Katrina Reveals Environmental Racism’s Deadly Force
Beverly Wright New America Media, September 21st 2005
NEW ORLEANS–What we once called home is now a toxic wasteland. But our communities were polluted even before Hurricane Katrina. The 85-mile stretch from New Orleans to Baton Rouge is home to many African-American communities, as well as 136 petrochemical plants and six refineries. At the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Xavier University, I work with these “Cancer Alley” communities. I have learned how the use of fossil fuels hits us hard at the front end, through pollution from the production process. But we also suffer from a “boomerang” effect: the increased extreme weather patterns caused by global warming. Until August 29, 2005, this was just a scientific theory for many people. But on that day the predictions became reality and my beloved city was washed away. The situation in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast has pushed three critical issues into the national spotlight. First, Hurricane Katrina dramatically demonstrates our vulnerability to environmental disasters. Second, America still suffers from gross economic inequalities, and these inequalities largely coincide with race. Third, these two issues are linked, and the results can be deadly. Here lies the root the cause of the problems that we’ve seen in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast — the environmental and economic vulnerability of people of color and poor communities. There are two terms that aptly describe these intersections of race, class, and the environment: “environmental injustice” and “environmental racism.” Race played itself out in a poisonous way. Somehow, the French Quarter and the rich uptown area and the Central Business District were spared the brunt of the storm. The areas that were completely washed out were the lower 9th Ward, a community of poor working class, mostly African-American homeowners, and the New Orleans East area, composed of mostly African-American educated professionals and business owners. Both areas have a history of political engagement and high voter turn-out. Ironically, a large area of wealthy white citizens who mostly lived very near Lake Pontchartrain, called Lakeview and the University of New Orleans, also went down in the flood. The 17th Street Canal did not hold for them. The lesson learned here is that “doing for the least of us helps all of us.” Katrina is a test of how America should respond to the effects of global warming. It is a test that we are largely failing. Environmental scientists and activists have warned that warming ocean waters will increase the frequency and intensity of these storms. They have also warned that the working poor and people of color would bear the brunt of climate change impacts, at home and abroad. To address these issues, we need to begin reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. We must learn to build cities and towns that are less environmentally vulnerable and more sustainable. We need to address the root cause and protect against the impacts that are already coming. I know in my heart that New Orleans will be rebuilt. But who will do the rebuilding? The reconstruction of the city should not be controlled by government bureaucracies or a handful of giant corporations. Local people must be involved. Community organizations, small-business owners, churches, workers and families must be included at every step of the way. People in these communities know the landscape and culture of New Orleans and should lead the efforts to rebuild. Support should be given to organizations in poor and minority communities that are working on education, job placement, environmental protection and improved health care, to name just a few key issues. Seeing tens of thousands of African Americans camped day after day in front of the Superdome did what thousands of academic studies and political campaigns could not do — it brought empathy back to the debate about race. The rescue and relief efforts are a priority for now, but we must address the root causes of the disaster: environmental racism and environmental injustice. The images of victims left stranded with little food or water must be changed into pictures of the same individuals as victors rebuilding their communities and environments with all the resources that they need. That change will bring “environmental justice.” An opportunity like this comes but once a generation. If the experience in New Orleans has taught us anything it is that we cannot afford to delay. Now is our time to shine.
PNS contributor Beverly Wright, Ph.D., is executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, at Xavier University in New Orleans.