08 September 2005

Environ[mental] Concerns

It is hard to wrap one's mind around the horrific turmoil of Hurricane Katrina. The devastation is awful, it being the second deadliest hurricane ever to hit the US, next to Hurricane Gavelston that rocked Texas one hundred and five years ago today and killed an estimated 8,000 people. However, not all casualties are accounted for, and Katrina could very well be the most deadly natural disaster to ever hit America.

It is the first natural disaster since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to devastate an entire city. The mayor of New Orleans mayor C. Ray Nagin, ordered a first-time mandatory evacuation of his city. The problem is that 25% of the residents of New Orleans don't have access to vehicles. 23.7-28% of all families live below the poverty level (the city has a 50% child poverty rate), and these are the residents who rely on public transportation the most - something not available to them at a time of disaster, even if they had the money to pay for it. The elderly could've been too weak or frail to leave. The poverty issue was detrimental in this situation - the poor's means of transportation out of the city were shot due to the storm or lack of money. Their houses are also less sturdy, as they can't afford to live in the highlands like the rich. As columnist Eugene Robinson noted in The Washington Post, "To be poor in America was to be invisible, but not after this week, not after those images of the bedraggled masses at the Superdome, convention center and airport. No one can claim that the post-Reagan orthodoxy of low taxes and small government, which does wonders for the extremely rich, also inevitably does wonders for the extremely poor. What was that about a rising tide lifting all boats? What if you don't have a boat?"

Some residents who had vehicles chose to stay, as they had withstood other hurricanes in the past, such as Hurricane Camille. Katrina was indeed a culprit, but her damage wasn't nearly as widespread as what happened only shortly after she hit the coast. It was the levees of the lake breaking last Tuesday that allowed the lake to seep into New Orleans that reeked the most havoc. The fact that Katrina's fury didn't infect all areas could account for people still not the city to stay in New Orleans. And this is potentially why there were so many people still in town when the levees broke. And, it is this flooding catastrophe that have could've been prevented.

I share the frustration over the lack of supplies and relief reaching the people who need it the most. I mean, it's over week now, and people need not be starving and suffering. I blame Katrina, and I am disappointed in the US government. Not so much in the latter's response to the relief efforts (although this certainly is cause for speculation), but in their lack of action prior to the hurricane.

So often, issues concerning the environment get pushed under the rug. We'd rather spend money on enlarging our already ridiculously pregnant military, giving the rich more benefits, or finding ways to cut food stamps. In reality, environmental problems can come back to haunt us. The amount of smog that floats over Los Angeles creates health problems that inhibit children from playing outside during certain parts of the day. As Sarah notes in her blog, the polar icecap melting around the North Pole reflects 95% of the sun's heat, but the ocean water around it after it all melts will absorb 90% of that heat. Interestingly enough, when storms such as hurricanes travel over water that warmer than usual, they can intensify very quickly. Katrina was flowing over the Gulf of Mexico which was heated two degrees above its average temperature. Again, it wasn't necessarily Katrina that directly caused all the damage, but the flooding as a result of her passing.

New Orleans is a city nestled between the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River. It sits below sea level, and the wetlands that used to surround the city provided a natural buffer against the potential of such flooding. However, at an egregious rate of twenty-five square miles a year (the size of Manhattan), wetlands have been destroyed for the sake of building malls, homes, and roads, leaving cities such as New Orleans extremely vulnerable. The flooding in the South is just another example of a lack of environmental stewardship and concern.

I now refer you to The Cognoscenti, one of my favorite blogs. Graham, its author, has an incredible take on this and all situations in general. Give it a read; you won't regret it. What he's been saying the past few days makes the most sense concerning where our frustrations and attentions shouldn't and should be focused:

"As I said in my last entry I feel very strongly that criticism...Especially politically motivated shots at the President, is counter productive at a time when the nation needs to be united. People are still stranded in New Orleans desperately requiring political leadership."

Concerning the flooding though, Graham notes:

"Despite repeated warnings that a catastrophic hurricane could hit Louisiana, the Administration and Congress denied full funding for hurricane preparation and flood control. Recently released figures show that $27 million was requested by the US Army Corps of Engineers to pay for hurricane protection projects around Lake Pontchartrain, which was countered by the Administration with a miserly offer of $3.9 million. Congress eventually provided $5.7 million. Michael Parker, a former Republican Mississippi congressman who headed the US Army Corps of Engineers, from October 2001 to March 2002, has said of the funding shortfalls, 'I'm not saying (New Orleans) wouldn't still be flooded...but I do feel that if it had been totally funded, there would be less flooding than you have.'"

Graham links to a transcript of of Tim Russert's candid Meet the Press interview with the Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff. The latter claimed that the administration was surprised by the breaching of the levees.

MR. RUSSERT: I want to stay on this because this is very important. You said you were surprised by the levee being broken. In 2002, The Times-Picayune did story after story - and this is eerie; this is what they wrote and how they predicted what was going to happen. It said, and I'll read it very carefully: "...A major hurricane could decimate the region, but flooding from even a moderate storm could kill thousands. It's just a matter of time. ...The scene's been played out for years in computer models or emergency operations simulations...New Orleans has hurricane levees that create a bowl with the bottom dipping lower than the bottom of Lake Pontchartrain. ...The levees would trap any water that gets inside - by breach, overtopping or torrential downpour - catastrophic storm. ...The estimated 200,000 or more people left behind in an evacuation will be struggling to survive. Some will be housed at the Superdome, the designated shelter for people too sick or inform to leave the city. ...But many will simply be on their own, in homes or looking for high ground. Thousands will drown while trapped in homes or cars by rising water. Other will be washed away or crushed by debris. Survivors will end up trapped on roofs, in buildings or on high ground surrounded by water, with no means of escape and little food or fresh water, perhaps for several days."

That was four years ago. And last summer FEMA, who reports to you, and the LSU Hurricane Center, and local and state officials did a simulated Hurricane Pam in which the levees broke. The levees broke, Mr. Secretary, and people - thousands...

SEC'Y CHERTOFF: Actually, Tim, that...

MR. RUSSERT: Thousands drowned.

Graham also refers to Senator Lanrieu from Louisiana. In The Guardian's news blog, writer Mark Oliver sites a Washington Post article which reports: "Two months ago, Senator Landrieu told an audience of congressional staffers and scientific experts that more federal funds were needed over the next 20 years to restore Louisiana's wetlands. She 'warned that intentional rerouting of the Mississippi river over the past century, coupled with rising sea levels due to climate change, had eroded Louisiana's natural buffer against massive storms'.

'This is not Disneyland. This is the real deal,' Landrieu said, and in the event of flooding, 'The French Quarter could be under 18 feet of water. It would be lost forever.'"

I conclude that that if we had made the environment a priority, then things would be a bit different in New Orleans. Reconciling a situation that we ourselves made negative by such actions as causing climate changes via global warming that create high sea levels and more impetus for Katrina, destroying our natural wetland buffers, and rerouting the Mississippi River - is our duty and responsibility. I mean, it's as simple as cleaning up a glass of juice when we spill it.

My thoughts and prayers are with anyone affected by the tragedy.


At 2:13 AM, Blogger Graham said...

Really informative stuff Sophia :). Thank you for the kind words. Like I said in reply to you on my blog, Philosophia is one of my fave blogs too... you're like my little fixer-upper... your life loving, witticisms (if that's a word) never fail to lift my spirits and make me smile.

Am glad you're back from Texas :). Hope you had an awesome time.

At 8:48 AM, Blogger Sophia said...

Thanks, Graham! I'm glad you enjoy my blog as much as I enjoy yours.

You're one of the very few voices out there that carefully considers all views before voicing your opinion. And, gosh darnit, you do it so well! You're a real blogspiration. :)

At 11:48 PM, Blogger Sarah said...

Great blog, Soph, although I don't agree with The Cognoscenti. Here's what I just posted to him:

I like your blog entry, and your last comment, but I definitely disagree with what you said in your post about this not being the time for criticism. Speaking out against the way the Bush administration is handling themselves in yet another time of national tragedy isn't necessarily partisan, it's just true. The idea that it's partisan and detrimental is a bunch of crap that they're feeding us to avoid responsibilty for their own failings. I assure you, Americans can open our wallets to give, feed the hungry, and speak out against injustice all at the same time without compromising our efforts.

At 10:14 AM, Blogger Sophia said...

I completely see where you're coming from, Sarah. I mean, I totally agree that the administration's response to this whole ordeal leaves MUCH to be desired and raises questions about their competency to handle another catastrophe even more potent, such as a nuclear attack.

Where I see the biggest problem though, is the lack of consideration and preparation for such a natural disaster. I'm ticked off that environmental concerns were pushed to the side in favor of other priorities. This ignorance resulted in a total failure in everything, including the government’s response to Katrina. If we're going to learn from this situation, I think we need to not just learn how to deal with remedying our own messes, but how to prevent them in the first place. In the case of Katrina, we should’ve been repairing the harm we incurred on our environment before a massive hurricane struck.

With that said, I do believe that speaking out against injustice is very important, but again, I think the focus should be completely on relief efforts right now. Pointing fingers (which all sides are doing right now - you're right - it's not necessarily partisan) seems to detract from the value of the lives we are trying to save and restore. At the same time, if pointing out shortcomings in the government's reactions to the catastrophe will in turn save more lives, then we should proceed. But I think we should proceed with caution, as this is a delicate time for everyone.


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