It's been two full years since Hurricane Katrina tore through New Orleans, wrecking homes, takings lives, casting off refugees and leaving neighborhoods trashed and uninhabitable. Even in the storm's immediate aftermath, the human health crisis caused by dangerous environmental conditions were largely glossed over by a media more concerned (somewhat understandably) with the horrifying images and tragic death tolls, and with the government's bungling of emergency management. Now, two years later, the city's problems are far from solved, and most of the worst (and still underreported) threats to the city are rooted in environmental ills that affect all aspects -- health, economy, education, social justice -- of life in the Big Easy.
On this, the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's demolition of the city, the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) has issued a comprehensive and outright alarming report -- Katrina's Wake -- about the current state of New Orleans.
A team of scientists and researchers from NRDC spent months in New Orleans, gathering info about the conditions, recovery, and safety of the city. To say the findings are disturbing is an understatement. The team found literal mountains for trash -- mostly in illegal and unregulated dumping grounds -- throughout many of the city's poorest and most vulnerable neighborhoods. It gets worse. From the report's summary:
"The floods filled the city with a hazardous sea of fuel, sewage and chemicals. Floodwaters containing pathogens from raw sewage and toxic contaminants from oil spills, pesticides, and hazardous waste poured into neighborhood streets, leaving behind thick sediment inside homes, in parks, and on lawns...
Testing of sediment in flooded areas of New Orleans in the months following Katrina by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and NRDC identified high concentrations of arsenic, lead, and other contaminants in many areas of the city in significant excess of state and federal clean-up guidelines. Two years later, we have discovered that people are returning home to communities that have still not been adequately cleaned up. Soil sampling done by NRDC in March 2007 revealed that nearly 25 percent of the 35 New Orleans playgrounds and schoolyards tested two years after Katrina should be classified as arsenic "hot spots.""
Katrina's Wake [PDF link to report] is a comprehensive study of chemical contamination of the city's soil, air, and water, and also highlights tragedies of dangerous waste left behind and environmental injustice. Finally, Katrina's Wake proposes a new course for the safe and just recovery of the New Orleans, offering expansive and systemized solutions to ensure and protect the long-term safety of residents returning to and rebuiding their city.
It's a massive and groundbreaking report, and well worth the time for anyone concerned with -- or appalled by -- the most significant environmental and social disaster of our nation's history. At ItsYourNature.org, we'll be running a series of summaries of the report's five chapters, offering a more informal "Clif Notes" version of the alarming findings and progressive solutions for a city whose tragedy has too quickly been forgotten. So stay tuned for that, or learn more about the issues and find out how to help out here.
For more from the NRDC on Hurricane Katrina, visit here.