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September 8, 2005

Hari Osofsky: The fatal mix of environmental damage, poor resource allocation, inequality

 Register Guard 

Katrina disaster exposes
environmental injustice

Published: Wednesday, September 7, 2005

In 1968, the Kerner Commission report found that the United States “is moving towards two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.” In 2005, those seeking refuge in the New Orleans Superdome, weeping over drowned relatives, and wading through toxic water were predominantly African-American.
Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath demonstrates this country’s crisis of environmental justice. As the endless images cruelly reveal, the effects of this hurricane were not distributed randomly. Low-income people of color lived in more vulnerable situations and had fewer options. Last Friday’s New York Times quoted one man who stood waiting in front of the Superdome as saying, “We’re just a bunch of rats.”
Experts will spend years distributing blame in the wake of this failure. In the immediate aftermath, however, it is clear that poor African-Americans suffered disproportionately from a confluence of environmental and social policy. Environmental degradation, problematic resource allocation, and underlying inequality consistently prove to be a fatal mix.
After the devastating Asian tsunami and Caribbean storms, researchers documented the importance of healthy coastal ecosystems. Louisiana’s loss of wetlands – resulting from flood control policies on the Mississippi River – made New Orleans far more vulnerable to the hurricane.
Resource constraints influenced policymakers to omit steps that would limit the risk of tragedy. The Indian Ocean lacked a tsunami warning system because of the cost of installing one. New Orleans had a great deal of warning, but was protected by a levee system that it lacked the funds to upgrade.
Despite advance knowledge of the impending storm and very early federal declaration of disaster, those whose poverty and frailty rendered them unable to leave on their own were not evacuated but simply sheltered. As conditions in the Superdome and the surrounding city deteriorated, the ineffective response converted a crisis into a tragedy.
The convergence that Katrina’s aftermath represents is not unique to severe weather events. Beginning with an annual report of the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality and Robert Bullard’s research in the 1970s, studies have documented the unequal distribution of environmental benefits and burdens. Poverty and racial discrimination in housing patterns force people into undesirable neighborhoods with cheap land near freeways.
These communities often lack the political clout to fight hazardous industry from locating in their backyard. Moreover, efforts to rectify these inequities face substantial obstacles. In Louisiana, for example, Tulane Law School’s environmental clinic came under fire for helping a low-income, African-American community fight the siting of a chemical plant nearby.
Furthermore, modern environmental justice problems often challenge the traditional conception of environmental harm in which a toxic waste plant poisons a nearby community. Through global climate change, for example, localized greenhouse gas emissions have far-flung impacts. The recently released Arctic Climate Impact Assessment documents temperature increases in the Arctic at nearly twice the global rate. The resultant thinning ice and changes in animal populations greatly impacts the Inuit population living there.
Unfortunately, our policy-making has not caught up with these complexities. The results are often disastrous. As scientists grapple with the question of how global climate change affects the risk of severe weather events, the tragedy of Katrina illustrates how ill-prepared we are to manage them.
The priority now should be mourning the losses of the past week and trying to help the victims and recovery process. But we also must ask how to do better in the inevitable next time.
Engaging this collision of race, poverty and environmental disparity is critical to preventing endless cycles of despair. A few of the most basic lessons from Katrina’s aftermath include: good management of coastline ecosystems saves lives and property; investing in mitigating technology is critical; disaster-preparedness plans need to contain redundant and flexible ways of assisting society’s least fortunate.
A substantial commitment of resources is needed to make sure that these steps happen before the next storm hits. More fundamentally, issues of environmental and social justice must be engaged simultaneously. Policymakers should examine the disparate impact of environmental choices, and take steps to rectify the inequities that result.

Such an approach cannot stop hurricanes or end poverty, but it might help the aftermath of natural occurrences be less disastrous.

Hari Osofsky is a visiting assistant professor at the University of Oregon School of Law. Her parents live in New Orleans.


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