Not a lot of people talk about "beauty" and "the Gulf" in the same breath these days.
Five years ago, New Orleans was under 15 feet of water, debris, toxic waste and dead bodies. The disaster killed 1,800 people and caused $75 billion in damage.
Today, the Gulf region finds itself awash in 4.9 million barrels of oil and thousands of gallons of toxic chemical dispersant. Eleven men lost their lives, tens of thousands in the fish and shrimp industry immediately lost their livelihood, and hundreds of thousands more could lose their jobs, homes, boats and businesses. Meanwhile, their children's health will continually be at risk from toxic air and water.
These twin tragedies represent a double blow to the region's confidence and the nation's conscience. Sometimes it is hard to imagine that the cycle of destruction and suffering will ever end.
But the Gulf will be beautiful again. We can restore the land and help the people heal.
Viable solutions exist. First, we need to stop adding damage to damage. Rather than trying to address a toxic spill with toxic "dispersant" chemicals, we should rely on greener solutions. The emerging field of biomimicry imitates nature's designs and processes to solve tough problems: "Innovation inspired by nature." Biomimicry expert Paul Stamets has already discovered a method of growing fungi to absorb oil and chemicals.
Second, we need to get serious about finding climate-friendly, job-generating alternatives to the region's oil drenched status quo. The energy future of the Gulf is not down the holes that BP is drilling. If we want to see the future, we need to look up at the sun and the sky, finding ways to use solar and wind power to meet more of our energy needs.
A strong commitment to renewable energy can create 8,500 well-paying manufacturing jobs in Louisiana, and about 77,000 jobs in the entire Gulf region, according to a study by the Renewable Energy Policy Project. Already there are nearly 500 manufacturing firms in Louisiana that could supply the parts needed to deliver a 15% reduction in the region's carbon emissions.
The people of the Gulf need jobs that are not bound to a dirty, dangerous and uncertain fossil-fuel economy. The shrimpers and fishermen must return to clean oceans; business owners, restaurateurs and hotel workers must return to work on clean coasts. Oil rig workers and machinists should begin building and installing the solar panels and wind turbines using the skills they already possess. An entire new generation of scientists and engineers can rise to help restore the wetlands, purify the oceans, and innovate the clean technology that will save us all.
Third, America's public and private sector needs to invest in infrastructure that keeps us safe. Tragically, the Gulf disasters were caused by a broken levee in New Orleans that George Bush refused to fix and a $500,000 safety valve on the Deepwater Horizon that BP failed to install.
We can boost the ecology and the economy simultaneously. Coastal wetlands serve as a natural buffer zone and protect the Gulf from inland storm damage -- and thus far we have destroyed nearly 80 of the region's wetlands. Restoring the Gulf Coast can create 16,000 direct jobs in the region and 41,000 more in related industries. The richness and diversity of Gulf culture -- the music, foods, faiths and lifestyles -- are all ready to reemerge stronger and more vibrant than ever.
Fourth, we also need to tend to the needs of the people. We need to make sure the people have homes and communities to go back to. These homes should be efficient, elegant and affordable. The rebuilding should be done by, and under the guidance of, the people who live there. And while we are at it, let's make these communities green and gorgeous. Global Green is already building 10,000 green homes in the region -- continuing to rebuild green can net many more construction jobs for the region.
Finally, we need to ensure that the people are healthy. Emergency department visits increased 100 percent in the month following Katrina and hospitalization rates increased 66 percent in the first month and 23 percent over the ensuing year. 50 percent of residents showed a need for mental health counseling post-Katrina.
The numbers are equally striking for the Gulf spill: 30 percent are suffering mild to serious psychological distress, and one third of children along the most impacted areas are experiencing physical or mental problems. The people need more than a few clinics and claims adjusters to address the gamut of health issues in the Gulf.
If we do these things, the beauty will return -- stronger than ever.