Statement of Brent Blackwelder on Hurricane Katrina

Statement of Brent Blackwelder on Hurricane Katrina


Friends of the Earth extends our deepest sympathies to the victims of Hurricane Katrina.  Hundreds of thousands of people are continuing to experience numerous hardships in the aftermath of the hurricane and are in urgent need of assistance.  At this writing, Congress has already appropriated $62 billion in disaster relief.  As we move forward, it is critical that we learn from past mistakes.  If the nation makes the decision to restore and rebuild the worst hit areas of the Gulf Coast, this restoration must make the region safer and more environmentally sustainable.  It is also critical that our nation take action on the massive environmental injustice that was laid bare by the hurricane as thousands and thousands of poor and minority citizens were trapped in flood waters.


Too often in our country, we see the environment as something separate and apart, beautiful places in the wilderness unmoored to any social reality.  Above all, we ignore the deep connections between our natural world and inequality in our society. Hurricane Katrina should open our eyes. 


The straight-jacketing of the Mississippi River through massive levees together with rampant oil and gas exploration in Louisiana that fragmented and undermined wetlands, and the resulting loss of swamps and silt deposition along the coast, created environmental conditions for hurricane destruction that were most dangerous for the least powerful.  With the natural coastal buffers to hurricanes no longer in place, those who lived in the lowest parts of Louisiana, including the low lying areas of New Orleans, and those who didn’t have the means to evacuate in the face of a mortal threat, were the most vulnerable and the hardest hit.  The powerless were put directly in harm’s way by environmental mismanagement and degradation. 


Indeed, this disaster is the most devastating example of environmental injustice ever experienced in the United States.  The inundation of New Orleans and the day-after-day pictures of human misery have laid bare the unsettling links between human inequity and the environment around us. 


For 36 years, Friends of the Earth has been working to prevent disasters.  We have campaigned against faulty flood control projects built by the Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies, which have undermined the safety of Louisiana and other Gulf Coast residents.


Our analysis confirmed what research in the decades prior to 1970 had shown – that federal water projects, rather than preventing floods, have actually increased flood damages. You might say that the federal program has been one of flood damage enhancement. 


One objective measure of a successful flood prevention program would be the leveling off or actual decline in flood losses over time.  Instead, in inflation adjusted dollars, the trend line for flood damages in the United States has been going up and up.  This is a clear indication of a failed effort at flood control.  The basic reason is that legislators have become ever more devoted to pork barrel politics rather than looking at scientific evidence and forcing reforms on the Army Corps of Engineers. 


While the pork barrel phenomenon has been with us for more than a century, today it is stronger than ever.  This means that most water resource projects are not approved and built based on any merit or need; rather, they are built because influential constituents and campaign contributors, including the construction lobby, want them, and because members lack the courage to critique projects in other members’ districts.


Congress is handling national policy on energy and transportation the same way. The energy bill and the transportation bill passed by Congress this summer don’t represent coherent policy, but rather a string of subsidies and handouts to influential lobbies.


Friends of the Earth has sought to prevent storm disasters with our initiative to prevent the state of Mississippi from allowing casinos to be built in harm’s way, on the water’s edge. Unlike the historic development in New Orleans – a city that was settled centuries ago – the casino development on the Mississippi coastline started in 1990 with the passage of a casino gambling law that only permitted gambling over water.  It was sheer stupidity to put these lavish casinos in harm’s way and in sensitive and productive Gulf estuarine zones that yield an abundance of fish, shellfish, and wildlife.   


In 1999, Friends of the Earth filed a lawsuit in partnership with the Gulf Coast Conservancy to force the Corps of Engineers to prepare an environmental impact statement on the cumulative effects of continuing to construct casinos in marshlands, bays, and directly on the coastline.  Despite an initial court victory, we eventually lost and the state of Mississippi and the Army Corps of Engineers pushed forward and gave the green light to more floating casinos. 


Today every one of these casinos has been smashed up by Hurricane Katrina.  One brand new casino, built at a cost of $235 million and scheduled to open just three days after the hurricane struck, was totally wrecked by the storm. 


Both state and federal government have encouraged construction and development in sensitive areas. For decades Congress and the Army Corps of Engineers have spent taxpayer money subsidizing projects in hazard zones, whether it be the flood plain or the coast, many of which destroy or compromise marshlands, mangroves, sand dunes, and barrier islands—all natural barriers to storm surges.  As a result, we have more and more damage, loss of life, tragedy and suffering.


The suffering is particularly tragic in the case of New Orleans, where  we have witnessed the plight of poor and minorities trapped in flood waters.  The obvious environmental injustice of not providing faster and more comprehensive relief is a terrible commentary on the values of the Bush administration.