportation, which have widened significantly through erosion. Fishermen are losing critical nurseries for their catch; in some cases, they are also losing their homes to the sea. Levees and canals have had the unintended consequence of preventing freshwater and sediments from flowing into and replenishing marshes.


Bayou Lafourche was the Mississippi River's course to the sea 700 years ago. With wetlands compromised, it now funnels powerful storm surges inland.

Since Katrina hit in late August, Gorman's group at Catholic Social Services has coordinated and paid for more than 1,700 people to relocate with family members across the United States. (Terrebonne Parish absorbed many evacuees from New Orleans post-Katrina, then had a new surge of homegrown homeless after Rita struck.) Right now, Gorman is on the phone with a caseworker and must deal with a recovering-alcoholic storm survivor who can't stand life in the local shelter and needs to get to Minnesota fast. I'm reminded that national disasters are made up of thousands of individual stories of loss, grief, and fear.

When Gorman hangs up, he says, "It's huge. It's a mess," and then, in the next breath, "We need mops!" Yesterday, he had 500 mops, brooms, and buckets, but they were snatched up by one bayou town alone. Chauvin, where his sister-in-law lives, was swamped with several feet of water and black mud during Rita. "We weren't organized for this," says Gorman. Catholic Social Services' role in disaster relief has historically been to help people get back on their feet over the long term after the National Guard, Federal Emergency Management Agency, and Red Cross—which usually handle rescue, food, and shelter—leave town. Gorman is unwilling to cast blame for the current chaos: "The first responders have been stretched thin, so we've had to do everything: run shelters, provide cleaning supplies, feed people. We're beginning, middle, and end with this thing."

Gorman, who studied to be a Glenmary priest in college but decided the frock wasn't for him, married a woman from south Louisiana and now has three children. He and his wife celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary during Katrina. Gorman is built like a runner—tall and fit—and is even wearing running shoes, which are coming in handy today. As he answers e-mails, phone calls, and questions, we eat jambalaya at his desk—courtesy of the Knights of Columbus, who are cooking Cajun fare for 700 people a day in a nearby shelter. Gorman asks an assistant to order 100 more T-shirts for his disaster-relief volunteers that say "Matthew 25" in block letters on the back. Embarrassed not to know the reference, I look it up in the Bible on his bookshelf but can't quite understand what relief work has to do with lamps and virgins. Sister Celeste in the office next door sets me straight. "You've got to read past the virgin part and get to verses 31 through 40," she says with a laugh. "'For I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. Naked and you clothed me.'" Gorman and I then race off to Grand Isle, the only inhabited barrier island in Louisiana, which was smashed from the north by Katrina and from the south by Rita. Gorman hasn't been there yet and worries about what he'll see.

On the drive down Louisiana's boot tip toward Barataria Bay, we share the car with Jay Cafasso, a 25-year veteran of global emergencies who's running Presbyterian Disaster Assistance efforts in southern Louisiana, and Reverend Lenet Guidry, a Baptist preacher from Napoleonville, Louisiana. Gorman's cell phone quickly runs out of juice, and he's forgotten his charger, so for the first time since I met him nearly five hours earlier, he seems to relax a little. The landscape is sheer Wyeth but with a bayou twist: Vast expanses of golden marsh grasses, called "trembling prairies," sway in the warm and humid breeze. Snowy egrets swoop low over dark blue, alligator-inhabited water, bending reeds as they land. Bayou Lafourche, which is about 200 feet wide and 10 feet deep and runs beside the highway, is home to myriad shrimp and crab trawlers with names like Drifter and Little Dipper. It would be a quaint Cajun scene—shrimp seines hang drying, crab traps lie about, flat-bottomed tugboats toot horns and plow the bayou on their way south to the Gulf, kids and seagulls perch on round wood pilings along the banks, watching the watery world go by—except that many other boats lie sideways and sinking, victims of savage winds. The processing plants for catch, which lined the banks, are now merely twisted pieces of metal or are missing altogether—only their foundations remain. The farther south we get, the more storm damage we see: roofs missing, structures crushed, power lines down, and cars and homes submerged in smelly black muck. "A friend of mine lives there," says Gorman, dubiously using the present tense, as he nods toward a flooded, mud-filled, and nearly roofless home on the side of the road. "Oh dear, his house is really busted up."

Slightly past the town of Golden Meadow, where frog legs and turtle meat are for sale roadside, Gorman points out the origin of his call to stewardship. The year was 1983, shortly after he'd moved to Louisiana from North Carolina, where he'd been a social worker in a mental health clinic. A group of fishermen from Golden Meadow approached Catholic Social Services for emergency assistance. "Someone had put up a gate across a bayou, fenced off a big section of marsh in an attempt to preserve their claim to the area, and placed an armed guard at the gatehouse," says Gorman.

The property owner who built those fences was cutting off the means of survival for several families who had been there for generations. People in Louisiana's southern parishes tend to be poor. The average per-capita income in Terrebonne, for instance, is $16,000 a year. The fishermen took their case to court, arguing that they were being kept from "navigable waterways" in estuaries that are, by definition, open to the public. Gorman got involved on behalf of Catholic Social Services, but in 1991 the group lost its suit. The judge ruled that areas "now subject to the ebb and flow of the tides" are not navigable public waterways.

"The experience opened my eyes to what was happening to the wetlands—the coastal erosion, the land loss farther inland up the bayous—as well as to who has the power and can make the decisions," says Gorman. Underscoring that it was the problems of the poor that first alerted him to the plight of the wetlands, he adds, "Hurricane Katrina brought it to the fore nationally, but it's been clear to me for a long time that it's the poor who are the most vulnerable. They live in the most marginal areas. Go down any bayou, and it's the people who can afford it who have grabbed the higher-elevation land."

Many experts fear that the wetlands are disappearing so rapidly that, if nothing is done, within just a few decades south Louisiana may cease to be a viable place to live and work. Currently, more than half of Louisiana's citizens live in its coastal zone, which reaches 18 miles inland up bayous in some areas. The state's commercial fisheries, whose marine populations are dependent on the marshes' delicate mix of fresh and saline water, provide more than 30 percent of the nation's total catch of brown and white shrimp, blue crab, oysters, Atlantic croaker, and menhaden. Finally, Louisiana's wetlands host nearly 66 percent of the Mississippi Flyway's migrating waterfowl. They'll have nowhere to land when the marshes sink into the sea.

It was the fishermen's fight that led Gorman, along with the lawyer on the case and others, to found the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana. Gorman was its first chair. When I ask if it had been problematic for the Catholic Church to support his restoration programs, he offers an emphatic no. Partly, he says, because he always framed it as a stewardship rather than an environmental issue. "I prefer to use language specific to this constituency, which is the religious community. It's a biblical and moral reference and gets to one's faith commitment in a way that 'environmentalism' doesn't."

The brochures for Gorman's efforts to protect freshwater and restore the wetlands are sprinkled with biblical calls to stewardship. There's Genesis 9: "Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature"; Mark 12: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself"; and Psalm 24: "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein; for the Lord has founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the rivers.... And who shall stand in the Lord's holy place?"

Louisiana's first public hearings for wetlands restoration were held in 1988 in churches. "It's very different when you're having a conversation in a church rather than in a government office or at a business," says Gorman. "It completely changed the dynamics and opened the chance for dialogue. First, it's different and unexpected; second, people can focus on the moral imperative and the common issue of stewardship; third, you can't cuss in a church."

Gorman adds that the churches didn't contribute expertise in terms of wetlands or restoration but rather provided a constituency that could relate to the stewardship message. "We also benefited from the fact that we couldn't be pigeonholed. We weren't environmentalists or businessmen or government officials. When folks asked what we were doing in the mix, I just said, 'It's all about stewardship' and they'd say, 'Oh! I guess it is.' We kept the focus on what we could all agree on." With participants including the Sierra Club, Midcontinental Oil and Gas, other business groups, and state and local government, it's a minor miracle that the partnership not only held together but flourished.

The coalition helped shift the debate in Louisiana from "Is there a coastal-erosion problem?" to "What are we going to do about it?" The group's first big win came in 1989, when it helped write and then pass a voter-approved amendment to the state constitution creating the $25 million Wetland Conservation and Restoration Trust Fund—with money provided by a portion of the oil and gas royalties paid to the state.

The next year, the coalition set its sights even higher and orchestrated federal legislation that provided funding to protect and replenish coastal wetlands nationwide. The Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection, and Restoration Act (also known as the Breaux Act) passed in 1990, with specific funds targeted for developing a long-term restoration plan for Louisiana. The group then helped author the state's refreshingly sane and pragmatic Coast 2050 Plan. Among other things, it calls for the reintroduction of river water and sediments into basins east of Louisiana's second-largest river, the Atchafalaya, and the creation of a distributary channel of the Mississippi River that will form a new mini-delta in the lower Barataria-Terrebonne system. The plan also includes the integration of flood protection, restoration, and development planning to "identify and communicate real-world expectations of where and how development should take place. It is time to stop placing people and structures in harm's way."

"All we need to make it happen is $14 billion," Gorman says, noting that the price tag is a lot cheaper than the $200-billion-and-rising cost to rebuild the storm-ravaged communities of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.

Gorman's most recent push has been a two-tiered effort called the Ezekiel 34 Initiative. ("Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you muddy the rest with your feet?") Launched in 2001 by the Louisiana Interchurch Conference's Commission on Stewardship of the Environment, the group brought in experts from universities and Louisiana's Department of Environmental Quality as well as ministers and held workshops in churches statewide on the importance of community waters. Some of the moral guidelines underpinning the effort, according to Gorman, are the religious beliefs that the resources and creatures of the earth may be understood as signs of God's presence and blessings upon us, that God calls on humankind to act as stewards of creation, and that biblical faith teaches that we are to love our neighbors, which include the "least of these," meaning the poor, children, strangers, and all those without an influential voice in society. The commission made its case at the hearings, fielded questions and garnered public support, and then actively supported a comprehensive water-management plan, which the legislature passed in 2003.

In April 2005, church leaders of the Ezekiel 34 Initiative held a press conference in New Orleans announcing a focus on wetlands restoration and urging people to take action on the state's eroding coasts. One of the speakers, Archbishop Alfred Hughes, was quoted by the New Orleans Times-Picayune: "To misuse the gifts of creation to pollute them, to destroy them, to refuse to provide them for future generations, is a ... serious abrogation of the Seventh Commandment. It's stealing what we do not own." Others called on citizens to write their congressional representatives and ask them to support increased funding for wetlands restoration. The next phase of the initiative was off to a great start.

Says Gorman, "We spent the summer getting grants for work in the Barataria-Terrebonne Estuary, but then the storms hit ..." His voice trails off before he adds, "I couldn't continue to live down here if I didn't have some hope that we could make a difference, but right now I'm just bone-weary tired."

As we get closer to Grand Isle, Gorman points and says, "That was solid marsh 15 years ago, and now it's all open water. Even just a few years ago, there was a lot of land here. Now it's gone. There was no big storm that precipitated the decline, just a lot of little storms. Every little hurricane, every northerly, eats it away." Grand old oaks, only recently on solid ground, are now immersed in brackish water and dying.

The homes on the island look as though a giant had thrown down a game of Pickup Sticks. Buildings have been reduced to splintered piles of lumber, trashed furniture, and scattered personal belongings. Private lives have been turned inside out.

We head to a staging area where emergency workers are being housed and fed. As Reverend Guidry surveys the scene, he tells me that Katrina was a sort of cleansing. "New Orleans was the murder capital of the world, the dope capital of the world, the poverty capital of the world. There's a pride in people who say, 'We're gonna build it back up.' I say we should pray for a different city. Maybe we just flushed out all this cancer."

Gorman's approach is blessedly different. An emergency medical technician tells him how he and his wife were flooded out of their home just south of New Orleans. They lost everything. The young man is now living in a trailer, cooking for the disaster-relief workers in Grand Isle. Gorman listens with a gentle and uncloying compassion. He lets people talk and then asks what kinds of help would be useful.

Earlier in the day, he had received a phone call from someone wanting him to come to Baton Rouge the next week to lay out a vision for Louisiana. When he hung up, he joked, "Jeez, guys! My vision doesn't extend past the end of the morning—I can't even remember what day it is!" But he does have a vision, one of restoration, preparation, and stewardship. And one that doesn't cast blame or call out sinners but rather calls on citizens to act—on their own behalf and for future generations—to save God's creation. When he's finished feeding, clothing, and sheltering Katrina's and Rita's victims, he'll get back to making it real.

Marilyn Berlin Snell is Sierra's senior writer.

MORE INFORMATION
For an account of how the Mississippi River and the Army Corps of Engineers shaped the Gulf Coast, read John McPhee's prescient Control of Nature (1989). Mike Tidwell's excellent adventures in Bayou Farewell (2003) offer a more contemporary perspective.

ON THE WEB
The Coast 2050 Plan—a visionary effort by federal, state, and local entities as well as landowners, environmentalists, and wetlands scientists—proposes ways to solve Louisiana's massive coastal-land-loss problem: coast2050.gov. To donate to the Club's Gulf Coast Environmental Restoration Project, see htpps://ww2.sierraclub.org/foundation/katrina.


Photos, from top: Rick Olivier, Marilyn Berlin Snell (2)

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