My wife and I were discussing tonight how many residents of New Orleans would return after the flood waters recede and the city becomes habitable once again. We’ve both heard NPR interviews with survivors who fled to Texas and other places and invariably they say: “I have relatives here [in Texas] and no reason to return” or “I’ve got relatives in [name a town other than New Orleans] and that’s where I’m going” or “My husband and I have found jobs here. Why would we go back?”
I’m not arguing that they’re right. I hope people go back and make New Orleans as great a place as it was (or greater) before the hurricane. But can it ever have such greatness if it doesn’t solve some huge problems? Who will want to buy a home in any of the neighborhoods hardest hit by the hurricane and subsequent flooding unless the levees are repaired and new systems put into place to protect the town’s most vulnerable neighborhoods?
MediaChannel.org turned me on to an amazing article in the Independent in which its reporter somehow got a long-time EPA official to reveal the scandalous story that the environmental situation there is far more toxic and dangerous than any federal official or agency has so far revealed. Here are some of the more frightening passages:
Hugh Kaufman, an expert on toxic waste and responses to environmental disasters at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)… said the clean-up needed to be “the most massive public works exercise ever done” adding: “It will take 10 years to get everything up and running and safe.”
Mr Kaufman claimed the Bush administration was playing down the need for a clean-up: the EPA has not been included in the core White House group tackling the crisis. “Its budget has been cut and inept political hacks have been put in key positions,” Mr Kaufman said. “All the money for emergency response has gone to buy guns and cowboys – which don’t do anything when a hurricane hits. We were less prepared for this than we would have been on 10 September 2001.”
He said the water being pumped out of the city was not being tested for pollution and would damage Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi river, and endanger people using it downstream…
The pollution was far worse than had been admitted, he said, because his agency was failing to take enough samples and was refusing to make public the results of those it had analysed. “Inept political hacks” running the clean-up will imperil the health of low-income migrant workers by getting them to do the work.
Other US sources spelt out the extent of the danger from one of America’s most polluted industrial areas, known locally as “Cancer Alley”. The 66 chemical plants, refineries and petroleum storage depots churn out 600m lb of toxic waste each year. Other dangerous substances are in site storage tanks or at the port of New Orleans. No one knows how much pollution has escaped through damaged plants and leaking pipes into the “toxic gumbo” now drowning the city. Mr Kaufman says no one is trying to find out.
How many tourists will flock to a city which cannot guarantee its public health? How many New Orleans residents who have a choice would want to return to such an environment until their safety could be guaranteed? People don’t play Russian roulette with their health. And do you think–given the federal government performance to date–that any federal agency can give such assurances and be believed?
Finally, I don’t know if Hugh Kaufman is right. Perhaps the environmental danger isn’t as bad as he’s making it out to be and further testing will prove this. But this guy “has been with EPA since it was founded 35 years ago and helped set up its hazardous waste program.” My guess is that you doubt him at your peril.