New Solutions for Safe Communities and a Secure Energy Future
Hurricane Katrina exposed shocking holes in both our social fabric and our security safety net when she tore through the Gulf Coast. The storm also carried important lessons about management -- or mismanagement -- of essential health and environmental safeguards.
Hurricanes are a fact of life on the Gulf Coast, and, invariably, some turn deadly. But decisions made by policymakers and elected officials have tremendous influence on our ability to absorb a storm's brute force.
Their choices will also determine how quickly and how well communities cope with Katrina's environmental fallout, and whether low-income people of color will suffer as disproportionately in the aftermath as they did in the storm itself.
A century of poor planning and industrial abuse has stripped away much of the Gulf Coast's natural protection against storms and flooding. More than 1 million acres of coastal wetlands in Louisiana have been drained, lost to development, or starved of the Mississippi River sediments they need to survive. These wetlands could have absorbed storm surge and floodwaters, substantially reducing the storm's impact. When the storm came ashore, it swamped aging, underfunded drinking water and sewage systems and hit more than 60 major industrial facilities and four Superfund waste sites hard in New Orleans alone, adding unknown toxins to the stinking, toxic flood.
Katrina caused nine oil spills totaling more than 7 million gallons, together ranking as one of the biggest U.S. spills in history. By contrast, the price shocks still rippling though the oil markets are not ultimately of Katrina's making. Rather they are due to soaring energy demand caused by years of official refusal to tackle our nation's energy dependence by diversifying our energy sources and improving fuel economy performance standards.
Fixing these problems will make Gulf Coast communities safer and more secure and reduce the longterm cost of coping with the disaster. Lessons from Katrina will pay dividends in other regions subject to extreme weather disasters as well.
Planning for a Change
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has assembled a team of its best experts on public health, toxic waste, urban design, coastal protection, energy security, and global warming to present a set of policies and practices to protect the safety and well-being of Gulf Coast residents -- today, during the recovery, and onward into a healthier, more sustainable future.
Protect Gulf Coast Communities from Toxic and Biological Hazards
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and independent experts should immediately broaden toxicity testing of water, sediments, and soils. Immediate widespread testing of water, sediment, and dried mud is critical to ensuring the safety of cleanup workers and returning residents, and for identifying toxic hot spots for containment and cleanup. Big industrial facilities, Superfund sites, and other toxic hotspots should be catalogued and evaluated, and any dangerous releases contained immediately. Immediate public disclosure of all information is also critical.
Quickly Restore Safe, Clean Drinking Water Supplies
More than two weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit land on September 17, 2005, 186 public water treatment systems in Louisiana and 229 in Mississippi were seriously compromised, completely out of commission, or unaccounted for; and 172 sewage treatment plants were not fully functioning. Hundreds more in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama were operational but expected to need repair or reconstruction. New Orleans' drinking water system was completely knocked out but has started pumping non-potable water in some areas for fire control. All told, at least 2.4 million people were without access to safe drinking water and bacteria levels in floodwaters greatly exceeded public health standards shortly after Katrina. All these systems will need financial and technical assistance to get back into full, safe operation.
Restore Natural Coastal Buffers to Protect Against Storms
Natural coastal barriers on the Gulf have nearly been destroyed by decades of industrial misuse and government- sponsored re-engineering gone awry. We must adopt a major coastal wetland restoration program in the wake of Katrina to build back what we ourselves destroyed. It is also critical to ensure that flood control projects ordered by Congress and developed by the Army Corps of Engineers are prioritized to protect population centers and serve legitimate flood control purposes, not the call of pork-barrel politics.
Rebuild for a Safe, Secure, Sustainable Future
Now is a chance to restore New Orleans' 19th century elegance using today's know-how and technology. That means energy-efficient, weather-resistant housing designed according to voluntary federal standards that save money and improve comfort for people who live there, no matter what their income. And it means family-friendly, mixed-use, mixed-income walkable communities like many affected areas had in earlier days.
Maintain Health and Environmental Safeguards
Lobbyists and their congressional allies are already lining up hoping to undercut long-standing health and environmental safeguards in the name of hurricane recovery. In a few select cases, it may make sense to make temporary accommodations in federal health and environmental rules to address legitimate needs. But nearly all of these can be accommodated without changes in current law, much less the blanket suspension legal safeguard being proposed by special interests.
Repair the Racial and Economic Inequity of Health and Environmental Risk
Environmental injustices have long plagued New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region. Cleanup efforts should adhere firmly to the standing Federal Executive Order designed to ensure environmental justice for communities of low income and color that are exposed to inequitable amounts of toxic pollution. In the rebuilding process, local governments' exercise of eminent domain powers should not be used to take properties in low-income communities of color.
Permanently Protect American Consumers from Energy Price Spikes
In the wake of Katrina, oil and natural gas prices were skyrocketing. Although the worst of the panic-induced run-up has abated, prices remain extremely high and experts are predicting a painfully expensive winter heating season. We cannot drill our way to energy security. The only real solution is to reduce the amount of energy we need to keep the economy humming. That means stronger fuel economy standards and rules requiring more efficient heating and air conditioning equipment and other energy conservation technologies.
Prevent the Added Threat of Global Warming
Global warming didn't cause Katrina. But experts agree the warming climate caused by heat-trapping pollution is adding fuel to tropical storms -- elevating category 3 storms into category 4 and so forth. Hotter climate also means more flood risk due to rising sea levels. There is growing bipartisan support in Congress and many states for concrete, market-based limits on global warming pollution.
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