At noon today, there was a town hall meeting today at the Houma Civic Center where people of Terrebonne Parish could voice their concerns and ask questions of Navy Secretary Ray Mabus. He took the floor without great fanfare, spewed a few facts about coastal Louisiana that we all know to be true (he’s a former governor of Mississippi), and with that, the forum was open.
Folks from all walks of life lined up at each of three microphones to ask their questions, express their grievances, and concerns about the oil spill, coastal wetland loss, the moratorium, economics, and more. He addressed each person after they spoke, and either assured them, answered their questions, or deferred them to one of the agencies present that could help them.
For the most part, folks were very, very respectful and considerate, as he was to them. I sat, listened, and watched those three lines grow longer as time drew on, wondering if what I had to say was even that important.
Before I could decide if I wanted to speak, a woman about my age introduced herself as a wetland advocate for 15 years, a mother, and a business owner who was very concerned that she would not be able to keep her children here once they finished college. She felt bad about encouraging them to stay with our future looking so bleak. She said what I wanted to say as a resident of this parish, a business owner, land owner, and parent.
Here’s the question no one asked: How can the leader of the Navy and Marine Corp and overseer of 900,000 personnel responsible for a $150 million budget possibly have the time left over to make the Gulf Coast economically and environmentally whole again? Did I have the courage to ask him that in a public forum? No, I did not.
The line dwindled to two people, the room occupied by us die-hard hangers on (all the important folks had made their cases and left), and I decided to try to get his ear afterward . . . in private.
As he shook the last hand, I quickly closed the distance between us, albeit too late because security grabbed his arm and whisked him out of earshot as I shouted, “Mr. Secretary! Mr. Secretary!”
I guess it wasn’t meant for me to ask such a personal question to a man who served under President Clinton, served as a governor, and now serves in the President’s Cabinet.
I stood around and chatted with the head of tourism about the future of tourism in this area and the hard work she’s been putting forth to bring things to the table for us in the “nature tourism” industry. I appreciate her efforts. Then Diane Huhn (you might recall her from some of my posts) called me over to meet a young man working on a project called Captains for the Coast, another interesting project.
Then, I took my leave. As I walked across that big floor, I thought about what I really and truly, in my heart of hearts wanted to say to this man if I had gotten the chance.
Deep in thought, I pushed through the double doors into the lobby, and there he stood. No security holding on to him. Just the man.
He turned to walk out, and I quickened my step so my voice would be heard this time.
I rushed up to him, my hand outstretched, a smile on my face. He turned, graciously took my hand . . .
“Secretary Mabus, nice to meet you. I’m just a citizen and I just want to say that I hope you realize you are the savior of the Gulf coast.”
It seemed he wasn’t sure how to respond. He fumbled for words, “Welllll . . . . I . . . ”
and I interrupted him, “Sir, I’m serious. You are now the Savior of the Coast.”
With a political smile up front, and a thousand unspoken thoughts flitting across his eyes, he said, “Well, I’ll try to do my best.”
I’m afraid that’s not good enough. The eyes are the window to the soul, and what I saw inside did not convince me that he intends to be the Savior of the Coast.
About six years ago, Mike Tidwell wrote a book called Bayou Farewell. He has since visited south Louisiana many times and has come to love the people here. I heard him speak one spring at the local university and had lunch with him afterward. Something he said has stuck with me all this time, “It is going to take a grassroots effort to save this coast. You need a Ghandi or a Martin Luther King, Jr. to save this coast. Unless you all get on the same page and pull together, this coast will never be saved.”
My friend and director of the national estuary program was there, and I turned and asked him if he wanted to be the “savior” of the coast. I’ll never forget his answer, “Uh, in case you people don’t know your history . . . those fellows died for their causes. I’m not sure I’m willing to do that.” My friend has since suffered a stroke while fighting for coastal restoration.
Ray Mabus promised verbally today that there is no need to reinvent the wheel where our state’s Master Plan concerning coastal restoration is concerned. He agreed that everywhere locals can be hired, they should be. His outlook is optimistic, his responses positive.
When he was given this assignment by the President, he stepped into the biggest shoes anyone will have ever tried to fill for coastal Louisiana, nay, the entire Gulf Coast.
My statement to him was intended to weigh heavy on him–to make him realize the what a big responsibility he was undertaking. To make him realize this was more than just a token meeting—more than lip service. We took him seriously. A last hope, as it were.
One last statement flashed through my mind and went unspoken as someone took him by the arm, turning him away from me . . .
“And as the Savior of the Coast, you’re going to need disciples. I suggest you find the best twelve you can and get to work.”