Just outside New Orleans, a house lay tilted off its foundation. A lifeless body was sprawled nearby under a sheet. Margie Eugene-Richard, a resident of an impoverished African-American community, knew she had to evacuate.
This was not Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It was 1973, and a pipeline in the Shell Chemical plant down the street from the home of Richard's mother had just exploded, sending a shockwave through the neighborhood and thick chemical smoke billowing into the air.
Richard had grown up in the middle of Cancer Alley -- a dense, 100-mile stretch of petrochemical plants and refineries between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, where zoning is lax and threats to public health and the environment are common. Her neighborhood in the small town of Norco was boxed in on two sides by gas flares and roaring vent stacks. A second explosion at the Shell plant in 1988 killed seven workers, released 159 million pounds of toxic material, and convinced Richard to fight back. She organized her neighbors to demand that Shell give them a safer community. "You have to go out and command justice," she says. "Somebody has to ask God for the inner strength to be bold."
Richard led her neighbors in weekly meetings that hashed out a daring request: a complete buyout of the community. Over the next 12 years, they pressured Shell from every possible angle. They called in frequent environmental complaints to regulators. A "bucket brigade" measured air pollution with homemade sensors. A web camera mounted on Richard's trailer home streamed images of the plant spewing petroleum by-products. She brought in the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Xavier University of Louisiana to conduct workshops and other environmental groups to help lobby and talk to the press. She hounded company executives at meetings from Louisiana to Holland.
Racked by negative publicity, Shell finally capitulated in 2000, promising to slash emissions and later agreeing to relocate residents. Richard's efforts won her a 2004 Goldman Environmental Prize -- the first time an African-American had received the prestigious award.
Richard is 64 now, a mother of two, a former high school teacher and recent theology school graduate. After Katrina struck on August 29, she helped her neighbors with small yet crucial tasks: finding food and clothing through her church; applying for federal aid; and distributing health information, such as fliers from the Environmental Protection Agency on dealing with contaminated food, water, and air. Five displaced families have at different times slept in her spare bedroom. But Richard's earlier success against an adversary as powerful as Shell also encouraged her to think big as she sketches out plans for environmental justice in post-Katrina New Orleans.
At the top of Richard's agenda is her dream of persuading the city to construct a hospital that would be the world's preeminent research facility for environmental illness. Cancer Alley and the flood zone would be its laboratory. She's building support for the idea in conversations with groups such as the American Public Health Association and with individual doctors like Dr. Deborah Symonette, a relief worker from New York City who was stationed at Richard's church during the Katrina emergency. Richard recently pulled Symonette into a conference call with top EPA officials to add her professional expertise.
"Margie believes in the community leading the way," says Dr. Beverly Wright, director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. But as Richard recognizes, community is an elusive thing in post-Katrina New Orleans. "I won't be knocking on doors," she says, "because there are no doors." On past evidence, however, Margie Richard is unlikely to let little obstacles like that stand in her way.
-- Josh Harkinson