Katrina's Vital Lesson

A decade after the costliest storm in U.S. history, we have a collective responsibility to act.

President Obama goes to New Orleans on Thursday to mark the Gulf region's struggle to recover from not one disaster but two: Hurricane Katrina and the collapse of the levee system that swamped the Crescent City 10 years ago this week.

In some respects, the recovery has been remarkable. Amid the celebratory air of all that's been achieved, though, I'm struck by the voices telling a very different story, the people who suffered the most when the levees collapsed and those for whom the promise of recovery remains elusive at best.

Ten years on, Katrina calls us to look at the way the oil and gas industry, the government, and the public itself have shrugged our collective responsibility to the natural world and all it supports, leaving the most vulnerable among us to pay the highest price. More than that, it calls us to act.

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina slammed into southern Louisiana with 125-mile-per-hour winds and 20 feet or more of storm surge, leaving in its wake some 1,800 dead and $151 billion in property damage. It was the costliest storm in U.S. history and the deadliest since 1928.

Make no mistake, this was an environmental disaster. Katrina grew into a monster while lingering for days over Gulf of Mexico waters that ranged between two and three degrees Fahrenheit warmer than normal. That packed Katrina with the kind of added force and moisture we've seen in other storms that brew over oceans that have been warming for decades due to climate change driven by the use of fossil fuels.

When the storm made landfall it was met not by a healthy system of coastal wetlands that might buffer the blow but instead by the anemic remains of a coast too ravaged by industry and government neglect to put up a fight.

Over the previous eight decades, Louisiana had lost more than 1,900 square miles of coastal wetlands, enough to cover the state of Delaware. The oil and gas industry had sliced the coast to ribbons for some 10,000 miles of pipeline routes and navigation canals and sucked vast amounts of oil and gas from the ground underneath; public levees built to hold the Mississippi River in its channels prevented river-borne silts and sediments from naturally replenishing the marsh; and a warming planet had driven up sea levels along the Louisiana coast more than eight inches over 50 years, double the global average.

With its first line of defense against the oncoming storm in tatters, New Orleans fell back on its last resort, the complex system of levees, flood walls, and pumps designed to protect the city from storm surge and floods. That system failed catastrophically due to design and construction errors admitted by its builders, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

In the end, amped up by warming seas, the storm rolled over a weakened natural buffer and overwhelmed the poorly built levees. It was the low-lying areas that flooded worst, of course, and many of those communities were low-income and predominately black.

In New Orleans, African-American homeowners were more than three times as likely to be flooded out as white ones. In low-income areas and communities of color, many people were hard put to find a way out of town or to access resources for aid.

Instead they clamored on rooftops awaiting rescue, baked in the hot sun on a highway overpass, or sought refuge in the overtaxed Superdome, in scenes that played out on international newscasts like some developing nation engulfed by disaster.

Today, the levees have been rebuilt with $14.5 billion in federal funds. The coastal wetlands, though, are still washing into the sea; the state continues to lose an area the size of a football field every 48 minutes.

Tourism and conventions are back. There are 4 percent more hotels and 11 percent more restaurants in New Orleans now than there were before the flood. But there are 20 percent fewer grocery stores and 26 percent fewer firms to build or repair a home.

There are fewer people overall, for that matter. The population of greater New Orleans remains down 10 percent from pre-Katrina levels, with 134,000 fewer residents -- and too few of the African-American residents forced out of their homes have been able to return.

Before the storm, New Orleans was 67.3 percent African-American, a figure that had fallen to 59.8 percent by 2014, the most recent year for which U.S. Census data exists. The city that is growing now is a wealthier place -- too wealthy for many of those who were once a critical part of its fabric, one reason many have yet to return.

With so much low-income housing destroyed in the flood, rents are up more than 40 percent. Public-housing units, largely demolished following the storm, have been replaced with nicer units than before -- but there are 60 percent fewer of them. And unemployment is further squeezing out prospects for those who might otherwise return. Just 57 percent of New Orleans' black men have jobs, compared to 77 percent of white men.

Any city that loses so many of its people would lose much of its character with their parting. New Orleans, though, far more than most, drew its identity from the mélange of personalities and cultures that defined its communities. Together, this unique mix of backgrounds -- French, Caribbean, African-American, indigenous peoples, and more -- formed the foundation of a place the world celebrates for the contributions of all its people.

In media reports in the coming days, we'll hear and see those people hailed for their resilience, a tribute to their spirit to prevail in the face of adversity. "Resilience," though, is a complicated word. We're all inspired by the strength of people who stand up and bound back from a blow. Far better, though, I believe, to create a world where people aren't beaten down by hardship they shouldn't be dealt in the first place.

That's part of what I hear in the voices coming out of this deeply scarred region and the people who bore the brunt of this blow. It's what we're also hearing from groups that work hard on shoestring budgets to advocate for environmental justice and recovery that's rooted in community priorities and needs.

Efforts like those of Gulf South Rising, a grassroots movement driven by people who have returned from Katrina's wrath or were able to avoid leaving in the first place, tell the vital truth in a way it can be heard. "The extreme extraction of limited energy resources, the subsequent pollution, and the lack of corporate and government accountability has damaged the land, people and system of democracy of the Gulf South," Gulf South Rising states in its 2015 strategic report.

What happened to this region, and what is happening to it still, is not confined to the Gulf Coast, nor is it a problem it should face alone. The layers of environmental and public policy crises behind this disaster are endemic to our country at large, playing out everyday in the lives of the low-income population and communities of color.

For, while we all pay a price for toxic chemicals in the water we drink, for pollution in the air we breathe, for the degradation of our lands, and the health of our wildlife, these communities are bearing an even greater burden. That is more than an offense to our sensibilities. It strikes at the core of our conscience. It strikes at the core of who we are as Americans.

"For as has flooded New Orleans, so has flooded the nation," native New Orleanian journalist Lolis Elie writes in Columbia magazine. For Lolis and the people he speaks for, recovery is about far more than fixing levees and building hotels. It's about more than simply taking back the flooded structures and sodden ground left behind in disaster's wake.

It's about taking back the voice of those who experienced the worst of the struggle and loss. It's about taking back the agenda to accommodate our common quest to build a more just and equitable nation. It's about taking back the future to reflect the values we share.

When the floodwaters filled New Orleans' streets, there were dire predictions of the city's demise. New Orleans proved too durable to die. Its people can take enormous pride in proving the naysayers wrong and returning, against the longest of odds, to roll up their sleeves and rebuild.

It would be callous beyond measure, though, to overlook the real and enduring costs of this disaster, an environmental tragedy compounded into catastrophe by human error and malign neglect. It would be reckless not to learn the vital lesson in this loss: that we act today to protect our environment and safeguard our people or invite ever-worsening disaster tomorrow. And it would be shameful to dismiss the plight of those who have lost not only their homes and businesses but also their essential place in this rich American tapestry we call New Orleans.

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Rhea Suh

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