(WOMENSENEWS)–The women gather every Monday morning in a house in uptown New Orleans, each bringing her own cup of coffee.
They started meeting in January 2006 to help their blighted city after Hurricane Katrina.
Since then, Women of the Storm have continued calling attention to Louisiana’s fragile coastal ecosystem. At the 2008 Democratic National Convention, for instance, members tossed out colorful footballs to dramatize the fact that coastal erosion eats away the equivalent of a football field of Louisiana wetland every 38 to 50 minutes.
April’s explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig off the coast of Louisiana, which spewed more than 200 million gallons of crude oil, reinvigorated their movement. The group recently launched "Be the One," a video campaign featuring a medley of celebrities, from Saints quarterback Drew Brees to musicians Dave Matthews and Dr. John. Within 100 hours, the video produced 100,000 signatures on an electronic petition demanding funding for Gulf Coast restoration.
"Five years post-Katrina, Women of the Storm feels it has a definite brand, recognized both locally and nationally, and is focused on coastal restoration–a necessity if we are to survive in future," said Ann Milling, the former president of the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board and founder of the group
"Women of the Storm are my heroes," said Sharon Henshaw, leader of Coastal Women for Change, a four-year-old group based in Biloxi that is focused on helping the communities of the Gulf Coast.
Henshaw’s group is also working on helping women of the coast adjust to the oil spill, among other activities.
"We also started a community garden to bond the community and to help solve the economic challenges we have at the present time," she said.
Ties to Oil Companies
The "Be the One" video, which urges viewers to demand the government fully fund a plan to restore the gulf, drew some unwelcome attention. Environmental Web site DeSmogBlog criticized Women of the Storm for ties to America’s Wetland Foundation, which is supported by oil and gas companies. Milling is married to R. King Milling, a retired oil company executive and chair of the foundation.
The accusation prompted actress Sandra Bullock to ask that her appearance in the video be pulled. Bullock agreed to remain in the video after Women of the Storm told her that America’s Wetland Foundation had not given any money to the campaign.
"While America’s Wetland Foundation is a strategic partner, it has no influence on development of Women of the Storm’s strategy, content, publications or projects," the group said in a statement. "We simply share the goal of drawing attention to coastal restoration."
The incident revealed the close ties between coastal citizens and oil companies, which are major employers in New Orleans and Louisiana.
"The oil business is part of our culture; it’s a way of life in Louisiana," said Peggy Laborde, a microbiologist and member of the Women of the Storm steering committee. Laborde’s husband is the CEO of an independent oil and gas company. "That’s often difficult for people to understand."
Laborde, who considers herself an ardent environmentalist, said that just because they drill, it doesn’t mean they don’t care about the environment or birds or wildlife.
"Lots of people who work in the oil industry are fishermen and hunters. Their pastime depends on the environment and they are passionate about it," she said.
Women ‘Relentless in Our Approach’
When Laborde is asked, "why women?" her response is "why not?" While there are a few men who work with the group, Laborde says "women have a certain intuition about situations; we are multi-taskers and relentless in our approach."
Women of the Storm is a grass-roots organization, says Milling. There are no dues or membership forms. Sign up on the mailing list and you’re in. The leadership is a rich multi-racial, multi-ethnic gumbo from diverse backgrounds.
"The leadership has been involved in so many community endeavors," said Milling. "Because of this diversity, we’ve touched so many different areas of the city and we all bring different talents and backgrounds and expertise to the table."
The group began when Milling was sitting around at a Thanksgiving dinner after Katrina, grumbling that nobody from Congress had visited New Orleans. That’s when she got the idea.
Like the gracious Southern lady that she is, she thought to herself: "We’ll have to invite them."
The following January, 130 women were on a chartered plane, carrying umbrellas made out of the same blue tarp draped over wind-damaged roofs throughout the Big Easy. The women formed teams to talk to members of Congress, says Diana Pinckley, a public-relations consultant and group leader.
Pinckley said her lobbying partner was particularly effective on Capitol Hill. "Let me tell you, if you want Congress people to talk to you, bring a Vietnamese nun along," she said.
Visiting 100 Congressional Staffers
It was a slow day in Washington so the women managed to see about 100 congressional staffers, prompting calls from others wondering why they hadn’t received a visit. Within three months, 36 members of Congress, led by then-minority leader Nancy Pelosi and then-speaker Dennis Hastert, visited New Orleans, along with several senators. Later that spring, Congress approved funding the "Road Home" housing restoration program.
"To date what I am most proud of is the impact on Congress–embarrassing many of our national leaders to visit the biggest man-made disaster in our country," said Milling.
Her group rounded up another 130 women to visit Washington in September 2006, this time lobbying Congress to share with the state of Louisiana some of the oil revenues the federal government had been receiving from oil drilling off the state’s coast.
"If you drill an oil well on federal land in New Mexico, New Mexico gets 50 percent of the revenue," said Pinckley. "If you drill an oil well off the coast of Louisiana, the federal government gets 100 percent of the royalties."
In September 2006, Louisiana voters overwhelmingly approved a state constitutional amendment stating that oil revenue money be dedicated to coastal restoration and protection, and Congress later approved Outer Continental Shelf revenue sharing. But the federal government will share only 35 percent of revenues starting in 2017, and "that may be too late," Pinckley said.
"Erosion has eaten away 3,000 square miles of coastland in the past 50 years, the equivalent of 1.5 Delawares," she said.
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Diane Loupe is a freelance writer and editor in Decatur, Ga.
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