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From Katrina to COVID-19: Influences on a Career in Environmental Policy

By: Connor Fagan,
Knauss Fellow,
Science & Policy Analyst,
Marine Mammal Commission


In August of 2005, the winds and waves of Hurricane Katrina smashed through the city of New Orleans. A middle-schooler at the time, my life, along with millions of others, as a New Orleanian would never be the same. Since then, I have directed my studies and career towards environmental policy as a result of Hurricane Katrina and other disasters in the Gulf of Mexico.


For example, the State of Louisiana is attempting to prepare its coast in the face of sea level rise. To do this, the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority is redirecting soil and freshwater from the Mississippi River to parts of the coast, using what they call “sediment diversions,” or concrete funnels that are 11 miles long. Some experts are concerned that adding freshwater might hurt fish and marine mammals that prefer saltier water. With Louisiana Sea Grant, I researched whether protected dolphins in Barataria Bay would be impacted by these diversions. I continue to work on marine mammal protections throughout the country as a Knauss Fellow with the Marine Mammal Commission.



The Marine Mammal Commission is an independent, small agency that supervises all government activities that have to do with marine mammals. The Commission also communicates with the public and Congress about the protection of marine mammals. We do this, in part, by hosting our annual meeting. Among its widespread effects, COVID-19 caused us to shift our annual meeting plans. 


Since planning this annual meeting was a major part of my portfolio, I am now adjusting to new responsibilities and projects at the Commission. For the rest of my fellowship, my role as a Science and Policy Analyst will focus primarily on 1) restoration of marine mammals in the Gulf of Mexico, 2) assisting in drafting the Commission’s oversight letters, which allow the Commission to recommend ways to protect marine mammals from a variety of threats and 3) helping to provide marine mammal updates on our website and meet with members of Congress about the protection of marine mammals.



Thinking back on Hurricane Katrina, I cannot help but picture sailboats tossed around like toys in a bath-tub. We are currently in the midst of another disaster: the COVID-19 pandemic. This strange time has brought a wave of new laws, social norms, stressors and worse to many. Specific to the marine science field, many marine mammal observers, members of stranding networks and other field workers are not able to work due to social distancing ordinances. Without observers or stranding networks, beached whales, dolphins and other marine mammals might not make it back to the ocean. As with Hurricane Katrina, we are watching as the cascading effects of COVID-19 unfold before our eyes. 


Today, despite ongoing struggles, our work continues. I am part of a cohort of Knauss Fellows working towards evaluating and reducing the impacts of natural disasters, among a wide variety of issues. While my specialty is marine science—not epidemics, I look forward to continuing to work towards solving complex issues that involve science, policy and law.

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