Mabus to hold town-hall meetings on Gulf's future

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 30, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, President Barack Obama's point man on long-term restoration of the Gulf Coast after the BP oil spill, heads back to the Gulf next week for town hall meetings in all five states — two a day in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana and one in Texas.

In an interview with McClatchy, Mabus, a former Mississippi governor who's already made three trips to the Gulf since the spill began, said that his plan will be ready in the "September/October timeframe" and that he is focusing on three elements in the oil spill recovery: the environment, the economy and mental health.

"The president gave me a very specific task — come up with a plan or roadmap for economic and environmental restoration," Mabus said. "I also have a charge to how we monitor the long-term mental health impact in the Gulf."

Mabus said the mental health component came out of his trips to the region. "I haven't had a meeting yet that it hasn't come up," he said. "The coast has just suffered repeated body blows: Katrina, Rita, this," referring to the hurricanes that slammed the Gulf nearly five years ago.

Mabus, who's running "a pretty lean operation" with staffers borrowed from other agencies, wants to hear from the public at the town hall meetings. "Any plan needs to originate with the people from the Gulf," he said.

On Monday, the Navy chief will be in Alabama, in Theodore and Robertsdale; on Tuesday, in Florida at Panama City and Tampa; Wednesday in Mississippi, Thursday in Louisiana and Friday in Galveston, Texas.

The White House has made a point to refer to Mabus as a "son of the Gulf," and it's clear that the soft-spoken former governor feels the responsibility.

"It's my home," Mabus said. "The amount of devastation this part of America has endured, starting with Katrina . . . the whole country benefits from the Gulf, but the Gulf takes the hit alone."

Mabus already has met with many local and state officials as well as "stakeholders," such as environmentalists.

"We have learned that a whole lot of work has already been done," he said. Louisiana in particular has a comprehensive environmental plan and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects ready to go that would restore the freshwater flow in the lower Mississippi River. Mississippi has an ongoing project to restore the barrier islands.

Mabus also said he'll consider the long-term economic impact of the spill on such industries as fishing and tourism. Independent administrator Kenneth Feinberg, who was the special master of the 9/11 victims' compensation fund, is in charge of the $20 billion fund set up by BP to compensate businesses and residents for lost income.

"My job is to look at the effects of the spill that last well into the future — and we don't know that yet — what sorts of things should be in place for fishermen and for tourism? How do we transition? How do we keep them in their livelihood but in a different way?" Mabus said.

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