Rose Johnson of North Gulfport, my Mississippi Chapter co-chair, lost most of the shingles off her home and suffered extensive flooding, but her house stood. For weeks after the storm, without electricity, 14 family members stayed with her while she volunteered handing out food and relief supplies at a local community center.
A month after Katrina hit, Rose and I ventured into a neighborhood south of the railroad tracks in Gulfport, closed to everyone but residents and cleanup workers because of health threats and looting. We met fellow Sierra Club volunteer Lark Mason, whose home two blocks from the beach was inundated with seven feet of water. Lark was gutting her house. Clothing, including her mother’s wedding dress, was hanging from the rafters to dry. She showed us the devastation between her home and the beach, with the Port of Gulfport in the background. Cars, boats, and huge shipping containers were stacked topsy-turvy over mounds of debris from destroyed buildings. Water poured from broken water and sewer mains, and biting flies were having a field day.
Years before, the Sierra Club had opposed the Port of Gulfport’s plan to fill in 40 acres of the Mississippi Sound for a container parking lot, urging that the lot be located five miles inland. Now the containers had turned into torpedoes, ramming into houses and spreading their contents over the surrounding area. Rail cars containing pork and chicken fouled the air with an unbearable stench.
Club activist Paul Stewart lived across the Bay of St. Louis from the DuPont facility, which produces 15 million pounds of toxic waste a year. His home is gone. Paul and his wife Melody, who are staying with relatives in Maryland, went to Capitol Hill to meet with congressional leaders in late September, urging that homes and schools near DuPont be tested to assess the safety of returning to the area.
One of the top sources of dioxin releases in the country, DuPont DeLisle claims it had no environmental releases from the devastating storm. Paul, who has toured the plant and seen the waste pits, is skeptical. “DuPont admits the plant was flooded, but they say no toxins were released. How can they possibly know that without testing nearby homes and schools? The waste pits are supposed to be impermeable because the toxins they contain are deadly and should never find their way into the environment. That all changed with Katrina, but no one, including the state, EPA, FEMA, or our elected officials, seems concerned about the health risks.
“Katrina didn’t pollute our land,” he asserts, “DuPont did. It was irresponsible to allow that plant to be located directly on the bay in a hurricane-prone area. They played Russian roulette and lost, our land is now toxic, and all DuPont can talk about is getting operations back up and running.”
Southeast Louisiana was also awash in toxins in Katrina’s wake. New Orleans escaped the worst wind damage, only to suffer the catastrophic flooding that environmentalists had long warned was a near-inevitable consequence of a major hurricane in this ecologically fragile city, located below sea level.
“The response of regulatory agencies has been very disappointing,” says Mississippi Sierra Club Director Louie Miller. “In Mississippi, they have largely failed to do any testing or remediation of toxic contamination from industrial sites. When we need them the most, they’re nowhere to be found.”
Stepping in where regulatory officials largely feared to tread, environmental consultant Wilma Subra took samples in September in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” an area along the Mississippi River with high concentrations of refineries and chemicals plants. She found toxic heavy metals, petroleum-based organics, and bacteria from untreated sewage in the waters and debris caking the communities. Seven million gallons of oil spilled in southeast Louisiana, and numerous chemical plants and Superfund sites flooded, spawning what may be the worst environmental catastrophe in the nation’s history.
In mid-September, Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe introduced legislation that would allow the EPA to waive or change any law under EPA jurisdiction for up to 18 months. “This is an unwarranted and dangerous bill,” Gulf Coast Sierra Club leaders said in a letter to Inhofe. “The tragedy of Hurricane Katrina should not be used to waive or erode environmental laws, regulations, and statutes in Gulf Coast states or elsewhere.”
The question has been raised whether the Gulf Coast environmental community is in any shape to respond to the pollution Katrina has left in its wake. Many activists lost their homes and are now in exile. But many are planning to rebuild, and even from afar they continue to advocate for the health of people and the environment along the Gulf Coast.
Malek-Wiley, who evacuated to Houston, has been trying to reestablish contact with the community leaders he worked with prior to the hurricane. “It’s been difficult to reconnect with people since they’re scattered across the country,” he says. “But the ones I have been in touch with want to rebuild their communities, better than before, with less pollution and toxics. I talked to one leader whose mother was killed by the flooding. She said even though she was facing this intense personal tragedy, ‘I’m a fighter for my family and my community.’”
The Sierra Club has launched a Gulf Coast Environmental Restoration Project to help the Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama Chapters work with local communities to rebuild and recover in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. We are nearly halfway to the goal of raising $250,000. To contribute, please go to www.sierraclub.org and click on Gulf Coast Environmental Restoration Project.
photo by Becky GIllette
Up to Top