chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
October 01, 2006

One Heckuva Snafu: The Environmental Justice Implications of Katrina

by Leslie G. Fields

New Orleans needs no introduction. It means many things to all of us. And we were moved to tears, despair, and sadness by the events in New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf caused by the destruction of Hurricane Katrina—and let us not forget Rita. The whole world witnessed the wrath of Katrina and the second slow maelstrom of the breakdown of New Orleans. More than 1,500 people perished. Although Katrina was a force of nature, its aftermath was a man-made disaster. Man-made social inequities contributed to environmental justice implications that magnified this disaster.

The Real New Orleans

New Orleans is a shallow bowl that sits mostly below sea level, tucked between enormous Lake Pontchartrain to the north and the Mississippi River to the south. Lake Pontchartrain is more than twice the city’s size. The Gulf of Mexico is roughly fifty miles away. As a result, the city is extremely vulnerable to flooding and depends on an aging system comprising 125 miles of levees, along with drainage canals and pumping stations, to push water back into the lake. In the flood control business, New Orleans is known as the Big Pumper rather than the Big Easy.

As a tourist, it is easy to romanticize New Orleans. Yet there was nothing romantic about 28 percent of the city’s pre-Katrina population living below the poverty level, of which more than 80 percent were African American, according to the 2006 Russell Sage Foundation report, In the Wake of the Storm: Environment, Disaster and Race after Katrina. Before Katrina, Louisiana rated 47 percent of New Orleans schools as “academically unacceptable” and placed another 26 percent under “academic warning.” These schools were over 90 percent African American. About a quarter of the adults had no high school diploma. An estimated 187,000 Louisiana students were displaced by Katrina. The hurricane closed all of the 116 schools in the entire city’s school system. Many were contaminated by toxic muck left behind when the flood waters receded.

Before Katrina, the city counted 188,000 occupied dwellings, with about half occupied by renters and half by owners. The housing stock was much older than the national average, with 43 percent built prior to 1950 (compared with the 22 percent U.S. average) and only 11 percent built since 1980 (compared with the 35 percent U.S. average). Of those houses, more than 110,000 were flooded, and 90,000 sat for days and weeks in more than six feet of water during the late summer heat. These conditions contributed to serious mold contamination. Citywide, 30,000 to 50,000 homes are expected to be demolished or extensively repaired.

In 1996, there were more than 13,000 public housing units. Before Katrina there were 7,100 units, containing 5,146 families. The almost 2,000 vacant units were waiting to be demolished, according to the Advancement Project, a national democracy and justice action group. As of late June 2006, only about 880 of these families had returned. Now, the Department of Housing and Urban Development—the Housing Authority of New Orleans is in receivership—plans to demolish 5,000 units, with no clear plan for bringing back the African American families who once inhabited them. These families formed the underpinnings of the kinship networks that girdled these communities.

Many of the working class and poor African Americans were descendents of residents who suffered through the catastrophic flood of 1927. That flood affected six states, leaving 246 people dead and 700,000 displaced—half of them black. In an attempt to divert the floodwaters, the Caernarvon, Louisiana, levee was demolished. Downtown New Orleans was relatively unharmed; however, the marsh below the city, with its large black community, was destroyed. Then, as now, haunting pictures and descriptions of the devastation shocked the country. Black men were forced at gunpoint to work nonstop for days to build up the levees, while their families suffered in squalid evacuation camps for months. Indeed, historian Rob MacDougall points out that “[n]ational guardsmen were used to keep sharecroppers imprisoned in the refugee camps until they could return to working the land, and local officials charged homeless blacks—on credit, ever deepening their debts—for food and medical supplies the Red Cross had intended to be free.” Rob MacDougall, The Good Flood (Sept. 6, 2005), www.robmacdoug See generally John M. Barry, Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America (1997).

Many scholars believe that black resentment over the way the Republican administration handled relief efforts caused the historic shift in black allegiance from the Republican to Democratic Party. Thus, the flood of 1927 also contributed to the exodus of blacks from the region to the north and west, as part of the Great Migration. Then as now, the flood wrought physical, political, social, and legal changes. The Flood Control Act of 1928 was the most expensive single bill Congress had ever enacted. But in the wake of the flood and right through the New Deal years, the prime beneficiaries of the new federal paternalism remained the region’s white planter class.

Hurricane Katrina relief legislation included $6.1 billion in tax breaks to help families recover from the hurricane and to encourage Gulf Coast businesses to reopen their doors, or at least keep employees on the payroll, and $62 billion for recovery and rescue. President George W. Bush proposed a Gulf Opportunity Zone with about $2 billion in special tax breaks encouraging businesses to build or expand in the region. It remains to be seen who really will benefit from this largesse.

How Now the Levees?

Not only are New Orleans and its population residing in a bowl tucked between the lake, the Gulf, and the Mississippi, but all of south Louisiana is sinking. The Mississippi delta is subsiding faster than any other place in the nation. The earth deposited by the river crushes the soft soil beneath it, and abandoned delta areas slowly disappear under water. Human activity has accelerated this process. Since the nineteenth century, the Army Corps of Engineers have dredged and leveed the river, which cuts off the delta’s main source of silt. The silt travels down the Mississippi and should be deposited at the mouth of the river in order to restore the wetlands. The wetlands naturally buffer against storms, filter the water, provide recreational and tourism opportunities, and provide habitat for diverse species of wildlife. Instead, the levees choke this wetland growth by obstructing the silt from the river getting to the delta. Since the 1950s, engineers also have cut more than 8,000 miles of canals through the marsh for petroleum exploration and ship traffic. These new ditches sliced the wetlands into a giant jigsaw puzzle, increasing erosion and allowing lethal doses of salt water to infiltrate brackish and freshwater marshes. In addition, the weight of large buildings and infrastructure, the leaching of water, and all the oil and gas development beneath the surface across the region have contributed to the deterioration of the region’s natural protections.

The combination of sinking land and rising sea level has put the Mississippi River delta on average two feet lower, relative to sea level, than it was sixty years ago, according to University of New Orleans geologists. By 2100, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Geodetic Survey, and other agencies, the area will be an additional 3.2 feet below sea level.

Levees typically began as natural structures, created by silt deposits from large rivers like the Mississippi when they periodically overflowed their banks. The formal levee system in New Orleans dates to about 1890, when the Orleans Levee District was created. Especially after the catastrophic flood of 1927, levees were built by the federal Army Corps of Engineers, which took on a major flood-control role after that deluge. Most levees along the main Mississippi River channel are federally constructed. But, in some areas, including around Lake Pontchartrain, some levees were built privately or by local governments and may not have the same degree of engineering.

Improvements to New Orleans’s levee system have been somewhat piecemeal because this work is very expensive. For example, designs have been completed to reinforce the pumping stations with walls to prevent the backflow of water into the city during heavy storms. But, as of 2003, just one of three major drainage canals received these reinforcements.

And Louisiana State University’s Hurricane Center has concluded that Katrina’s surges did not come close to overtopping the levees. That conclusion suggests faulty design, inadequate construction, or some combination of the two as the likely cause of the floodwall breaches along the 17th Street and London Avenue canals—and the flooding of most of New Orleans. In June 2006, the Army Corps of Engineers concluded that the levees it built in the city were an incomplete patchwork of protection, containing flaws in design and construction, and not built to handle a storm as strong as Katrina.

Environmentally Speaking . . .

The toxic stew and muck left from Hurricane Katrina and every imaginable contaminant will affect living things for years to come. The flood waters that inundated New Orleans carried a mixture of soil, sewage, and industrial contaminants. When the flood receded, it left behind a layer of sediment—in some places up to four inches thick—that still covers the ground and even coated the interiors of peoples’ homes. Testing by Wilma Subra, a Louisiana-based chemist, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and others revealed that this sediment was contaminated with heavy metals, petroleum, pesticides, industrial chemicals, and polyaromatic hydrocarbons, which are cancer-causing chemicals from soot and petroleum-based products.

Within the impacted area, 2,200 underground fuel tanks ruptured, according to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. Officials surmise that thousands of cars, lawn mowers, and weed-eaters also are submerged, leaking gas and oil into the waterways. In addition, tens of thousands of barrels of oil spilled from refineries and drilling rigs in at least thirteen sites between Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf of Mexico. Katrina damaged fifty-eight drilling rigs and platforms in the Gulf, according to, an oil and gas industry website. One rig sank and another was swept sixty-six miles through the Gulf before washing up on Dauphin Island. It remains unclear how badly the hundreds of underwater pipelines connecting the oil to shore have been damaged.

This sludge will eventually settle into the soil and filter into the groundwater below, according to the NRDC. While it may be too early to predict the levels of total contamination, many of these chemicals are known to cause cancer, birth defects, or neurological problems.

Drinking water quality remains a concern in New Orleans. The flooding disabled the East Bank Water Treatment Plant, rupturing more than 20,000 pipes, and damaged other facilities. It was initially reported that more than 100 million gallons of water were leaking daily, down to about forty or fifty million gallons a day as of September 2006. Leaking pipes contribute to low water pressure, which in turn causes contaminants to flow into the water system. The Sewerage and Water Board declared in June 2006 that the water was safe to drink, but it did not test at the tap in areas that had been flooded.

Repeating the Past

In 1965, Hurricane Betsy left a huge amount of debris laden with DDT, lead, asbestos, and industrial waste. This debris was dumped into what became the Agriculture Street Landfill (ASL). This landfill was eventually landscaped, and the area was promoted for “Negro” housing. Years later, residents started reporting numerous health issues and illnesses. Solid Waste and Recycling magazine reported that “300,000 cubic yards of excess fill were removed from ASL because of ongoing subsurface fires. (The site was nicknamed ‘Dante’s Inferno’ because of the fires.)”

After years of advocacy by the predominantly black community, the EPA eventually declared the dump a Superfund site. “Superfund” is the common name for the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). The only cleanup the landfill underwent was the removal of five inches of soil. A plastic barrier was put down and clean soil thrown on top. Notably, that whole African American neighborhood adjacent to the landfill was submerged by the 2005 flooding.

The Superfund bank account—money that would normally be used to pay for cleaning up hazardous waste sites that are “an act of God”—is broke. The tax on chemical and oil industries that paid for Superfund cleanups expired in December 1995. According to a 1998 report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, an environmental and health advocacy agency, $4 million for cleaning up hazardous waste sites goes uncollected every day the tax is not restored.

Katrina left one 100 million pounds of debris in its wake. That would fill ten thousand football fields, five feet deep. About 1.5 million units of white goods (refrigerators, freezers, and the like) were destroyed. Half a million electronic goods became useless debris. Louisiana Administrative Code Section 33:7 requires that an environmental assessment be prepared before the approval of any waste facility. The Secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality is granted the authority to declare an emergency upon receipt of evidence of an incident that requires immediate action to repair damage to the environment and that is a serious threat to life or safety. The secretary published the Eighth Amended Declaration of Emergency and Administrative Order on January 19, 2007.

The mayor of New Orleans, under his own emergency powers, reopened a previously closed and unpermitted landfill, the Old Gentilly landfill, to take in the Katrina debris. Community and environmental groups protested. A landfill adjacent to the Vietnamese community of Village d’Est, the African American community of New Orleans East, and the Bayou Savage Wildlife Refuge (the largest urban wildlife refuge in the United States), was proposed by the mayor, raising fears that a new ASL situation was being created. The city council, the Village d’Est, and the environmental community vehemently opposed this landfill on Chef Menteur highway. Proper permitting procedures were not followed, and drive-by inspections were allowed to proceed. A battle was waged in the courts and in the press (via the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the New York Times) against the Chef Menteur landfill most of the summer of 2006.

Other permitted landfills have been available to accept debris in nearby areas. The Stafford Act , 42 U.S.C. § 5121 et seq., permits the Federal Emergency Management Agency to conduct removal actions for temporary disposal of wastes but not to arrange for the final disposal without completing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. NEPA, 42 U.S.C. § 4321 et seq., requires that any federal agency taking an action that might significantly affect the quality of the human environment to analyze the environmental effects of those actions. No formal NEPA process has been considered to evaluate the post-Katrina options for waste disposal. New Orleans should take advantage of the opportunities to explore new ways to address the debris management problem.

Envisioning the New New Orleans

The residents who have returned to New Orleans have struggled mightily to rebuild their city. The diaspora, scattered across many states, has also fought hard to make their concerns known as stakeholders. Numerous state and local commissions (the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the Bring Back New Orleans Commission, neighborhood planning charrettes, and so on) have been created to plan for the future of Louisiana and its hardest hit communities. Some of these programs, such as the Road Home Program, have been very slow in providing funds to recovering residents. Community and environmental groups are considering a Stakeholder Debris Management Task Force to properly develop short-term and long-term recommendations for handling hurricane solid waste and debris. Louisiana could create world-class models of recycling within the waste industry.

Under the National Contingency Plan, 42 U.S.C. § 9605 et seq., the EPA is responsible for assessing and curing the numerous environmental health threats. In New Orleans, the EPA has instead deferred to the local agencies regarding the pronouncements of whether the city was safe to return to after the flooding.

The EPA’s legal authority exists under the Clean Water Act (33 U.S.C. § 1251 et seq.), the Resource and Conservation and Recovery Act (42 U.S.C. § 6901 et seq.), CERCLA (42 U.S.C. § 9604), and the Oil Pollution Act (33 U.S.C. § 2706). According to the NRDC, the National Contingency Plan regulations impose numerous obligations on the EPA to ensure that its responses to releases of hazardous substances or oil protect exposed residents. The NRDC maintains that all the major statutes include language—usually along the lines of “imminent and substantial endangerment”—that permits the EPA to go to court and/or issue administrative orders to permit any action the EPA feels would protect public health or the environment from imminent and substantial endangerment due to exposure to hazardous chemicals or petroleum.

Indeed, the EPA has used its authority in the past to take remedial action, such as relocating residents and communities out of harm’s way. The Love Canal scenario of the early eighties comes to mind. Yet in New Orleans, the EPA has not used its federal authority to respond to Katrina. The EPA sent conflicting signals that it was safe to return but published advisories on proper cleaning and toxic exposure. Thus, returning residents have been exposed to various levels of the leftover contamination.

According to the New York Times on January 20, 2007, seventeen months after Katrina and Rita, New Orleans was half its pre-Katrina size. According to the Louisiana Recovery Authority, about 191,000 residents have returned, down from about 444,000 before the hurricanes. The intractable poverty, economic stagnation, and racial isolation are even more glaringly evident. New Orleans is destined to shrink the way Galveston, Texas, shrank after suffering the effects of a devastating hurricane in 1900.

The reconstruction and rebuilding of New Orleans and the Gulf area should rival the Marshall Plan, which rebuilt Europe after World War II. Rebuilding New Orleans and the Gulf region without addressing the intractable race and class issues will condemn later generations to truncated futures. Both the natural and the man-made disasters require national remedies.

Legislation and policy remedies have been proffered by organizations such as the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Black Environmental Justice Network as well as various civil rights and faith groups. Public interest groups have highlighted the international law violations to the United Nations, the Inter-American Commissions on Human Rights, and the World Social Forum. The nascent 110th Congress hopefully will convene oversight hearings to address the outstanding environmental enforcement, procurement, and other issues.

So far, returning residents and good-hearted volunteers are trying to rebuild. This important part of the country should not be allowed to rot. This area is home to the oil and gas industry, a third of the country’s fishing industry, and a major world port, and it is the endpoint of the country’s main river, the Mississippi. Let us not forget that it is also an enormous recreational and cultural resource. So where is the national outrage?

As published in Human Rights, Fall 2006, Vol. 33, No. 4, p.5-8, 24

Leslie G. Fields

Leslie G. Fields is a consultant to the Natural Resources Defense Council and an adjunct professor at Howard University . She can be reached at [email protected].