The Delta Grassroots Caucus (DGC) is a broad coalition of grassroots leaders in the eight-state Delta region. DGC is also a founding partner of the Economic Equality Caucus,
which advocates for economic equality across the USA.

Comprehensive Overview of Sept. 21-23 Delta Conference in Washington, DC

Posted on September 28, 2010 at 12:54 PM

Thanks to all the Delta grassroots partners, Members of Congress, executive branch officials, and representatives of other organizations for helping us to accomplish so much at the Sept. 21-23, 2010 Delta conference in Washington, DC, in spite of the reality that we have never faced so many obstacles. The recession placed such a strain on travel budgets that some people who are stalwart supporters of the Delta regional movement just did not have the funds to attend, my unexpected bouts with bronchitis aggravated by oil exposure and the later blood clots greatly hampered my efforts (although I bounced back quicker than expected), and other unexpected developments further complicated matters. But we still had good turnouts for the House and Senate sessions, and all the sessions were high in quality.

This is a broad overview of the conference, hitting just the highlights of each speaker, although this was a three-day conference with many speakers so it will take space to cover each one even briefly.

We will be sending out summaries of individual speakers, particularly from the USDA and oil disaster sessions in the coming days and weeks.

Overall we had 11 Members of Congress, 12 national executive branch officials, Federal Cochairman Chris Masingill of the Delta Regional Authority and Alternate Federal Cochairman Mike Marshall, and a distinguished group of mayors, elected county officials, universities and colleges, nonprofit organizations, small business leaders and corporations represented.

Job creation/economic recovery from the recession was the most important subject, with specific issues including FEMA’s unwise plan to escalate flood insurance costs in the Delta, broadband, transportation and other infrastructure expansion, support for a larger DRA budget and the great new leadership of that agency, the oil disaster and Gulf Coast recovery, a range of USDA issues like the pending child nutrition bill, rural development, disaster relief payments to farmers, support for farmers’ markets, expanded renewable energy, and improved health care for the Delta, including the innovative Community Health House Network.

At the opening session, Federal Co-Chairman Chris Masingill of the Delta Regional Authority gave a superb presentation and demonstrated why his appointment to that important post has been greeted with such tremendous enthusiasm. I can truthfully say that his participation was unprecedented in many ways. It was by far the longest presentation we’ve ever had, and yet his comments and then the lengthy dialogue he had with grassroots partners were so compelling that no one left and the interest level never flagged. Chairman Masingill answered every question and spoke with great compassion and energy about our region.

I agree with Alan Gumbel, the Delta regional advocate from Memphis, Wilson Golden, the former Clinton administration appointee at DOT, and Barbara Burnham of LISC that we have been waiting to hear such an inspirational message for many, many years. Chris Masingill summarized his vision for the DRA’s future in helping to bring a brighter future for our region, and we will be monitoring and reporting on the specifics of the DRA’s activities under the excellent new leadership. This was the first time in the DRA’s 10-year history that we have had a Federal Cochair address our group, but it was well worth the wait.

(Note: I am recovering well from the pulmonary embolisms (blood clots in the lungs) that sidelined me and kept me from working the week before the conference. The doctors believe the clots developed in my feet when I did extensive travel throughout the Delta region and back to DC and my feet were too immobile for too long, and the clots got bigger and moved to my lungs. I did not know the clots existed because it was incorrectly diagnosed as a relapse of bronchitis.)

[A little comic relief here–Whatever else folks think about the Powell family, you’ll have to admit we’re hard to kill off. I am recoveing from the pulmonary embolisms although still weak, so the reports of my death were somewhat exaggerated. My father, James O. Powell, editorial editor for the old Arkansas Gazette for three decades and a stalwart champion of justice and equality for the Delta, lived to be 90 and confounded the doctors many times with his harrowing escapes from potentially fatal conditions.

Once when he had a severe kidney problem, the doctors informed us that there was no way anyone could survive such a massive infection and he had hours or at most days to live. Well, he made one of his amazing recoveries. A week later I went to his hospital room to find him in acute distress, became alarmed and asked, “Dad, what’s wrong???!!” He said that he had eaten way too much bacon, scrambled eggs and cheese grits and said “The truth is I have a severe case of indigestion.”]

(Back to work) Congressman Mike Ross gave an excellent presentation, as always. He outlined the importance of supporting the DRA and was naturally enthusiastic about Chairman Masingill’s leadership–Masingill worked for Rep. Ross’ district in the Arkansas Delta and gained invaluable experience there, along with his work for Sen. Blanche Lincoln and Gov. Beebe. Rep. Ross pledged to keep fighting for progress on the Interstate 69 Corridor and for job creation initiatives to aid the economic recovery. Many thanks to Ken Shea, one of our many strong supporters in Desha County, for introducing the Congressman.

Mayor Barrett Harrison began the opening session by summarizing Blytheville’s remarkable successes in recent years in bringing jobs and investment to his community. But he warned that if FEMA succeeds in their ill-advised attempts to redraw the flood plain maps in such a way as to include many areas that have never been regarded as flood plains before and thus unjustifiably escalate flood insurance costs all across the region, it would cause serious problems for the region’s economic growth. Such job creation successes as Blytheville recently had will be very difficult to accomplish in the future if individuals and potential investors have to consider additional flood insurance costs in addition to other issues in the Delta.

Nucor Yamato Steel and Nucor Steel of Blytheville, Arkansas happens to be the most efficient steel mill in the United States of America, and it is run predominantly by people from the heart of the Delta. Mayor Harrison, along with many others from Blytheville such as the county judge, the Great River Economic Development Foundation, Mississippi County Economic Opportunity Commission, chamber of commerce contributed to the job creation accomplishments in addition to the Nucor success story, so this refutes the erroneous notion that people in the Delta cannot develop world-class skills. We have the work ethic and have succeeded before, and we just don’t need FEMA unjustifiably causing problems for our efforts. We are just citing Blytheville as one example here.

Robert Dansby, CEO of Edgenics Corp. summarized his corporation’s productive efforts to expand broadband access in the Delta, as well as their efforts for community health centers in the region.

Dr. Mario Cruz-Penate of the Pan American Health Organization and the World Health Organization office for the Americas spoke in support of the Community Health House Network, which is a promising innovation that has set up 14 grassroots health care facilities called “Health Houses” in Mississipi and is now being expanded into Louisiana, and there is also interest in southeast Arkansas. Health Houses have four or five community health house workers who are from the community and know the local needs. The Health Houses emphasize preventive care, reducing costs, cutting back on excessive emergency room use, reducing rehospitalizations, dissemination of information about nutrition and a wide variety of other health-related issues, screenings for diabetes, HIV, heart trouble and other maladies. The World Health Organization supports the Health Houses model and we appreciate Dr. Marion Cruz-Penate’s thoughtful presentation supporting them.

Alan Gumbel, president of Gumbel & Associates in Memphis, Tennessee, is a veteran Delta regional advocate who was on the staff of the Lower Mississippi Delta Development Commission 20 years ago. He summarized the efforts of Youthbuild in creating and retaining jobs for young people in the Delta, a subject of tremendous importance for the present and future in our region. Alan Gumbel has been a stalwart advocate for our region for over 20 years now and we greatly appreciate his participation in our activities, and we plan to send out a message summarizing his comments in the coming weeks.

Alan Branson, COO of Enterprise Corporation of the Delta/HOPE Community Credit Union, is engaged in a wide variety of economic and community development activities throughout Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. He had a very interesting dialogue with Chairman Masingill about the New Markets Tax Credit, which has helped many people in the region but also has some complications that ought to be removed to make it even more productive. We will be sending out a message on that subject later on.

The Senate session had a total of 80 people who participated in at least parts of it (a good turnout for that session that was even comparable to years before the recession), with informative presentations and dialogue with Sen. Blanche Lincoln, Sen. Mark Pryor and Rep. John Boozman, Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, and Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri. The other sessions’ turnout was somewhat reduced by the recession and other complications, but the Senate session came through as strong as ever.

There was great interest in the presentations of Sen. Blanche Lincoln and Rep. John Boozman, the candidates in the Arkansas US Senate race. Both candidates did a fine job. While it is true and obvious that most of the Delta Caucus partners tend to support Sen. Lincoln, we emphasized that we will work with whoever wins for the economic development of the Delta. Sen. Lincoln is from the heart of the Delta in Helena-West Helena, Arkansas and has known many of our members personally for many years, and Rep. Boozman has represented the more prosperous northwest Arkansas region that is a long ways from the Delta for many years, although his wife is from the Delta so he is no stranger to our region. Of course, people can’t help where they happen to be from, and Rep. Boozman has been generous enough with his time to take part at two of our conferences this year.

Rep. Boozman pledged to support a bigger budget for the DRA, as did Sen. Lincoln. Again, we look forward to working with whoever the next US Senator turns out to be next year, whether Rep. Boozman or Sen. Lincoln.

Sen. Thad Cochran gave an eloquent presentation about the importance of supporting the DRA, the FEMA flood plain map plan, and other economic development issues. Bill Triplett, who is from Mississippi and is Chief of Staff of the DRA gave a great introduction. We are fortunate to have a leader like Sen. Cochran who can work with people from both parties for the region’s progress.

Sen. Mary Landrieu is the Senate’s leading champion for Gulf Coast recovery after the twin disasters of Hurricane Katrina and the oil spill, and she gave us an incisive update on what is happening with our colleagues in the southernmost part of our region. Sen. Landrieu is chair of the Small Business Committee and she has had a major recent success in Congressional passage of a bill she supported to help out small businesses, which are the main engine of creating new jobs in the Delta and across the Delta, so congratulations to her on that success

Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri pointed out the flaws in the FEMA flood plain plan, telling the group that she had visited a place in Missouri that was actually a bluff, yet FEMA categorized it as being in a flood plain. FEMA is not doing a competent job in this area and Sen. McCaskill did an excellent job of pointing that out.

Sen. Mark Pryor gave an excellent presentation updating us on several key issues. Sen. Pryor joined with Sen. Cochran, McCaskill and others in pointing out the serious flaws in FEMA’s flood plain plan, and we greatly appreciate his leadership on that issue, support for the DRA and many other initiatives. Mayor Carl Redus of Pine Bluff, Arkansas expressed our appreciation in introducing the Senator.

Missouri had a prominent role at the conference this year, with an important role for Alternate Federal Cochair Mike Marshall, formerly mayor of Sikeston, Missouri, Delta Caucus co-coordinator for Missouri, and a banker and regional economic development advocate for many years. Dr. Martha Ellen Black, our stalwart board member from the Susannah Wesley Family Learning Center in East Prairie, Missouri, Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, Sen. McCaskill, and James Stapleton, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Southeast Missouri State University, which as you know is one of the region’s leading academic institutions.

Education and economic development are integrally related, and we appreciated hearing from Dr. Stapleton, President Larry Peterson of Shawnee Community College in southern Illinois, and Chancellor Rita Cheng of Southern Illinois University. Chancellor Cheng has earned a dynamic and richly deserved reputation for her work in education. Southern Illinois University has been and continues to be a strong supporter of the Delta regional movement, going back to Rhonda Vinson’s important participation on the original Lower Mississippi Delta Development Commission. We greatly appreciate the support of leading universities like SEMO and SIU and many others across the region.

Alternate Cochairman Mike Marshall led a panel on economic development that included the following Delta leaders:

–Josh Tubbs, Marshall County Economic Development Dept., western Kentucky, who gave a summary of western Kentucky’s continuing strong support for progress in completing the I-69 Corridor. I-69 has an impact on five of our states: Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky.

–Stephanie Vance, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship initiative in Lake Providence, Louisiana. CBF does a great deal of constructive work across the Delta. We were glad to feature their Helena-West Helena initiative at our spring conference at the Clinton Library in creating jobs and otherwise promoting progress in many of the most impoverished areas of the region, and Stephanie Vance gave an excellent summary of the newer, similar project for the Lake Providence, Louisiana area. CBF has unfailingly been a vigorous supporter of the Delta Caucus and we greatly appreciate Stephanie Vance’s participation and the long-time support of CBF leaders like Ray Higgins and others in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and elsewher in the region.

–Kevin Smith is a former staffer to then Governor Bill Clinton and US Senator Dale Bumpers, a former Arkansas state senator, now an insurance executive in Helena-West Helena. Kevin Smith gave a dynamic review of why it is so important for grassroots leaders to stay involved in pushing the powers that be for greater action in promoting our region’s economic development. In particular, he thanked Sen. Lincoln for her many years of support for the DRA and other Delta regional issues, and he said that with the new leadership at the DRA it is now important than ever for the voices of the Delta to be heard loud and clear through the halls of power in our nation’s capital.

–Larry Williams, CEO of the Delta Citizens Alliance is based in Greenville, Mississippi, although is organization is active throughout much of Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. The Delta Citizens Alliance works intensively for economic and community development projects in our region. It is one of the newer nonprofit organizations in our region, and we always welcome new leaders with fresh ideas. We would encourage people in those three states to be supportive of the great work of the Delta Citizens Alliance.

At the USDA session, we were glad to hear from Assistant Secretary for Administration Pearlie Reed, who is the highest ranking Arkansas in the entire Obama administration. Assiatant Secretary Reed has many admirers in our group, and he is engaged in many constructive activities to help minority and limited resource farmers, civil rights and diversity and many other USDA programs. The past two years it has been one of the highlights of the entire conference to hear from Secretary Reed, who is from the Arkansas Delta and understands our issues profoundly.

Secretary Reed enthusiastically complimented the work of Sen. Lincoln, who is chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. This committee of course handles agriculture, but also many other issues such as the federal nutrition programs, rural small business, rural housing and utilities and other rural development programs, renewable energy, telemedicine, forestry and other vital issues that have a major impact on the Delta every day.

Tamidra Marable, Heifer International’s Program Manager for USDA programs, gave a dynamic presentation in support of farmers’ markets. We have many enthusiasts for farmers’ markets in our region, because they aid many limited resource farmers, promote more consumption of fresh, nutritious produce and help bring a dialogue between farmers and the rest of the population. Ms. Marable also pointed out that it is much easier to get into farming in growing fruits and vegetables, because it requires much less acreage than crops such as corn, wheat, cotton, etc. We support both production agriculture and the smaller-scale produce farmers. Heifer is a great institution and we appreciate Ms. Marable’s excellent participation.

We heard from Food and Nutrition Service Administrator Julie Paradis, who administers the agency that handles SNAP (formerly Food Stamps), WIC, school meals, and the other major federal nutrition programs. This is an issue of tremendous importance for the Delta, where unfortunately we have among the highest rates of food insecurity in the country. The child nutrition bill is pending and we need to inform our Members of Congress about the vital importance of passing this crucial legislation. Administrator Paradis is one of the leading hunger and nutrition experts in America and we were glad to have her participation.

Ed Cooney, executive director of the Congressional Hunger Center and a former Clinton administration appointee at USDA, spoke on the subject of child nutrition legislation. He is from Connecticut originally but we have conferred honorary Delta status on him and deputized him to represent the fine community of Possum Grape, Arkansas in the east Arkansas Delta. As Director Cooney correctly stated, we like to place him on the agenda late in the afternoon about the time some people may be losing energy or tempted to catch up on their sleep, because he can be relied upon to make colorful, controversial statements that wake people up. Usually the response will be something like, “Geez, did he really say what I thought he just said?”

Ed Cooney gave a candid plea to oppose any efforts to cut SNAP benefits. This is the first line of defense against hunger in America today, and for some economically distressed people it is the essential fortress standing between them and hunger. We would agree that we need to monitor what is going on in Congress and inform all our Members of Congress that we cannot balance the budget on the backs of our neediest people and SNAP must be fully funded.

Rev. Jerome Turner spoke about his work in Marvell, Arkansas and nearby areas on USDA’s anti-obesity unit, which is managed by Dr. Margaret Bogle of USDA ARS in Little Rock, Arkansas. This unit does great work across Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas and the speakers are always among the most interesting and informative at every conference, and Rev. Turner continued in that tradition. Rev. Turner, Beatrice Shelby and their colleagues across the Delta do vital work on the subject of obesity, which is a cause adding so much to our health problems in diabetes, heart disease and other maladies. We would encourage all our partners to urge their Members of Congress to provide full funding for their very important work.

Deputy Under Secretary Victor Vasquez of USDA Rural Development is one of the leading experts on regional community and economic development in America, and he gave us an update on USDA’s heightened emphasis on regionalism under Secretary Tom Vilsack’s leadership. He also summarized the recent establishment of USDA’s office on community and economic development, which is broadly similar to the USDA Office of Community Development that Victor Vasquez led, and that had so many successes in the Clinton administration in supporting Empowerment Zones, Enterprise Communities, the Delta Regional Initiative, and other notable accomplishments.

Deputy Secretary Vasquez was ably backed up by David Villano and Jessica Zufolo of the Rural Utilities Service, who covered the important subject of expanding broadband access to the underserved Delta and getting our region fully plugged in to the information highway.

The national Housing Assistance Council was a major cosponsor of this conference and continues to be one of the leading supporters of the Delta regional movement. The Housing Assistance Council (HAC) has always been very active in the Delta, recognizing the serious needs of our region. HAC was one of the major cosponsors for this conference. Joe Belden, Associate Director of HAC, gave a very informative presentation about rural housing issues in the region, which is particularly timely given the importance of the housing sector in bringing about economic recovery, which is clearly too slow but seems to be making progress.

Stephen Copley is a Methodist minister in Arkansas who works with Arkansas Justice For Our Neighbors and other worthy causes. The Hispanic population in the Delta is growing exponentially and will only continue to do so as time passes. Rev. Copley is particularly active in projects to aid lower income Hispanics in the southeast Arkansas Delta. We need to give increasing attention to the growing Hispanic population in our region and will work with Rev. Copley in that regard.

The Farm Services Agency representative from the Deputy Administrator Brandon Willis’ office, Craig Trimm, gave an update on disaster relief payments to farmers. Agriculture is still a major economic force in our region, which generates economic development not only for farmers but for seed, implement dealers, equipment manufacturers, banks and many other people. When an economic or other disaster strikes, we need to be supportive of helping the victims, and certainly for the people who put the fiber for many products and the food on our tables.

The oil disaster session had as high a quality from the speakers as any session we have ever held. We plan to send out a series of messages from various of the participants in the coming days and weeks.

We started out with Congressman Charlie Melancon, who represents the coastal Louisiana district that has been most severely damaged by the oil disaster, and Congressman Joseph Cao, who represents New Orleans. Rep. Melancon has unfailingly spoken to our group and is highly admired in our organization for standing up for the serious needs of his constituents through the two disasters of Katrina and the oil spill.

Rep. Cao spoke to our group for the first time, and he has earned a lot of praise for working across both sides of the aisle on key economic recovery issues. We strongly encourage you to contact your Members from all eight states in strong support for the Gulf Coast economic recovery plan. If a disaster struck people farthern north in the future, we would want our southernmost colleagues to be supportive of those of us farther up the Mississippi River. All eight states ought to join in calling for full funding for the Gulf coast recovery plan.

We were glad to have brief but excellent presentations from two Washington, DC leaders who were very active in helping out after Katrina and remain interested in the Gulf today: Rev. Greg Wolfe of Seven Locks Baptist Church in Potomac, Maryland, who worked extensively in helping Katrina survivors in New Orleans; and Deacon Katherine Miller-Holland, Director of Church and Community Ministries and Coordinator, Lutheran Disaster Response of the National Capital Area, who did extensive work in helping the large number of Katrina evacuees who moved to the Washington, DC area in the aftermath of Katrina.

The oil disaster session was superb in quality, although by the third day many people had to go home to cut down on the great expense of travel to Washington, DC, so the turnout was much lower on that day. There was also not much participation from many Washington, DC people, which is an indication of the unpleasant reality that after the well was capped and people could not see the ghastly image of oil gushing out on national television and the oil spill was not in the headlines every day, there was unfortunately a sharp drop in interest in the plight of the Gulf Coast in Washington, DC. All we can do is redouble our efforts to put the Gulf Coast issues on the radar of Congress, and we have an eight-state Congressional delegation plus some nationally prominent leaders and organizations helping us do that.

Rev. Dwight Webster, senior pastor of Christian Unity Baptist Church in New Orleans, speaks with tremendous eloquence about the plight of New Orleans. His home was flooded during Katrina, and only now is he finally moving back into his house after commuting to New Orleans from California where he has family for five years. Many of his parishioners were victims of Katrina from the Ninth Ward and elsewhere in New Orleans, and his church now operates on a fraction of the budget it had in the pre-Katrina era.

Rev. Webster expressed gratitude for some recovery efforts, such as the $1.8 billion in funding for “bricks and mortar” work in the schools that Sen. Landrieu and others obtained. But he also gave a candid assessment of how much will be needed and how serious the problems are. He stressed that the capping of the well does not mean the problems are “solved;” far from it, the fishermen, oil industry workers, hotel and restaurant employees, and others who lost their jobs, plus the ripple impact on related industries, has placed a tremendous strain on the region that will be present for years.

We know from the Institute of Medicine conference in New Orleans this summer that many children suffered permanent psychological scars from Katrina, and now many of those same children must endure a second disaster in only five years. Rev. Webster said that estimates indicate there is only one social worker for every 600 children in the area. Gov. Jindal unfortunately closed down many mental health facilities in New Orleans, and again we know that mental health problems for those who lost their jobs or were otherwise harmed by the recession are escalating and will continue to do so.

Rev. Webster pointed out the glaring flaws in FEMA’s policy of asking many New Orleans residents to elevate their houses. The funding provided is only $30,000 per house, whereas it costs $100,000 to elevate a brick house, on top of other logistical difficulties with the insurance. This is another example that FEMA is not listening to grassroots voices and is not using common sense.

Rev. Webster was joined on the agenda by his son Toussaint, now a graduate student at American University. Toussaint clearly inherited his father’s public speaking skills, and gave us a dynamic presentation that bodes well for the future of New Orleans. Toussaint Webster said he plans to return to New Orleans after finishing his graduate work, and we all know how vital it is to have our best and brightest minds return to the Delta to live and work rather than going to Dallas, Chicago, New York or other places where the salaries are higher but the needs are far less than those of the Delta.

Rev. Webster spoke and moderated a panel of New Orleans leaders. Jessica Vermilyea, director of Louisiana Social Services Disaster Response is directly involved every day in leading the response to the oil disaster. She works closely with many other nonprofits that are heavily involved in the response, such as the United Way, Second Harvest, Catholic Charities and many others. She gave a colorful and impassioned presentation about the trauma so many people on the Gulf are experiencing.

As another example of our bad luck this time around, we had been looking forward to hearing from Dr. Kevin Stephens, a distinguished medical doctor, associate pastor of Christian Unity Baptist Church, and former head of the New Orleans health department before, during and after Katrina. He won accolades from Congress for his Congressional testimony on his work responding to Katrina. Unfortunately, Dr. Stephens had to give depositions regarding some deaths that happened during his service as head of the New Orleans health department, so we lost another key participant because of that. We have gotten to know Dr. Stephens during our recent work on the coast and he, like Rev. Webster, gives us hope for the future of the coast because of his leadership.

We will be encouraging people to make charitable contributions to Lutheran Social Services Disaster Response in follow-up communications in the coming days and weeks. Jessica Vermilyea and her colleagues at Lutheran Social Services did a great job of helping people after Katrina and they continue to do so in responding to the oil spill.

Jessica Vermilyea and the other New Orleans representatives emphasized the many problems that people will be facing for a long time to come, including substance, mental health issues and many other traumatic experiences from having to deal with a second disaster in five years. Jessica was also crucial in indicating to us that BP must be included in the conversation as we move forward. The other New Orleans leaders we consulted agreed with that estimate, because rather than condemning BP for past mistakes we should recognize that they have an extensive capacity to help in the recovery process. Based on this advice we asked BP’s Vice President for Resources, Darryl Willis, to speak.

Mary Joseph, Director of the Children’s Defense Fund for Louisiana, spoke poignantly about the need to help children who are trying to deal with the trauma of Katrina and now the oil spill. We would like to extend our appreciation to Ms. Joseph for her support for the Community Health House Network, which is an excellent response to the health care problems generated by the oil spill. James Miller, Dr. Aaron Shirley of the Jackson Medical Mall Foundation and I met with Ms. Joseph several times in New Orleans and we were greatly encouraged by her supportive response to this model that offers health care at the grassroots level in a coordinated way so that no one is left out.

Ms. Joseph spoke eloquently about her own trials at the time of Katrina when she temporarily became homeless, had to be uprooted and move to Baton Rouge. She should be a familiar face to Delta Caucus partners, because she has been a prominent figure in Louisiana for many years and addressed our session after Katrina five years ago. She was formerly Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Louisiana state government handling important programs such as food stamps, child assistance, TANF and ther vital programs. She had known CDF’s leader, Marian Wright Edelman, for many years and Ms. Edelman asked her to become the head of Louisiana CDF. We are glad that choice was made and Mary Joseph will be doing great work for the young people of Louisiana for many years to come.

Entergy Corp. has an excellent record in supporting community and economic development for economically distressed areas of the Delta region in Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi. We were glad to have Patty Riddlebarger, director of Corporate Social Responsibility, give a presentation about Entergy’s important work in responding to the oil spill.

Ms. Riddlebarger said that after Katrina, there was an outpouring of hundreds of thousands of volunteers coming to help and many charitable donations. Through Teach for America and other programs, failing schoold decreased by 21% as people sought to improve educational opportunities after Katrina. Student achievements in English and math saw double digit improvements.

Then the oil spill erupted and a whole new set of problems emerged. Ms. Riddlbebarger noted that housing affordability is second only to New York now in New Orleans. The housing itself in New York is much more expensive, but when the gap in median wages is figured in, New Orleans is second. She was pointing out the daunting challenges the southernmost part of our region faces, but she emphasized that the people of New Orleans and the coast have a remarkable resiliency. We know that Entergy will be with them every step of the way in rebuilding from this disaster.

We will be sending out a separate message soon summarizing Patty Riddlebarger’s presentation. Entergy has been a stalwart partner of the Delta regional movement going back to the Clinton administration’s Delta Regional Initiative and before. Clifton Avant of Entergy was a key leader for the Delta Caucus for many years. He is transitioning to other activities although he still gives us sound advice, and we look forward to continuing to work with Entergy for regional economic development.

Natalie Jayroe, CEO of the Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana, is another New Orleans leader at the center of the effort to respond to the oil spill. After the oil spill there have been major increases in use of food banks in the area from people who either lost their jobs or were otherwise harmed by the spill.

The reality is that even before the oil spill, the recession was causing stress to many food banks. Natalie Jayroe’s facility is part of the national system of food banks of Feeding America, and we also appreciated her participation at the USDA session on nutrition on the second day of the conference. We will be following up with a separate message soon about the vital set of issues that Ms. Jayroe and her colleagues work on every day.

Thomas Oppel is the senior assistant to Secretary Ray Mabus, President Obama’s choice to head the Gulf Coast recovery plan. Mr. Oppel was also one of Ray Mabus’ key aides when he was Governor of Mississippi at the time of the Lower Mississippi Delta Development Commission, working closely with then Governor Bill Clinton at that time. Mabus has a long background of involvement in issues related to the Greater Delta region, and we feel encouraged that a son of Mississippi and the region is leading that effort.

Oppel said that weaning the navy off of fossil fuels is one beneficial activity that Secretary Mabus is leading. We certainly support any efforts to reduce our dependence on oil. Oppel stressed that in gathering information about the recovery plan, Mabus and his staff have sought out advice from a wide variety of sources, including local leaders, business, environmental groups and all others across the board.

Oppel cautioned people to avoid unrealistic expectations regarding the coastal recovery plan, saying that it is not possible to restore coastal wetlands in this administration. We know that southern Louisiana has lost land equivalent to the size of Delaware since World War II, so we know he is being candid with us in saying that all that damage cannot be restored in a few short years. We appreciate the candor, although we do want to press for full funding for the Gulf recovery plan, which should be seen as a national and not just a regional priority. It is a negative for the national economy to have such a productive region as the Gulf coast in oi, natural gas, seafood and so many other ways that is in such economic distress. It would be a plus for the entire economy to jump-start the economy in that region and make it an engine of jobs and economic growth.

Oppel said that the Gulf Coast recovery plan has to be a first step in a long-term effort. he said that all through the meetings they held along the coast, they stressed that this must be a “Gulf-led effort, and not an effort imposed by Washington or universities outside the region.” He said they need a dedicates source of funds for the recovery. Those are tremendously important points.

DRA Federal Cochairman Chris Masingill, his chief of staff Bill Triplett and other DRA officials have had input into the recovery plan. Oppel said he had received a report from the DRA on the subject and had frequently talked with Masingill and Triplett on this subject. The Delta Caucus partners believe that is a very positive step to include the DRA prominently in this work.

Oppel said that many organizations had developed good plans on environmental, wetlands and other issues, and rather than re-inventing the wheel they planned to make good use of those existing plans. He said Secretary Mabus’ plan will be a basic framework, not a list of specific projects. He did say that he and Secretary Mabus had enjoyed eating large quantities of seafood while they were on the coast, in contrast to some of their colleagues who were not from the region. They will have the specific recommendation of buying more seafood for the military.

Congresswoman Jo Ann Emerson spoke on several key subjects, with the topic of greatest interest being FEMA’s ill-advised plan to redraw the flood plain maps. Before she got into the heart of her remarks, she recalled that her Missouri constituent and now the second ranking official at the DRA, Alternate Federal Cochair Mike Marshall of Sikeston, Missouri, had once named one of his cows after her when she first ran for Congress. Ever the bipartisan statesman, Mike had also named another of his cows after Emerson’s Democratic opponent, Emily. Emily the cow died before the cow named after Congresswoman Emerson, who aside from being greatly admired for her work for the Delta’s economic development, is also probably the only Member of Congress in history to have a cow named after her.

After the commentary on Chairman Marshall’s policies regarding naming of his cows, Rep. Emerson proceeded to give a candid and informative assessment. We can truthfully say that she is one of the few Members of Congress nowadays who has a richly deserved reputation for working across both sides of the aisle. Rep. Emerson pointed out that in their plan to redraw the flood plain maps across the Delta, in southeast Missouri there are some businesses and houses that are clearly on high ground that are classified as being in a flood plain, when they had never been categorized that way before and there is no justification for it. There are also places that are quite close to the levees that are classified as NOT being in flood plains. That is also flatly erroneous.

Rep. Emerson was, in our view, just giving a candid and accurate appraisal in saying that FEMA had not done a good job on the flood plain maps, to put it very diplomatically. She also said that the Corps of Engineers had allowed FEMA to do too much of the work on the maps, which if not replaced by more competent assessments will escalate flood insurance costs and add another obstacle to efforts to attract investment and promote economic growth in the region.

Rep. Emerson spoke in favor of renewable energy sources like biomass. The use of rice straw, rice hulks for energy would reduce our dependence on foreign oil. She pointed out that EPA has unfortunately come up with a determination that woody biomass is considered the equivalent of coal. The Congresswoman said this flies in the face of legislation focusing on renewable energy, and we agree. Our dependence on foreign oil causes many complications nationally and internationally, from dependence on foreign oil in chaotic, hostile regions like Iran and other areas of the Middle East, increases air pollution, and also forces us to drill far beneath the surface of the sea for oil, with the inherent risks that we all can now see too clearly in the oil blowout in the Gulf.

BP’s Darryl Willis gave an update on the cleanup. He told the group that he grew up in New Orleans and was involved in the director for the claims process. He said the well had stopped flowing on July 15, but he recognized that there is still a substantial amount of oil out there to be cleaned up. He said BP will keep working until all the oil is cleaned up, and that there are still 25,000 people, 2,600 vessels, and several dozen aircraft working on the cleanup.

Darryl Willis emphasized that BP is acutely aware that “we will be judged on how we respond to this spill.” To date, he said BP had spent $9.5 billion on the cleanup.

Mr. Willis said that Ken Feinberg, who is in charge of expediting claims for those harmed by the spill “has a tough job.” We know that Darryl Willis also has a tough job and appreciate him for coming to this session. He knew some people would give him tough criticisms after the obvious mistakes that we all know BP made, yet he came anyway and gave a fine presentation. We need to continue including BP in the dialogue and encourage them to keep working hard on the long-term recovery.

We had presentations from two officials connected to FEMA back when it was considered a model agency in the Clinton administration. Kay Goss was associate director of FEMA when it did an exemplary job of responding to many disasters. Today she is a nationally recognized disaster relief expert and we have always benefited from her advice. Barry Scanlon, president of Witt Associates, participated as well. Mr. Scanlon is of course a senior official at James Lee Witt’s firm in Washington, DC, and we all remember what an excellent reputation Mr. Witt when he was director of FEMA in the Clinton years.

James Miller of the Health House Network is an indefatigable champion for that excellent health care innovation. Mr. Miller, Dr. Aaron Shirley of the Jackson Medical Mall Foundation and I held a series of meetings with leaders in southern Louisiana and were greeted with very positive responses. James has explained on many occasions how well the health houses are suited to respond not only to the special health care stresses generated by the oil spill, but to health care issues across the entire eight-state Delta region.

We have discussed the Health Houses earlier in this overview and there are also extensive articles about them on the Delta Caucus website at Click on the link “Caucus Articles,” and that will give you a chronological list of the articles, with several focusing on the merits of health houses. We look forward to continuing to support James Miller’s tireless efforts on behalf of the Health Houses.

Former Congressman Bill Alexander, who represented the east Arkansas Congressional First District, spoke about renewable energy. Congressman Alexander was a champion for renewable energy over thirty years ago, and has seen the renewable energy movement grow from a small minority to a much more influential coalition today. However, he emphasized that despite some limited progress on somewhat more use of alternative energy in recent years, America is still dangerously dependent on foreign oil.

Congressman Alexander pointed out that one massive cost of our dependence on foreign oil is never included in the equation of the costs. It is highly unlikely that the United States would have embarked on the massive costs of the Iraq war if the existence of such huge oil reserves in that region had not existed. If the defense factors were factored into the equation, renewable energy would easily be cheaper.

Alexander, now president of Alexander & Associates in the Washington, DC area, is working on renewable energy projects in eastern Europe for converting municipal waste into energy. This is the kind of project that would be beneficial to the Delta. We applaud Congressman Alexander’s pioneering and continuing work for renewable energy.

Ken Smith was formerly US Assistant Secretary of the Interior in the Clinton administration, later head of the Arkansas Audubon, and now a consultant focusing on energy efficiency and expanded use of renewable energy. We should give credit to Ken Smith’s support for the Clinton administration’s Delta Regional Initiative, when he was primarily responsible for the many contributions the US Department of Interior gave to that worthy initiative.

Ken Smith is involved today in a wide range of initiatives for energy efficiency and renewable energy. In fact he has important meetings this week in Mississippi on that subject. We plan to send out a message focusing on the specifics of his presentation soon.

Bill Alexander and Ken Smith are two of the leading proponents of renewable energy in America today, and we were honored to have their participation and look forward to working with them in the future to support expanded use of renewable energy.

Thanks so much to everyone for participating in the Delta conference this year. Lee Powell, executive director, Delta Grassroots Caucus (202) 360-6347