August 25, 2006


Katrina One Year Later: An Unhappy Birthday

By Javier Sierra

The piñata for Hurricane Katrina’s first birthday looks sad. A year after those awful days of late August and early September 2005, we find just a few pieces of candy as we survey the landscape.

“Those days were full of terrible bitterness and loneliness,” recalls Emma Prevost, an 82-year-old Honduran-American who escaped Katrina “with water up to my neck. I lost everything. I could only save my three little dogs. And only my faith in God saved me.”

After seven months of living with friends and relatives in several parts of the country, Ms. Prevost returned to New Orleans in March once the federal government provided her with a trailer, where she now lives uncertain about her future.

Her doubts are well justified. Many of those government-issued trailers have high levels of formaldehyde, a toxic that can cause headaches, chest congestion and nose bleeds.

“I want this adventure to end and to move into my home,” she says. “But I don’t know whether I will get the federal aid I have requested [to rebuild].”

Ms. Prevost’s uncertainty is the common denominator not only in New Orleans but throughout the parts of the Gulf devastated by Katrina and Rita. And this uncertainty is the result of the resistance by the authorities to learn from the mistakes of the past.

A year later, Latino workers — the backbone of the cleaning and rebuilding efforts — continue to be especially vulnerable to exploitation and the toxic chemicals that covered the area after the flooding.

According to a report by Tulane University and UC Berkeley, undocumented workers — a large percentage of the area’s labor force— “often work in hazardous conditions without protective gear and earn less than their legal counterparts.”

The report also revealed that only one third of undocumented workers are aware of the dangers of removing asbestos and mold, two highly toxic substances, whereas 65 percent of documented workers understand those risks.

This dangerous ignorance and the neglect that these workers suffer are unjust and painful, and local, state and federal governments should better enforce the law and prevent these abuses.

Another lesson we have not learned is that destroying our natural coastal areas is like casting stones in a glass house. The marshes that used to cover the Delta’s coasts acted as an immense sponge against the violent surges and winds unleashed by hurricanes.

But today, tens of thousands of acres of these natural barriers have vanished, and one of the main culprits is a channel called Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO). For decades the Sierra Club has called for the closure of this disastrous piece of Army Corps of Engineers work.

According to experts, the MRGO, which connects the Gulf of Mexico with New Orleans, funneled Katrina and multiplied the speed and height of the storm surge. This, in turn, provoked the rupture of the levees and the monstrous flooding.

Thankfully, the Corps recently agreed to shut down the MRGO. Yet tens of thousands of wetland acres, which play a crucial role as a first line of defense against storms, still need to be restored.

The oil industry’s irresponsible action in the area is another unlearned lesson in this drama. According to studies, Katrina and Rita destroyed 113 platforms and damaged 457 pipelines. An especially infamous incident was the spill of 1.05 million gallons of crude oil from a storage tank belonging to Murphy Oil Corp. The disaster, the result of maintenance failures, covered with crude oil more than a square mile of St. Bernard Parrish, south of New Orleans.

It is essential that the oil industry be held accountable and help in the restoration of coastal wetlands. This industry must have detailed evacuation plans and whenever possible move its infrastructure away from the path of storms. Also, those installations that cannot be moved must be strengthened in order to withstand Category 5 hurricanes.

At 82, Ms. Prevost clears her garden with a machete and also looks to have Category 5 vitality. But she acknowledges that her city “is not ready for another hit” and prays that “Katrina’s sisters will never visit her home again.”

That is also our wish on this unhappy birthday.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist.

Letters to the Editor Return to the Frontpage