Did we learn any lessons from the hurricanes in the past five years?

Filed under: Earth Day,Environmental,Featured |

By Leslie G. Fields, National Environmental Justice Director, Sierra Club

The year 2010 marks the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, but later this year we will also arrive at the fifth anniversary of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Much has been written about the devastation of those hurricanes, but have there been any lessons learned regarding US energy policy and the disproportionate effect of the man-made and natural disasters on people of color and low-income folks in the Gulf region?

In 2005, hurricanes Katrina and Rita packed a one-two punch, both landing squarely in the oil and gas patch of the United States. About 2.7 million customers throughout the South found themselves in the dark in the immediate aftermath of Katrina. Nine refineries, responsible for 10 percent of the nation’s gasoline production, were shuttered and many others had their capacity reduced. Thousands of energy industry employees in the Gulf Coast had to be evacuated. Oil and gas production rigs and other massive infrastructure projects were damaged or destroyed. The main pipelines that emanate from the Gulf Coast and ship gasoline to the rest of the country were affected as well.

When Hurricane Rita made its way across the Gulf of Mexico, it pushed through many of the offshore block areas that contain the greatest number of oil and gas platforms. In fact, five of the top six areas containing the most offshore structures experienced 100+ mph winds. As a result of Katrina and Rita, 109 platforms were destroyed and another 57 platforms were significantly damaged. According to the US Coast Guard, the majority of the damage–80 platforms destroyed and 28 platforms damaged–was inflicted by Rita.[i] Gulf of Mexico oil and gas production were slow to recover.

Environmentally speaking, the affected area contained at least 2,200 underground fuel tanks, many potentially ruptured. Officials summarized that thousands of cars, lawn mowers and weed-eaters were also 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 13 sites between Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf of Mexico. Along the coast, Katrina damaged 58 drilling rigs and platforms in the Gulf, according to Rigzone.com, an oil and gas industry web site. At least one rig sank, and another was swept 66 miles through the gulf before washing up onto Dauphin Island. In total Katrina destroyed 115 platforms and damaged another 52 platforms.

Under the National Contingency Plan, 42 U.S.C. § 9605 et seq., the EPA has the responsibility for assessing and curing the numerous environmental health threats. Instead, the EPA has been deferring to the local agencies. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the National Contingency Plan imposes numerous obligations on the EPA to ensure that its responses protect exposed residents from hazardous substances or oil.

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, EPA sent conflicting signals, saying that it was safe to return while publishing advisories on toxic exposure. Thus returning residents have been exposed to various levels of the leftover contamination.

Although Hurricane Katrina was a force of nature, the aftermath of Katrina was a man-made disaster. It is easy to wax romantic about New Orleans as a tourist attraction. There’s nothing romantic about the fact that, even before Katrina struck, about 27 percent of New Orleans’ population of 484,000 were living below the poverty line, and 67 percent were African-Americans. Many African Americans in the states affected by Hurricane Katrina, particularly in the Mississippi Delta region, experienced some of the worst health, education and economic disparities of any minority population in the United States. The percentage of black families, for example, with incomes below the poverty level can be as high as 68% in some Mississippi counties, compared seven to14% of the white population with income below the poverty level. Similarly 24% of the black population in Mississippi is unemployed as opposed to 5% of the whites in the state.[ii]

According to the New York Times, on January 20, 2007, seventeen months after Katrina and Rita, New Orleans was half the size it was before the hurricanes struck. According to the Louisiana Recovery Authority, about 191,000 residents have returned, down from about the 444,000 before the hurricanes. While about 35% of African Americans in New Orleans live below the poverty line, 73% of the African American population was displaced by the storm. The intractable poverty, economic stagnation, and racial isolation are even more glaringly evident. Rebuilding the Gulf region without addressing the intractable race and class issues will condemn future generations to truncated futures.

The reconstruction and rebuilding of the Gulf area should have rivaled the Marshall Plan, which rebuilt Europe after World War. Legislation and policy remedies such as the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act have been supported by organizations such as the Episcopal Church, Amnesty International USA and other 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 ForumII. In the meantime, non-government entities such as the Make It Right Foundation and Global Green Grants have built more housing in New Orleans than the federal government.

II.        Ike’s Smackdown

In 1900,Galveston was the site was the worst hurricane in US history, when an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 people were killed. The city never recovered its former economic footprint as a new ship channel was built fifty miles inland to service Houston, which became the regional economic center. On September 13, 2008, Hurricane Ike hit Galveston as a Category 2 hurricane with winds of 110 mph.[iii] This hurricane was the most intense hurricane of the 2008 hurricane season and the fourth costliest U.S. hurricane of all time, behind Hurricane Wilma of 2005, Hurricane Andrew of 1992 and Hurricane Katrina of 2005.[iv]

Ike left Galveston without electricity, gas, water pressure and basic communication. Public housing projects in Galveston were one of the hardest hit areas.[v] The winds and giant waves caused by Ike’s low pressure destroyed oil platforms, tossed storage tanks and punctured pipelines.[vi] Ike dealt a harsh blow the Gulf of Mexico rig fleet. The damage was somewhat contained because many of the oil and gas producers shut down operations in advance of Ike’s approach as a precautionary measure.  Even so, both companies and residents reported around 448 releases of gas, oil and other substances into the environment in Louisiana and Texas.[vii]

The obvious question raised by these unfortunate series of natural and man-made disasters is what should be done to safeguard this country’s most vulnerable populations, particularly in the Gulf Coast region? How is the economy of this region modernizing so that the environment and its inhabitants will not be exposed to the effects of the damage of future severe storms?  How can African Americans and other people of color benefit from new sustainable energy supply systems?  Are we resigned to a future of increasing energy supply and price uncertainty with its concomitant dampening effect on the economic vitality of the nation?  And what are impacts of both the devastation and recovery efforts on vulnerable populations along the Gulf Cost and throughout the nation?

[i] http://www.rigzone.com/news/insight/insight.asp?i_id=180
[ii] http://www.iowaprojectexport.org/documents/gulf_african_americans.pdf
[iv] http://en.wikipedia.org/wik/Galveston.

Leslie G. Fields, ESQ. is the National Environmental Justice Director for the Sierra Club. She brings twenty years of international, federal, state and local environmental justice and environmental law and policy experience to her work with the Sierra Club. Ms. Fields is the former International Director of Friends of the Earth-US (an environmental NGO) in Washington, D.C. She is currently an adjunct law professor at Howard University School of Law (co-teaching international environmental law and co-coordinating the Environmental Law Clinical Externship). She has worked with community groups, nonprofit organizations, the private sector and all levels of government, and is particularly interested in the intersection of international environmental justice, democracy, corporate and civic governance and globalization. Ms. Fields has worked extensively on oil/gas natural resource extraction issues (e.g. the West African Gas Pipeline), climate change and water privatization in West and Southern Africa. She has also spent vast amounts of her spare time on the boards of: Horn Relief  (a Somali women’s development/environmental organization), CERES (the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies), the National Black Environmental Justice Network (NBEJN), the Texas NAACP and with EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council’s International Subcommittee. Leslie Fields is a graduate of Cornell University and the Georgetown University Law Center.


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Author: Kirwan Institute (427 Articles)

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