Reconsidering the Rush to Rebuild the Big Easy

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Slowly, people are returning to New Orleans. An estimated 67 percent of the city's nearly half million pre-Katrina population is back. But many residents are desperate, and violent crime is on the rise.

"We are living on the frontier," says Pam Dashel of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a nonprofit environmental health and justice organization founded in 2000. "We've barely got the basics - gas, water and electricity. There are no shops, schools or grocery stores. There is no neighborhood."(122)

The call to rebuild the city echoes across the political spectrum. Poor peoples' organizations, local politicians, liberal advocates and dubious developers alike all want the city to rise again and cite its rich cultural heritage and historical importance.

But they differ sharply over how and for whom New Orleans should be rebuilt: as a Creole-flavored theme park for conventioneers, just as it was before the storm, or as a model of green development. Chuck Perkins, a fourth generation Louisianan and a Katrina survivor, says as long as his family is safe he will stay. "The government should use New Orleans as a model city to better prepare for storms, to ensure that a disaster like this never happens again."(123)

Largely left out of the discussion is whether - given the area's history of hurricanes, the vulnerability of the levee system, the fact that the land is sinking further below sea level every year and the contamination of large areas with toxics - parts of the city should be abandoned as residential areas.

Changing Climate, New Demographics

New Orleans sits precariously below sea level, within ten miles of a coastline that has been repeatedly battered by major hurricanes: Rita in 2005, Camille in 1969, and Betsy in 1965. But it was the enormity of Katrina that brought home the danger of the kinds of extreme weather events that climate change - including warming and rising seas - has made not only more common, but more damaging. Indeed, New Orleans is one of many coastal cities in the United States and around the globe facing similar climatic threats every year.(124)

Meanwhile the storm has already wrought the kind of profound cultural and demographic changes that ensure there is no going back to pre-Katrina days. According to the 2000 census, the per capita income of $17,258 in the city left 28 percent of the population and almost a quarter of families below the poverty line. The number of poor under age 18 is even higher at 40 percent.  

Before Katrina, the city was 67 percent African American, 28 percent white, and 3 percent Hispanic. Today's population is 76 percent black, only 19 percent white, and 1.4 percent Latino. One reason for the rise in the percentage of black people is that many cannot afford to leave the city because they lack the economic resources, such as insurance policies and savings to withstand major losses caused by episodic climatic events. Many who fled temporarily to shelters, trailers or higher ground have returned to wasted land and rebuilt in the very same locations devastated by wind damage and flooding.

The land they returned to is cheap, often toxic, and the residents lack the political influence to force clean up. This phenomenon - the de-facto segregation of minorities onto dangerous and contaminated land - has been dubbed "environmental racism."

"More poor people are living by these hazardous facilities and thus bear an additional burden. Catastrophic climatic events like hurricanes or flooding aggravate these sub-standard living conditions. The problem is this privileged American society that continues to live unsustainably," Dr. Beverly Wright stated in a recent report: "Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty 1987-2007."(125) Wright, a Hurricane Katrina survivor, is a sociologist and director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Tulane University.

Cancer Alley

Environmental racism is most evident in the low-lying coastal areas that are part of Cancer Alley, which starts in New Orleans along Lake Pontchartrain and runs parallel to the Mississippi toward Baton Rouge, in the southeastern part of the state. The corridor is home to seven oil refineries and approximately 260 heavy industrial plants. Together, they produce staggering quantities of waste, much of which is treated on-site or spewed into the environment.(126)

These facilities, as vulnerable to heavy storm damage as any home, are disasters waiting to happen. But when they are damaged by major impacts from storm surges and flooding, they can contaminate drinking water, soil, air and public health. According to a 2007 study by Urban Environmental Report: "[a]pproximately 21.6 percent of New Orleans's population is more susceptible to environmental degradation than the general public that lives in non-hazardous zones."(127)

Hurricane Katrina also highlighted the environmental danger from the massive proliferation of pipelines extending from the offshore oil exploration rigs, above ground storage tanks and some 260 industrial facilities within a seven-mile radius. Cancer Alley's tangled web of facilities is not built for or rated as hurricane proof and is completely open to wind and water damage.

Many parts of New Orleans were contaminated after Katrina with toxic sludge, according to Wilma Subra, a MacArthur Foundation Genius Award-winning toxicologist. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a report in September 2005 that concluded the sludge samples taken in the flooded areas contained more than 183 toxic chemicals.(128) Independent testing by National Resources Defense Council and Subra's lab confirmed there were high levels of arsenic, lead and dangerous petroleum compounds.(129) 

In spite of the controversial results, the EPA and Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) cleared the city for rehabilitation.(130)

Even if the pollution can be controlled and cleaned up, there is still the problem of the land itself. Before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf coast, the coastline was eroding at a rate of 25-35 square miles per year.

New Orleans' growth over time as a port, industrial center and tourist attraction has increased its vulnerability to the environment. According to Dr. van Heerden, a Louisiana State University professor who directs the Center for the Study of Public Health Impacts of Hurricanes: "The draining of marshes and expansion of the levee system has accelerated the natural sinking process that happens in any river delta area."

Hurricane Katrina removed 175 square miles of important wetlands that form a natural buffer zone with important implications for how fast the city falls below sea level. A United States Geological Survey (USGS) study found that New Orleans is sinking more than three feet per century. Currently, New Orleans, on average, is eight feet below sea level and drops off to 11 feet in some places.(131)

Approximately 30 percent of the land losses in coastal Louisiana are from natural causes, according to the Army Corps: "The remaining 70 percent are attributable to man's effect on the environment, both direct and indirect."(132)

The Army Corps and the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources put together a feasibility study for a wetlands restoration project that would cost $17 billion dollars and last 30 years. Many think it is unlikely that the U.S. Congress will approve the funding.

At this rate, many of the low-lying barrier islands outside New Orleans will disappear by 2050 and the city itself may not be far behind. In 2004, Dr. Chip Groat, director of the USGS in Washington, D.C., predicted that, "With the projected rate of subsidence [the natural sinking of land], wetland loss, and sea level rise, New Orleans will likely be on the verge of extinction by this time next century."(133)

The effects of the sinking may be exacerbated by erosion from more frequent and intense hurricanes. As climate change heats the surface temperature of our oceans, the wind velocity of tropical storms tends to increase. "Thus we have hurricanes on the scale of Hurricane Katrina," said Dr. Ben Santer of the Lawrence Livermore Labs at University of California-Berkeley. In September 2006 Santer predicted that there is an 85 percent higher probability of increasing intensity and frequency of hurricanes and cyclones in the near future.(134) A February 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report reached the same conclusion.(135)

The U.S. Center for Disease Control reports that the national average of cancer deaths per 10,000 people is 199.8. In Louisiana, the number is 230.4. The state's cancer mortality rate ranked second highest in the nation in 2003. And African Americans are more likely than whites to have and die from lung, colorectal, breast and prostate cancers - all of which have been linked to prolonged chemical exposure.(140) 

The task of building levees to protect below sea-level land and withstand intense storms is a daunting challenge. But even leaving aside cost and engineering feasibility, some experts warn that fortifying the city will not solve the problem. New Orleans will continue sinking and the sea will continue to rise, endangering homes; services such as hospitals and schools; and businesses including tourism, fishing, agriculture and energy industries.

If the scientists are correct, the odds are getting slimmer that the coast will be a safe place to live. Indeed, it may even be worse than that. "The same levees that we built to protect us from the storms are the very same levees that increase our risk to storms and make us more vulnerable," warns Forest Bradley-Wright, a Green Alliance energy efficiency consultant and Sustainable Rebuild coordinator. By impacting wetlands that can absorb storm surges and promoting erosion, the levees themselves are part of the problem.(136)

This process means that people on lower land and those stuck near hazardous facilities will be even more vulnerable than before Katrina.

Who Plans for the Future?

But it will probably not be the scientists or the poor who set the course and priorities for reconstruction. Developers and private investment are dominating the agenda in determining what the city is going to look like in the next 20 years. There are a few major corporations that are driving the planning, such as the Hyatt hotel chain and the Trump real estate empire, among others.(137)

Even as corporations and wealthier, predominantly white, citizens shape the redevelopment of New Orleans, the media, many Democrats and the left have defined advocacy for the economically marginalized communities in terms of access to land and redevelopment monies, which they say should be shared proportionately with poor communities. While such advocacy may appear to respect Katrina's displaced victims, who are predominantly black, it fails to serve their long-term interests.

The reason is that while humans may discriminate, nature does not. Simply put, what is good for a rich white community in the Garden District (money to rebuild and return) is not necessarily good for a poor community in the ruined 9th Ward. The wealthiest can gain security by relocating to higher areas, but the only option left to most people is building on the cheaper and more vulnerable lower ground.

For example, Canadian author Naomi Klein has promoted an interesting idea in an article in the Guardian (UK), "Power to the People," suggesting that reconstruction money should be divided up evenly and paid directly to the displaced residents.(138) Then they can choose where they want to live - which might be a safer place far away from eminent danger. But this may not be sufficient, because it also allows people to return to the very same vulnerable areas because they are affordable. The scheme fails to include the price of other considerations including insurance rates, rescue services, levees enhancement and so forth.

One controversial proposal is to turn parts of the city's low-lying areas into a flood plain, a greenway/park, and give the former residents the support and resources to rebuild on safer, higher ground. This plan is supported by a subcommittee established by New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, and by some national environmental groups.(139) This designated open space would be part of a natural buffer system that would protect the city from storm surges and reduce the population in areas threatened by seasonal storms.

Responsible progressives have failed to educate the most vulnerable communities on the extent of the dangers posed by resettling in New Orleans's threatened and toxic lower lands. And we have failed to shift our advocacy to demanding a more effective reallocation of resources. Taking note that the general public can no longer rely on governmental intervention during these types of disasters, we have to create to our own storm and heat wave emergency plans, communications, shelters and storage facilities. These should be allocated according to the most vulnerable neighborhoods, wards or districts.

"We are going to have to find a way to live in harmony with nature and learn from it." says Bradley-Wright, "because it is no longer man against nature, it is going to be person against person."

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