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Katrina's Tough Lessons

Learning to respect nature's strength and her limitations

Aristotle said, "Nature does nothing uselessly." What, then, can we learn from Hurricane Katrina, one of the most deadly and costly storms the United States has ever endured?

This question haunted me last winter as I toured the Big Easy
-- the remains of the Lower Ninth Ward, St. Bernard Parish, New Orleans East -- and beyond to Cancer Alley, a 100-mile swath of petrochemical plants between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

The answer became clear: We ask much of our planet and depend on its natural systems to sustain us. But there's only so much we can demand of it before its fragile, interconnected systems begin to fail. Simply put, we set in motion the forces that allowed Katrina to wreak her havoc.

Together the oil, gas, and shipping industries helped destroy the region's wetlands, building canals and drilling operations that degraded these natural buffers by cutting them off from the restorative sediments of the Mississippi River. The destruction of the wetlands in the name of commerce, along with deeply flawed, shortsighted planning and governance, culminated in disaster for the most vulnerable communities along the Gulf of Mexico.

On a global scale, ample scientific evidence now suggests that hurricanes will continue to intensify as a result of global warming. Storms gathering in the tropical North Atlantic, for instance, can become more severe as a result of rising ocean temperatures. And this year -- as we enter a new hurricane season -- the Gulf of Mexico, due to various factors, is already considerably warmer than last year, raising concerns about what lies ahead.

As I walked through once-flooded streets and met with local residents who had lost everything, I felt heartache for the families whose lives were literally torn apart. But I also felt gratified by the actions NRDC took in the storm's immediate aftermath. We worked hard to educate and guide residents about the health risks associated with cleaning up their homes and moving back into their neighborhoods, and about the elevated levels of mold and toxins, including arsenic, that our scientists found lingering in many of New Orleans's devastated areas. We continue to push local, state, and federal agencies to take appropriate action to ensure the health and safety of returning residents. By the time I left New Orleans, I felt a new hope: If we take Katrina's lessons to heart, we may live in better harmony with nature, respectful of her strength and mindful of her limitations.

We don't have the power to stop natural disasters, but we can diminish their destructive force. We can begin to reverse global warming. We can demand change from our political leaders and from the heads of corporations, who must do more to encourage the use of sustainable energy sources like biofuels, solar, and wind. In our own daily lives, we can choose to buy more fuel-efficient cars and more energy-efficient home appliances. We can act on the lessons Katrina has taught us. We can build a safer world. And we can start in New Orleans.

Frances Beinecke

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ethanol in his State of the Union address. Entrepreneurs like Bill Gates have begun investing in it. And every blue-ribbon commission studying energy has embraced ethanol as a fuel of the future. One leading environmental group, [NRDC], predicts that ethanol, combined with other strategies, could replace all of the gasoline Americans would otherwise use by mid-century."
-- From "Ethanol's Promise," New York Times, May 1, 2006

"CONGRESS NEEDS TO RETHINK its wrong-headed energy policies. Nathanael Greene, of [NRDC], argues that the federal government's most important immediate step should be to enact a loan guarantee to create America's first cellulosic ethanol plant..."
-- From "Alternative Energy: Canola and Soya to the Rescue," Economist, May 6, 2006

"IF CHINA COULD BE PERSUADED to follow California's model -- strong energy standards and supportive government policies to nurture the widespread deployment of clean technologies -- everyone could benefit, said Rob Watson, who heads [NRDC's] international energy programs."
-- From "Go West, Old Men," by Thomas Friedman, New York Times, April 26, 2006

"[CHINA AND INDIA] ARE DESPERATE for energy to fuel the economic expansion that is pulling their citizens out of poverty, and despite bold investments in renewables, much of that energy will have to come from coal.... Barbara Finamore, director of [NRDC's] China Clean Energy Program, estimates that China's total electricity demand will increase by...the equivalent of adding four 300-megawatt power plants every week for the next 45 years."
-- From "The Impact of Asia's Giants," Time, April 3, 2006

Photo: Erin Patrice O'Brien

OnEarth. Summer 2006
Copyright 2006 by the Natural Resources Defense Council