Traveling in the Wake of Disaster
September. 29, 2005
By David Helvarg
The smell of New Orleans is mostly not of dead bodies but of a dead city that’s lost both its color (literally – its look sepia toned – all mud brown, russet and gray) and its people –a million environmental refugees from the city and the coast. The first day I passed through the police roadblocks I found myself in Lakeview, one of the communities that sat underwater for two weeks. Driving for hours through the debris-strewn city I was forced into my own frame of references. Young soldiers talked about it being like a sci-fi or zombie movie. Older residents of the Gulf compared Katrina’s impact to Hurricane Camille in ’69 (and agreed this was worse). I was reminded of wars I’d covered, scenes of destruction after heavy street battles with trees and power poles down, electric lines hanging, metal sheets, smashed cars and torn open houses, only on a far grander scale and with more regional incongruities (shrimp boats on roads, barges on highways, houses blown into swamps). The smell you often encounter is like dried cow pies and mildew with a strong chemical aftertaste. I spent some time trying not to breath too deeply or get my feet too wet where oily stagnant waters remained. Without its resident population, New Orleans has become a Woodstock for First Responders, occupied by some 30,000 troops, cops, reporters, rescue workers and contractors from every part of the country and the world, New York Fireman, Detroit cops, AP photographers, Oklahoma National Guardsmen (a third of Louisiana’s guard was deployed in Iraq when the storm struck and the flood walls failed), Salvation Army volunteers and Dutch engineers. Driving around I’d share the empty streets with big Army HMETT trucks, Humvees, and SUVs (aside from my rental, one of the only other compacts I encountered belonged to an animal rescue group). Overhead blackhawks and Chinooks flew about while contract helicopters dropped 3,000 and 7,000 pound sandbags on the Industrial Canal break that followed Rita’s reflooding of the 9th Ward.
Still, despite the loss, the spirit of many of the survivors I interviewed was surprisingly hopeful and/or philosophic given the hit almost everyone and every creature has taken.
In the city thousands of acres and tens of thousands of homes, neighborhood malls, schools, banks, and churches are going to have to be bulldozed.
I also traveled through the geographically varied forms of devastation Hurricane Katrina wrought (often as a result of human greed and folly – replacing wetlands with floating Casino barges for example). I visited Plaquemines Parish on the west bank of the Mississippi, Waveland, Ocean Springs and Biloxi, Mississippi and Dauphin Island, Alabama.
A few quick observations culled from my nine days in the Gulf and from talking with survivors, relief workers, sheriffs, the military, and of course marine, wetlands and coastal scientists, fishermen, local seaweed activists and the Coast Guard.
- Despite the media storyline that recovery is now underway, the reality is that most everything is still a mess. A year from now recovery may be well underway, but for now there are hundreds of thousands of people who still haven’t gotten to see what’s left of their homes, or are just beginning to dig through the debris. Whole Mississippi neighborhoods look like they were flattened by a tornado (only tornado winds don’t come with 35 foot waves). Miles of beaches and standing trees are also festooned with strips of plastic that look like Tibetan prayer flags (if Monks prayed for the deaths of seabirds and turtles). There are also oil spills and loose barrels of unknown origin that I encountered in the bayou while driving with a sheriff’s deputy who became nervous when I took a picture of a Shell refinery. The good news is that many of the live oak, hackberry and cypress that look dead are starting to re-bud meaning it was winds that sucked the moisture out of them rather than their saltwater soakings which could have killed them. Some 25-foot trees survived (along with roads and seagrass meadows) because the storm waves were so high above them that they weren’t scoured away. One official estimates the rubble from Katrina could cover 28 football fields as high as the Empire State Building.
- America’s demographics have changed. Baton Rouge is now the largest city in Louisiana with traffic jams, arenas and hotels jammed with evacuees. New Orleans’ service industries are relocating there and elsewhere. Like the dustbowl of the 1930s the Storm Bowl of today could result in a new wave of homelessness. My friend Bucky, who’s one of the top Homeless housing organizers in America, says there’s a kindly attitude towards the new “deserving” homeless versus the “underserving” old, but predicts that tolerance may be gone in six months. I encountered a group of Cajuns spending their days and nights in a carport under a damaged 3-story office building where they slept every night. There were black and white folks camped out in tents, campers and an RV under a closed bridge in Mississippi, there were refugees in marine lab dorms and KOAs and a Mormon tent colony by a lake, and at friends and family’s homes or yards or in motels or, as a last resort, evacuee centers. I’m skeptical if the tens of billions of federal recovery money heading south will ever reach many of them.
- Brick buildings and reinforced concrete buildings seem to fare better than FEMA compliant stilt homes and wooden buildings with storm shutters (though the storm shutters look pretty intact amidst the rubble). However even bunker like concrete condominiums aren’t going to last long if you build them on barrier islands (like Dauphin Island, Alabama).
- It’s too early to talk about the environmental impacts on the coast and ocean with any authority. The oil companies lost at least 46 rigs in the Gulf with more than 90 others damaged. The Coast Guard’s latest estimate is 8.1 million gallons of oil were spilled (1/3 of an Exxon Valdez). Nancy Rabalais who runs the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON) lab in Cocodrie down on the water told me the lab’s roof was lost during Katrina and now Rita has flooded its ground storage area and lab vehicles preventing her from doing a cruise scheduled to see what’s happened to the Gulf’s nutrient-fed Dead Zone. I visited the Gulf Coast Research Lab in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, which took a big hit with major buildings lost and flooded (and it’s education center in Biloxi totaled). Director Bill Hawkins thinks the pollutants in the New Orleans flood waters that were pumped back into Lake Pontchartrain will likely impact the Gulf of Mississippi sometime next year. Most of the region’s shrimp and commercial fishing fleet was sunk or thrown up onto land (while many houses are in the water). The possibility that federal fisheries managers may use this as a chance to buy out part of the destroyed fleet in order to reduce fishing pressure is the source of much speculation and little certainty. The Chandillier Islands are mostly gone. Whether these important barrier islands and bird colonies will re-emerge from the sea along with floating wetlands and other lost lands is unclear. Birds took a bigger hit in the storm than fish of course. Best guesstimates are that Louisiana lost another 20 square miles of marshy wetlands to Katrina and Rita. Louisiana 2050 – the plan to restore coastal wetlands at a cost of $14 billion over 50 years – seems to be back on the table. I talked to Mark Davis of the ‘Restore Coastal Louisiana’ group who told me five years ago if they couldn’t win political support for this, “a hurricane will make the case.”
“It sure sucks to be right,” he now says.
- There is opportunity as vast as the devastation. Things can be done right in terms of building wisely by the shore, creating social and environmental equity, and addressing big issues like wetlands protection, Federal subsidies for destructive development, and the role of fossil-fuel fired climate change in extreme weather events like Katrina. But right now everyone is anxious to make money and generate jobs recreating the same patterns as before. “The rush to rebuild is understandable. It’s based on human sympathy, but we have to rebuild in a different way,” says George Crozier Director of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama, “What happened in Florida in 2004 and Louisiana in 2005 is no longer the exception, it’s the new rule.” Still the only reform we know for sure will come out of this disaster is that Mississippi will allow land-based gambling (since the gaming industry can no longer get insurance for casino barges). If we want to bring about major changes in the way our nation relates to its coasts and oceans, we are going to have to support and work with our fellow activists in the Gulf in building a credible constituency for our public seas, our battered shores, and the blue frontier beyond.
We will be posting some of the hundred of pictures I took along the Gulf next week. If you enjoy receiving Blue Notes please sign on friends and colleagues at www.bluefront.org