Environmental Health Impacts of Hurricane Katrina
3:29 pm US Eastern Time
1. Introduction: Eleni Sotos, MA, National Coordinator, Collaborative on Health and the Environment
Thank you for joining us for today’s CHE Partnership Call focusing on the, Environmental Health Impacts of Hurricane Katrina. Joining us today is attorney Monique Harden, Co-Director of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, a New-Orleans-based nonprofit, public-interest law firm, with the mission of defending and advancing the human right to a healthy environment. Also joining us is Wilma Subra, MS, from New Iberia, Louisiana – who works with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, and who has provided scientific guidance to more than 800 communities across an area in Louisiana known as Cancer Alley. We also have on the line, Dr. Paul Epstein, who is the Associate Director at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Epstein is a physician trained in tropical public health. He has written an article on climate change and human health, which appears in the October issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. This article is available for review on the CHE website at: wwww.healthandenvironment.org. Welcome to all of our speakers. I’d now like to turn the call over to Charlotte Brody.
2. Welcome: Charlotte Brody, RN, Executive Director, Commonweal
Welcome and thank you all for joining us. It’s been six weeks since Katrina became the first Category 5 hurricane of the 2005 Atlanta hurricane season. Since then, Hurricane Rita and the resulting re-evacuation of evacuees, the mudslides in Guatemala, and the earthquake in Pakistan and India have displaced Katrina’s prominence in the press. But Katrina’s devastation has not disappeared. The damage to the coastal regions of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama make Katrina the most-destructive and costliest natural disaster in the history of the United States. The official death toll now stands at 1,242 people. Over one million people were displaced. This has become a humanitarian crisis, on a scale unseen in the United States since the Great Depression. Federal disaster declarations blanketed 90,000 square miles of the United States, an area almost as large as the entire United Kingdom -- England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The hurricane left an estimated five million people without power. Six weeks later, much of that power has still not been restored.
In the scenes from the Superbowl and the Convention Center, the people on the rooftops and overpasses, the interviews with the heads of FEMA and Homeland Security, the American people saw stories, the endings to which have not yet been written. Were the inadequate levees and the delays and gaps of government response the real answer to what less funding for less government means? What will the response be to the racism and poverty made obvious by Katrina? Does the clean up and rebuilding reconstruct these problems? Or does Katrina serve as the catalyst for positive change? What does Homeland Security mean for the millions of people who live near petrochemical plants? And what are we to think about the U.S. House of Representatives responding to Katrina, by pushing through a bill that would let new plants be built, with even fewer environmental safeguards? What did the media take away from the Katrina week of independent journalism, reporting that often challenged the official spin, and sought out the stories behind the story? Did Katrina revive the spirit of an independent, free press?
Finally, will the lasting winds of Katrina be the callousness and the chaos of officialdom, the no-bid opportunism of the well-connected, and an object lesson in how the powerless always suffer more? Or will the nationally-witnessed acts-of-kindness and courage, the opening of hearts and homes, the mass-revulsion to the lack of fairness and justice, and the possibility of redemption blow us to a better place?
We’ve asked three extraordinary people to speak on this call, and to each answer from their perspective what happened, why it happened, and what can be done now to lessen the suffering, to lessen the likelihood of future Katrinas, and to increase the likelihood of powerfully positive endings to the Katrina story.
First, let me introduce attorney Monique Harden. Monique, would you begin?
3. First Speaker: Monique C. Harden, Co-Director & Attorney, Advocates for Environmental Human Rights
Thank you Charlotte. As of August 27th, New Orleans was my home city – the place where I grew up and where I worked with members of the communities in New Orleans and around the state, who lived with toxic waste sites and facilities that include oil refineries, petrochemical plants, coal-fired power plants, et cetera.
What Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita have really exposed is the fact that if you live in an unsafe and unhealthy environment, you could lose your life. Through the activism of so many communities that are now displaced through the aftermath of these hurricanes, they have been trying to challenge governmental policies to address the need for sustainable environmental development and protection of human health as priorities for governance.
So let me just say that it’s been hard for me to go back and focus on what happened in the evacuation. Dear friends of mine and some of my family members really suffered through this five to six days of being left without food, water, shelter and safety, as they were trapped in the city with rising toxic floodwaters. Some of them were separated from their children. Many friends who had to wade through toxic waters in order to find the nearest grocery store so that they could get food and water have suffered skin rashes and burns.
Through the hasty evacuation that finally did come, it was too late, and many were separated from their children. As you all know from news reports, there are still many families who cannot find children and other family members. I think the thing from Katrina that’s so important for people to understand about New Orleans is the way in which many families are able to cope with institutional racism and poverty is through extended families, who share the burdens of pooling resources to meet financial burdens – to care for children and elderly relatives. Through this diaspora New Orleans residents and the displacement that has happened, those families have been dealt a severe blow to their ability to just cope and survive.
The biggest challenge that my organization, my family, and many friends and colleagues are working on, is to try to ensure that the rebuilding is one where people are able to re-establish their homes, recover and rebuild. As you probably all know, this is not included in the agenda of the current plans and actions that are taking place in New Orleans and in Gulf Coast communities.
There are a number of coalitions with social justice activists who have expertise in organizing on a number of issue areas. We’re pooling and working together in coalition to make sure that rebuilding is done so that it prioritizes the needs of so many displaced residents, through work in shelters, to reconnect families and also reconnect with so many residents from neighborhoods where activists like myself have been working.
I really don’t see the future of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast as opportunity with a Capital “O,” but as a real demand for change. Part of that change really requires ensuring that this area is environmentally sustainable. That needs to begin with region-wide environmental assessment and cleanup and remediation.
I want to just share with you a conversation I had with some members of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) programs that focused on community engagement and public participation. These were confidential meetings, so I can’t disclose names. But I do want to share with you what’s going on internally with this agency, which has really been missing in action on the issue of what is needed for recovery to make sure that as a threshold matter, the muck and debris left from the rising toxic floodwaters are appropriately and safely cleaned up and removed.
They shared with me that last week about 30 staff people from various offices within the EPA were expected to come to Louisiana where they all met together at the DEQ offices in Baton Rouge. Their instruction was that they were supposed to come down and work on the rebuilding process. These are the folks whose jobs at EPA involve providing the public with information and conveying public feelings in meetings around environmental issues. They were coming with that in mind, for dealing with this disaster and the recovery.
In the back of the DEQ office, the 30 of them were told that they were not to have any communication or contact with anyone from the public – including government officials. If they were to go outside of the building, they were not to wear any EPA insignia on their clothing or shirts, caps or briefcases. If they traveled in EPA vehicles, they were to remove those patches or cover them. They were to sleep on cots in the DEQ office buildings. To make this go down among some of the folks who were really amazed and horrified by these instructions, they were told that, “Well, the reason we’re doing this is because we want to avoid ‘9/11 liability’ for the EPA.”
Of course, many of you all know the 9/11 liability that EPA found itself in was due to the Agency’s false and inaccurate reporting of air quality at ground zero, where the Agency was giving the public very misleading information that air quality was fine, when in fact, you could still see the embers glowing, smoke-filled air and complaints from the rescue workers and firefighters on the scene about respiratory problems.
Because the EPA wants to avoid liability, they are being told that they can’t have any communication with the public around the ongoing environmental assessment by EPA. In the meantime, there is an EPA team in New Orleans that’s staying at another site, where they are collecting data and are conducting environmental monitoring and assessment. But that information is being sent to the headquarters at EPA and back to the Department of Justice in Washington, DC, without any indication that the public will ever know what they’re collecting.
In the meantime, we have this disconnect between Mayor Ray Nagin saying that New Orleans is open for business at the same time that people are seeing toxic mold in their homes. Neighborhoods in this city have been literally covered with an awful contaminated mess of biological pathogens and toxic chemicals. We really need the work of environmental health scientists and professionals to speak out on this and make sure that returning residents are protected and are safe as they move back into the city. Thank you.
Charlotte Brody: Thank you. Now, Wilma Subra.
4. Second Speaker: Wilma Subra, Chemist, Subra Company, Inc.
Thank you. I’m going to start with a little geography lesson. The extent of Hurricane Katrina was immense. It actually extended from Pensacola, Florida, which is on the panhandle of Florida, all the way past New Iberia, where I live. Then, when Hurricane Rita came in, its extent was from Mobile Bay over to the area about Port Arthur, Texas.
You’ve seen a lot on television about the flooding and the levee breaks in the New Orleans area. Also in Mississippi, Alabama and the Eastern part of Louisiana, we had a tidal surge, which brought a huge amount of sediment onto the land. I’ll come back to that sediment in just a moment. Then, toward the end of September, Hurricane Rita spun across the gulf, impacting the whole coast. The coast was impacted from Mobile Bay all the way to the Port Arthur, Texas area. Huge tidal waves came onshore. What the tidal waves and the winds of Katrina didn’t do, Hurricane Rita did with a huge tidal wave of sediment and sludge over these same communities, again. Where the communities were starting to dig out in the rural areas, they were just inundated.
I want to tell you about what the sludge was. I’ve been going into these areas since Day Four of Katrina. I first went in to do assessments on September 2nd, and I’ve been as recently as all day, yesterday. We have been working at the national level and the state level to name the sediments of the contaminated water bottoms and identifying what chemicals are in those sediments. Those sediments were lifted up by the tidal surge and placed all over the land. Some places, it was a couple of feet thick, as it was very wet and mucky. Then it would dry down to six inches or three inches.
Picture the landscape of that whole geographic area, just covered with this contaminated sludge. Based on data that contaminated sludge contains volatile organics, which soon evaporate when the sludge starts to dry, including Polynucleo-aeromatic hydrocarbons, which are semi-volatile. So they stay in the sludge and don’t evaporate. There are also heavy metals like arsenic, lead, cadmium and chromium. The majority of these chemicals are over the EPA’s residential standards. With that sludge as soil on the top of the ground, if this were a superfund site or a waste site, people would not be allowed to move in and establish a residential area.
On September 16th, I was in collecting samples in a large number of these areas, where the sludge was very thick. It was coating everything – streets, yards, houses, etc. Late that afternoon, the parish officials and county commissioners in a number of these parishes went to the head of the health agency and said, “We want to let our people go in, tomorrow.” The head of the health agency knew it was an unacceptable risk – but didn’t have the political strength to say no to them.
So the next day, people were allowed to go in. They waded through this toxic sludge – which also had high levels of e-coli and all the enteric organisms that come with sewage that has not been treated. They waded through the bacteria and sludge and went into their homes which were just incubators for all of this mold. These people started becoming ill and didn’t have access to health clinics. They went in for just the day, to retrieve some of the things from their houses. They started getting sick with respiratory problems, asthma and skin rashes and sores that wouldn’t heal or even respond to normal antibiotic treatment.
Now, all the upper areas of Orleans are starting to dry up. The lower parts of those parishes are still totally underwater from Rita. But as the upper areas dry up, the muck is turning to dust.
There are a lot of emergency responders in there, going back and forth with track hoes and all kinds of equipment. But they have no protective gear. Every now and then, we’ll see a dust mask, but they wouldn’t be using respirators. I have been going to EPA over and over again to make the point that the responders need to be protected. So, yesterday, when I was in there, the responders had on tie-vent suits, gloves, booties and had respirators available, but many of them were still wearing them around their necks, because the temperature is in the high 90s with a heat index of 110.
Today, the mayor of New Orleans is allowing people to return to the Lower Ninth ward for the day. Again, these people are not protected. They’ll be wading through what’s left of the sludge. They’ll be wading through the dust. They’ll be going into their mold-infested houses. A number of organizations are starting to put in these recovery kits to allow the people who insist on going in to at least have some information of what they can do to attempt to protect their health.
In the long run, the processes are not working. Elected officials are deciding when certain areas will be open, and allowing people to go in. These people then become contaminated and sick. Discussions of rebuilding, revitalizing and all these processes are happening somewhere else. Not on the ground.
The West Bank, which is across the Mississippi River from New Orleans, is totally populated. The electricity is back on but there are very few services available. Traffic jams are horrendous. All those people have moved back in, but with very few services. That’s what’s happening in New Orleans. They’re starting to move in as soon as they have electricity, but they’re not protected. It’s going to be really difficult to implement some of these re-development and safety processes. A lot of the people here are on the fringes. I’m in the field, and I see it happening. They’re moving back in, and they’re going to go use a little Clorox to clean their houses up, and they’re going to live in them. We really need a big push to get some of these programs implemented that a lot of people have been spending time developing, under the political process we have in place.
Charlotte Brody: Thank you Wilma. Now, Paul Epstein.
5. Third Speaker: Paul Epstein, MD, MPH, Associate Director, Center for Health and the Global Environment, Harvard Medical School
Thank you, Eleni and Charlotte. These are moving descriptions of tragedy and of the people dribbling back into this toxic area. I just want to start off by adding a couple of questions to Charlotte’s eloquent beginning. Can this event and this series of events help bring together different parts of the environmental movement, including those involved with local environmental justice issues with those that are looking at global climate change? The second question is whether the environmental movement can find new allies and friends among some of the business and finance community, which is increasingly alarmed about the instability of climate and the spread of diseases and the aftermath? These are not good for their life and health insurance, their property and casualty. As we saw with Stan in Central America, Vince off of Iberia, Portugal and Spain and whatever may come next. There is increasing concern, in terms of insuring the future.
Let me just say a word about climate and this event. Then I want to talk about something that I think brings these different parts together, which is oil and all of its by-products.
There is little question in the scientific community that these series of events, while no one event is diagnostic of climate change, it is clear that the relentless series of events since 2001, with its intense heat waves that are major anomalies, floods on almost every continent and this kind of series of storms. This is diagnostic and descriptive of a changing climate. We know that climate is changing. We know that humans are contributing. We know that biological systems are responding on every continent. We know that whether is more extreme. These are the four major conclusions of the intergovernmental panel on climate change in 2001.
We know a lot more since then, which is that the deep oceans are warming. The heat that’s been accumulating in the atmosphere is buried in the oceans. This is what fuels these storms. So we understand the pattern. We see a different pattern, and we understand the dynamics. Several studies, as I’m sure people are now aware of in the last two months, have shown that since the 1970s, Category 4 and 5 storms have almost doubled. The intensity and destructiveness of storms, which is a function of their peak winds and their duration, have doubled in the last 35 years.
I might say parenthetically, some of the scientists doing these studies, just a year ago, were naysayers themselves, and that, “Hurricanes would increase five percent by 2080, and that’s about all we can say.” Now, the reality and their own work have transformed their politics. I would jump to another paper by someone else who was a skeptic. It found that 84 percent of the global warming over the last century has accumulated in the oceans and that the pattern is unmistakably attributable to human activities. This convinced Tim Barnett, from Scripps Institution for Oceanography to conclude that we are in it, and this is happening.
Let me conclude this by saying, “We’re in it.” It’s happening in a pace and magnitude that none of the scientists envisioned just several years ago. The rate of change, the variability, and the stresses on all parts of the earth’s systems: the cryosphere -- the ice, the bathysphere -- the oceans, the biosphere -- the land, the atmosphere and the heat in the stratosphere, are all changing from human activity. It’s unmistakable and it’s destabilizing the climate system and the feedbacks that help to hold it together.
This is really a scenario of imagining the unmanageable, I would say, in looking at the magnitude of change. It is swamping our defenses. Let me just kind of try to wrap some things together, because I know we should have a conversation.
Oil, I believe, ties this together. As we look at the lifecycle of oil, and its health and ecological and economic dimensions, we see enormous health and environmental and potentially economic crises looming. Let me add on top of all this, toxins and persistent organic pollutants that are now spread in the gulf. We’re estimating eight million gallons of oil that have spilled and the count isn’t over. I remind you, Exxon Valdez was 11 million gallons. This is on the order of magnitude of the Exxon Valdez. There is little attention to this aspect being paid to this.
If we look at the lifecycle of oil, we look at the exploration, the extraction, and we know the damage that that does in the gulf, with its 4,000 platforms. The areas of dead zones that have to do with that drilling – as well as the nutrients coming off in floods. We know well what’s happened in the Nigerian delta, the Ecuadorian head of the Amazon. We know what’s going on, in terms of its destruction of extraction, as we look at the arctic, and we’re fearful of more.
Then we come to transport of crude. The transport leads to more leaks than the number of spills that we experience in headlines. Then we come to the refineries. We’re all aware of where they’re placed and what they emit. Benzene is one of the chemicals that causes liver cancer. We know that being in refinery areas is not good for our health. As I said, we know how they are located. Then we come to transport, again – with the refined material and the leaks and the spills and the contamination of shores and impact on wildlife and the impact on fisheries and livelihoods. Then finally, we come to combustion. We have air pollution, which we know of. We have acid in the precipitation, which we have not recovered from. Then there’s climate change, which is the icing or perhaps the de-icing on the cake.
We’re seeing enormous health consequences from climate change, from diseases and the direct impacts of heat waves. Now we’re seeing these enormous clusters of ills from toxics and infectious agents in the wake of these kinds of disasters, as you alluded to just now – of similar size in Central America, Guatemala, Honduras, et cetera. Then we look at the impact on ecosystems, themselves, of the heat and the warming and the extremes – combined with infectious diseases that are affecting wildlife, livestock, crops, forests and marine life.
You’ve heard enough. The point is that the same climate change, infectious diseases and persistent organic pollutants are stalking the very life-support systems that provide us with food and water and air. Finally, let me say that there’s enormous opportunity in this whole crisis. This reconstruction, smart-growth, along with all of the “clean energy” solutions and the removal of oil from the equation, hybrids with smart technology, with have tidal, wind, solar and geothermal. This can be the engine of growth, for this 21st Century. This can bring together some agendas that are coming together as a crisis of energy, a crisis of the environment, and a crisis that’s being felt in the boardrooms of Wall Street on a financial level, if not through every industry. I’ll stop with that.
Charlotte Brody: Thank you so much, Paul. Thank you again to Monique and to Wilma.
Heather Sarantis, Program Manager, Breast Cancer Fund: I have a couple of comments. First, I want to thank you so much for doing this call. I think the response to Hurricane Katrina shows us so much about our national character, in terms of the environment, human health, race, and politics. It’s just been really eye opening and really sad, in many ways. While we were on this call, the EPA sent out their daily press release, saying that they’ve released public service announcements, in English and Spanish, on mold and sediment contents. If you go to the EPA homepage, you can see how they’re presenting that to the public.
The other thing I wanted to let you know is that the Public Health & Environmental Equity Act was recently released. The act would essentially prevent the rollback of environmental and health standards in the rebuilding of the New Orleans area, and for all future natural disasters. If you’re interested in supporting this, the Breast Cancer Fund has an action option on our website, at www.BreastCancerFund.org/action. I think it’s a really important piece of legislation, especially since we’ve already seen the rollback in regulations on permitting of oilrigs and whatnot. So, thank you.
Terry Collins, PhD, Thomas Lord Professor of Chemistry and Director, Institute for Green Oxidation Chemistry, Carnegie Mellon University: Wilma, among the various things that you’re finding on the ground, what worries you most? I worry that perhaps there may be radionuclides or dioxins, et cetera? You were talking about, for example, the Superfund sites that are problematic. These probably are the highest-priority issues we’re dealing with. Do you have any wisdom on that?
Wilma Subra: I think there’s a whole host of things. What worries me in the short-term is the bacteria that the people become exposed to from their homes, but also the toxins that they come into contact with through absorption, inhalation and ingestion. It isn’t just one thing; it’s the whole combination. We’re actually doing some samples around sites that have known dioxin problems, to see how much of that has moved off. But that data’s not available, yet.
EPA’s data confirms that kind of data I’ve been generating. It says that these things are over the standards. They recommend that people don’t come in contact with the sludgy, sediment material. But if they drive into their community now, so much of it is becoming air-borne; they’re coming into contact with it just through breathing. So it’s really a combination of toxicity and potential biological hazards.
Peter Whitehouse, MD, PhD, Professor, Case Western Reserve University: In Washington, at the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities, we’re having a special panel on whether Katrina is evidence of the failure of bioethics, as a source of conversation about values in medicine. This will be based on a paper that was written by Jonathan Marino, who is the head staff person for the Bioethics Commission. Anybody that’s interested in my own interest – which is, “How can bioethics be a force for moving medicine,” to thinking about the implications of Katrina more deeply, please contact me at: Contact.
Question: I’m writing a book on chemical sensitivity. There will be a chapter on the Exxon Valdez cleanup workers who are now ill, a chapter on 9/11, and a chapter on Gulf War Syndrome. I probably will want to make some reference to the Katrina toxic exposures. So I would appreciate very much if anyone who has information on this, or receives information over the next couple months, would contact me. Our website is www.ChemicalSensitivityFoundation.org. I think Katrina will be so similar to the 9/11 situation and these other situations. I would be glad to reference it. I will also be giving a free copy of my book to every member of Congress.
Lin Nelson, PhD, Professor, Environmental Studies, Evergreen State College: I’ve wanted to ask any or all three of you to comment on the media coverage. I noticed a headline the other day, on the order of, “Water not so bad. Nothing looks quite as bad” That kind of thing. Could you comment on how the media’s handling this, and what you see in the way of more independent well-grounded reporting on this?
Wilma Subra: Initially, the media was all focused on New Orleans, and probably rightly so. What happened because of that focus was, there wasn’t any response in the more rural areas. Those people were desperately in need. Other people had to go in and start providing them with the resources they needed. Now the media’s telling us that people are getting tired of hearing the story and don’t want to hear it. I think that plays into the hand with, “Oh, the water wasn’t so bad. Oh, the sediment wasn’t so bad.” If you actually look at the EPA data, it shows that there are things exceeding the criteria. If you look at the independent data, it shows. But you have to balance that against what the political perspective needs to be. They wanted to be able to discharge the water into Lake Ponchatrain, knowing the risk. But they had to get it off of the land and into the lake. They need to get the people back into their homes – regardless of what kind of contamination is in their yards and in their homes. It’s an uneven balancing on that perspective, and the media’s playing right into it.
Monique Harden: I guess one thing I would say is that because there really is no information assessing the potable water, the media’s basically conveying what they’re hearing. Not just in New Orleans, but also in other Gulf Coast communities hit by the hurricanes. Because there is no information on the exact toxic condition of the area, they’re getting information along the lines of, “We’re looking into it. We’re going to get data back.” Then they see police, firefighters and emergency workers who don’t have any protection and it looks like things are returning to normal. When in fact, we’ve got major toxic disasters out there that are being covered over. This is combined with the way in which government officials are talking about issues around safe water and toxic conditions in the Gulf region. What we hope to do to counter that is working with Wilma Subra over the coming weeks, to be able to reveal the data from independent monitoring.
Paul Epstein: Just to take another tact on the press coverage of this, I think that the political fallout of this event is being covered very surprisingly well in the media. Even as the headlines flip as to the impacts directly, I think it’s become very clear that this is really a turning point politically. The fallout in terms of how people perceive this administration will be enormous. We shouldn’t underestimate the opportunities that that provides, frankly.
Paul Bogart, Healthy Building Network: My question is sort of a general question to the panelists as to whether the needs from here on out, with respect to the monitoring program that Monique just described briefly with respect to rebuilding efforts. What are the needs, as those of you – Monique and Wilma, in the Gulf region – in terms of funding and in terms of cooperation from the environmental community, around rebuilding and other efforts?
Monique Harden: There are immediate needs, and there are huge, long-term needs. The immediate needs, really, are social and political issues around the right of return, the terms that allow and give people the opportunity to return to their homes, and establish themselves in their communities. Part of this is really the developing and constructing of homes for people. Through that adjustment period, they’ll definitely have the opportunity for building homes that are energy-efficient and that use sustainable materials in the construction.
There are a number of groups that are pursuing that that have never looked at the issue of green building before. Activists and organizations are really being sophisticated and contacting and working with architects and green building construction, as well as founded institutions to finance this kind of housing development, not just in new Orleans, but also in Gulf Coast communities.
I think that what’s safe to keep in mind is that one of the major challenges is that housing must take place in a way that could potentially leave out displaced residents and create a major justification kind of a program. Those groups including my organization that I work with, to make sure that we can have really affordable housing for displaced residents.
Wilma Subra: I think the issue is how do you insert that into the process? I don’t see it getting inserted effectively, yet. I think the rebuilding is going to occur. So we need to develop a mechanism whereby all these groups that are working on all the things Monique talked about – and for all the kinds of things you do – how do we get them inserted in the process? It’s really easy to go into a community of shoddy homes, and say, “We’re here to help you and revitalize.” A lot of groups are doing that. But it’s harder to get it into the broader area where all this will be occurring. Decisions have already been made. People have already hired contractors to come in. It’s happening, now. How do we get those processes implemented into the overall process?
Paul Epstein: Well, I do think it is an opportunity to raise all of these questions that are being asked. How do we reconstruct, so that this is ecologically sound so that it provides a greater measure of security, but also enhances the market signals, to create new technologies, new kinds of growth of cities, which can provide a whole new impetus to the economy? The key issue here is that the public sector has got to be involved. There is no question on the parties in the businesses that they’re looking at a public program of funds and subsidies and tax-incentives and bond issues and basic infrastructure, which none of the private sector will build. This is a real turning point in looking at the role of the public, and the balance of public and private sectors. Now, we’re well aware that this is not something the current administration is going to emphasize or even fulfill. There was a Paul Krugman piece in the New York Times yesterday or Sunday that just talked about the extreme doubts as to whether Bush will even come through with the things that he has promised.
I don’t mean to make this all-partisan discussion, but I think that we’re looking forward to an election year of Congress. It’s very important to put this kind of solution of ecological restoration and protection, along with a clean energy transition, to deal with the upstream drivers of these kinds of events, as well as the downstream mess that results from them. We’ve got to come up with some clear message of how the public sector and the new Congress can provide the support for a whole new type of construction, and a whole new energy system.
Kathy Sessions, Coordinator, Health and Environmental Funders Network (HEFN): I just wanted to make one quick announcement. On the funders’ side, there are so many funder communities interested and concerned about the region, and what’s going on across the environment: public health, social equity, racism, smart-growth, and rebuilding issues. They’ve together set up a funders’ matchmaker site. We are groups who are looking for funds to work in the region, with preference for groups that are based in the region and have composed short descriptions of the projects that they’re looking for money for, and then funders could scan them. I will send the information about this on the matchmaker site to the CHE people, and encourage them either to share that with folks on this call, or more generally.
Terry Greene, MS, Environmental Health Specialist, JSI Center for Environmental Health Studies: I just would like a sense of what’s the most-urgent thing, for those of us listening to call to do next or to support your assets?
Monique Harden: I think it’s really focusing in on two things. One is ensuring that environmental conditions are safe, and healthy for people. Understanding the complete, political lockdown on EPA at this point in time, to actually carry out their particular mission.
Then the second thing is focusing on the economy that we have. I think with these issues of environmental justice and climate change, people are coming together. There is a climate justice coalition here in the U.S., that’s being coordinated and housed in an organization called Redefining Progress. This brings together the issues of not just the direct, immediate, short-term effects of oil refineries and the derivatives of their products, but also looking at that in terms of the environmental justice issues that are global – with regards to people who are living in delta areas and outer regions of the world that are targeted for some of the more intense natural disasters that can happen through climate change, and have happened through climate change.
Wilma Subra: We’ve moved from the response mood, which we’re still in, in a lot of these areas. Once the refugees were moved to shelters, those communities in which the shelters were located took over and helped them get all the needs they had. What we’re seeing now, as we move to the response mode is that it’s just happening. It’s happening very quickly. We’re seeing huge numbers of Hispanic laborers being brought in to do the grunt work, and they are also being hugely exposed. Another thing is, all of this discussion we just had about the landscape changing the mindset, that needs to be done right now, or else the recovery mode is going to happen, and we’ll still be trying to figure out how to insert that into place. I’m in there frequently, and I see the recoveries well underway and none of this has played into any decisions. There are now contractor signs – just like election signs – on all the boulevards. That’s how people are choosing who they call and who they engage to fix their homes. These other things are not weighing in to that process.
Paul Epstein: I think the question was very pertinent in how CHE and how this community can help catalyze the discussions among the various components of the environmental movement. I think this is a crucial moment for that, and it can play a role both in the immediate construction and in the long-term political issues that affect every level of that. I would hope that there’d be some conference calls, and conferences, among environmental justice groups and those that are working on global change issues, and explore the common grounds. Again, I think the dominance of oil is all of the lifecycle I spelled out, plus its origin in petrochemicals, pesticides and persistent organic pollutants. This is a uniting issue to deal with our dependence on oil, as it’s affecting local and global environments.
Michael Lerner, PhD, President, Commonweal: I just want to start by saying to Monique and Wilma and Paul what an unbelievably moving and cogent exploration you’ve given us, of things that we don’t hear enough about in the mainstream media. I’m just so grateful that our community includes leaders of your collective vision and quality. I just think there’s an enormous sense of gratitude among us for what you’ve been doing, and the leadership you have and will continue to provide.
Given that these hurricanes are likely to keep coming, what are the implications about rebuilding, just from a geographical point of view, not only in New Orleans, but also along that whole coastal area? In other words, are we rebuilding into the face of a set of oncoming disasters? I know the oil industry is going to totally change the height of their platforms in the Gulf. What about residential and other uses? What thought is being given to what we can reconstruct in a safe and sustainable way?
Paul Epstein: I was afraid of this question, in a sense. This really is a fundamental issue, and it’s how to prepare for the coming climates, and whether this climate will re-stabilize at some new equilibrium and give us some measure of adaptation and some time to rapidly reduce our influence on the atmosphere and oceans. It’s really the fundamental question, “How are we prepared for this in coastal communities along the Gulf?” I think it really does need a lot of thought. That question has to be central to the development. We hate to find that people want to go back, but the whole land area has to take into account the potential for these kinds of events. We’re in a cycle of hurricanes, and we see climate change superimposed on this natural variability. For several years, one can project there could be more such storms. This is frightening, but it’s got to be taken into account. I’m not answering it directly. But clearly, that question is not in the minds of developers in Boston or the Big Dig. It’s not in the minds of other places. It’s got to be front-and-center as communities rebuild in the Gulf.
Wilma Subra: The issue is, people are going to go back and rebuild. They rebuild, knowing that they may be there 10 or maybe 15 years, and they know hurricanes will come and blow it away. Yet, they say this is the cost of living in paradise. So they’re going to continue to build. If we don’t have some kinds of restrictions on the type of construction and the elevation, it’s going to get wiped out. Even if they don’t get insurance, they’re going to continue to go back and build. That’s one of the hardest issues to then say, ‘Well, what do we need to put in place, so that if you build, it will be adequate to sustain what will probably happen in the very near future?” They don’t want to hear that part of a discussion.
Monique Harden: I guess the first thing I would just say is, yes this is obviously a very politically charged question. I think the best answer in response to it is to say that the decision-making has got to involve the people who will be directly impacted. Right now, we’re hearing discussions and debates from Congress on down regarding a particular neighborhood in New Orleans, which really didn’t get a whole lot of flooding, in terms of hurricanes and other kinds of tropical storms, and that sort of thing. Whether or not they should rebuild this particular neighborhood in the Ninth ward, because it’s all African American and most of the residents are poor. To ask that question, in the Ninth ward community, it raises issues around racism and taking land and leaving displaced residents in the status they are – displaced. Keeping an eye on the fact that without the breach and poor construction of the levee wall – of the levee and the floodwall – they would not have been flooded, up to the rooftops, as happened in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
That whole question really involves one where people who are most-impacted are part of that decision-making process. Anything short of that looks like land grabs and it’s fraught with a lot of issues around injustice and racism.
Charlotte Brody: Thank you and thanks to everyone who joined the call, and especially to our speakers, Monique Harden, Wilma Subra and Dr. Paul Epstein.