A Placemaking Journal

Season’s Greetings from Alabama: Where Stars Aligned

Here’s a story of hope for the holidays. And like most good stories, it begins with bad news.

On April 20, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil well in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, killing 11 of its 126 rig workers. That was the first tragedy. Then, came the second, as oil from the uncapped well began spilling into the Gulf. By mid-July, when the well was finally secured, more than 170 million gallons had flowed into the deep waters, and arguments escalated about whom to blame and about how many terrible things were likely to happen.

Oil cleanup workers hired by BP pick up oil soaked absorbent booms that were placed at the edge of the surf at the Gulf Shores public beach in Gulf Shores, Ala., Thursday, June 24, 2010. (Press-Register/John David Mercer)

About the only intelligent things we can say about the long-range environmental impacts of injecting all that oil into the Gulf’s complex ecosystems is that nobody yet knows what effects it will have or when we’ll know for sure. But we can be sure of the oil spill’s immediate impacts on families and businesses tied in one way or another to the Gulf of Mexico.

In coastal Alabama, where PlaceMakers has been leading the communications team in support of an effort launched by Gov. Bob Riley in late September, tourism and everything connected to commercial and recreational fishing tanked. People were thrown out of jobs. Businesses collapsed. Families that had never had to turn to social service agencies for help, even in hurricanes, were showing up at food banks and counseling centers.

To its credit, the state pursued two separate recovery paths. One involved the battle for immediate compensation from BP for victims of the spill. The other may have seemed less obvious but is likely to have more lasting effects. Through his executive order on September 27, Gov. Riley created a Coastal Recovery Commission (CRC) of Alabama. The commission’s mission: To draft a set of strategies to make the coastal region more resilient to future threats not only from events like oil spills but also from hurricanes and other disasters.

The boldness of the plan had folks taking note. Kaid Benfield, writing for the NRDC, raved “It’s hard to think of a better on-the-ground (solution-oriented and forward-looking) example than this one, and it’s almost enough to make me want to move to South Alabama to be part of it.”

Ricky Mathews, publisher of the Press-Register, chairs the first meeting of the Coastal Recovery Commission of Alabama Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2010, in Spanish Fort, Ala. (Press-Register, Mike Kittrell)

The idea might sound familiar to those aware of the Governor’s Commission of Mississippi in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. And for good reason. It was born from a conversation between Gov. Riley and Ricky Mathews, now the publisher of the Mobile Press Register. In 2005, Mathews was publisher of the SunHerald of south Mississippi and vice-chair of the Governor’s Commission. The CRC was molded after the Mississippi effort. But there was this major distinction between the aftermath of the 2010 oil spill and the aftermath of the most devastating hurricane in Gulf history: Oil spill victims were deprived of the evidence of what tore apart their lives.

There were no piles of debris and no flooded landscapes. And once the well was capped and oil stopped washing ashore, the sense of emergency began to evaporate everywhere but on the coast itself.

What helped the CRC’s sense of urgency was the prospect that sometime, possibly soon, BP, the federal government, and states affected by the spill would settle on amounts due the states from oil spill penalty fees and related sources. Billions of dollars would find their way to the states. And there could be a feeding frenzy like no other were there not a plan to invest that money wisely. The CRC’s charge was to put that plan – or at least a plan for the plan – on the table.

The challenges and opportunities faced are summarized in this video:

On December 15, the Commission presented its report to Gov. Riley and Gov.-elect Robert Bentley in the historic Old Statehouse Legislative Chambers in Montgomery. Consider this scene, especially in the context of the current political environment in America:

In the same room where, in another century, Alabama voted to secede from the Union and in the building that was the destination, in a more recent century, of the civil rights march led by Martin Luther King, Jr., this cast of characters lent their endorsement to an idea worth taking to the next level: Two governors, one going out and another coming in; leaders from both the Alabama State Senate and the House of Representatives; county commissioners and mayors from coastal Alabama communities; and, via prerecorded video, the Obama Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency.

Commission chairman Ricky Mathews, left, poses for photos with with Gov.-elect Robert Bentley, center and Gov. Bob Riley with a copy of the Coast Recovery Commission's (CRC) final report following a press conference in the Old Statehouse Legislative Chambers at the State Capitol Wednesday, Dec.15, 2010 in Montgomery, Ala. (Press-Register, G.M. Andrews)

The report itself (7.9mb .pdf), produced in 90 days, is less significant than the response it was able to conjure. To produce it required an alignment of the stars through a process that attracted more than a thousand leaders and citizens. And though the report’s recommendations aren’t likely to surprise professionals familiar with the fundamental goals of regional planning, the process and its ceremonial climax in Montgomery on December 15 revived at least a little hope that it’s possible for folks to come together in agreement on something important for generations to come. Even if what’s agreed upon is a commitment to keep the conversation going.

It wasn’t a gift. It was the result of some heavy lifting on the part of regional leaders and an inspired governor. And it’s a fragile coalition that will require continuing attention as the Commission’s proposals move towards implementation. But it’s a hopeful moment, nonetheless. Which is good enough in these uncertain times.

Happy holidays.

–Ben Brown

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