The 49 States of America

Louisiana postcard

Image by Witty Name via Flickr

Do you remember the last time you were at a football game? Close your eyes for a moment and picture yourself there – in that football stadium. See yourself in the bleachers, smell the hot dogs, hear the referee’s whistle . . . Are you there? Now, imagine that you are sinking. Sinking deep into the ground, and there is no way up, not now, not ever. Does it feel awful?… Open your eyes.

What you just imagined momentarily is what the state of Louisiana is going through. Louisiana loses a stadium size chunk of land every 30 minutes. The state is crumbling into the Gulf of Mexico, piece by piece, and what remains of it is sinking. Of course, the pace of land loss picks up during major hurricanes.

Katrina’s damage is still visible over three years later. Flying in a sea plane over southern Louisiana last month, I thought the changes were striking. The coastline is receding. Barrier islands are shrinking. People’s homes are now abandoned forever.

We are in the midst of a coastal crisis. Louisiana’s state government knows this, but the federal government has remained on autopilot. Congress needs to treat the situation like the main event, not a dress rehearsal. This includes openness to changes that might have been unpalatable in the past.

The Jones Act is a perfect place to start. The Merchant Marine Act of 1920, commonly called the Jones Act, along with the Foreign Dredge Act of 1906, have effectively closed American shipping and dredging markets.

Dredging enables ships to pass through rivers or into harbors. Dredges also transport material that would fill in marshes and slow surging waves during storms, thereby providing natural hurricane protection.

These twin laws also have predictable downsides. The American market exists in isolation. Dredging is more expensive in the United States than anywhere else in the world. The Army Corps of Engineers manages dredging contracting in the U.S. and cannot always find vendors to bid on its contracts. Equipment in the United States is older and less innovative than elsewhere.

But Washington can help. Congress should amend the Jones Act during this session. If Members cannot agree to move dredging completely to a free trade model, they should shift to a hybrid model. That means continuing to give priority to American dredging firms, but also means implementing a certification process, so need-based waivers can be granted.

The Coast Guard currently certifies that vessels are American. Under this proposed new rubric, they could also accept petitions from parish governments or firms in need of innovative solutions. Petitioners could certify that certain technologies are required for hurricane protection projects but not available locally, paving the way for limited importation.

Domestic dredgers may gnash their teeth, but complete protection from market forces can no longer be our nation’s top priority. This is about the people of Louisiana. One of our states is sliding into the sea. Now — do we tell Louisianans to sink or swim?

February 10, 2009

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