KATRINA: Four Years Later, Lessons Unlearned

It has been four years since the man-made failure of Louisiana’s hurricane protection system left New Orleans completely devastated. Decades of coastal erosion spurred on by global warming, the activities of the oil and gas industries, and the inadequate levee system designed by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers allowed Hurricane Katrina to penetrate deep into the heart of the “Big Easy” which made landfall in late August 2005. The effects of Katrina on New Orleans and the the Gulf Coast are inextricably connected to climate change, government failure, and environmental devastation by oil companies.Over a million people from New Orleans and the small towns on the Mississippi and Louisiana coasts were forced to move inland either within the state or to neighboring states. Although nearly all planned to return, many have not. The U.S. experienced its first massive displacement of citizens due to climate impacts. The event left hundreds of thousands without access to their homes or jobs, separated people from relatives, and inflicted both physical and mental distress on those who suffered through the storm and its aftermath. Initially, many lives were lost, while many more were disrupted. A USGS analysis of land change data from satellite imagery and field observation indicated that 217 square miles of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands were converted to open water because of Hurricanes Katrina. For every 3-4 miles of wetlands that are lost, that’s a foot of storm surge that will not be stopped from inundating our communities. It is estimated that the total economic impact in Louisiana and Mississippi exceeded $150 billion. Clearly, Katrina was the single worst environmental catastrophe to ever hit the United States.Several events marking the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina have been taking place across the New Orleans metro area. Scores of students have fanned out across the city to do volunteer work. In St. Bernard Parish, folks gathered at Shell Beach to remember the 163 victims who lost their lives in Katrina. In the Lower 9th Ward neighborhood of New Orleans loved ones gathered at the monument on Tennessee Street at North Claiborne to join in prayer and for those who were lost. At Congo Square in Armstrong Park in the historical Treme neighborhood, a festival was held to celebrate the progress that is being made in the recovery. The fourth annual Katrina march and second line was held. At the Superdome, people gathered once again to join hands and to circle the Dome in unity. The Gulf Restoration Network’s held its Flood Washington Fest as one of at least 120 events held around the United States calling on the Senate (link to: http://action.healthygulf.org/campaign.jsp?campaign_KEY=27827) to restore coastal wetlands and pass effective climate change policy.We were thankful to hear President Obama make some statements in addressing Hurricane Katrina that showed his understanding of the role our coastal wetlands and barrier islands play as our first lines of defense against future storms, and we were excited to see his Administration’s announcement of a Gulf Coastal Restoration task force to coordinate (and hopefully speed) federal agency action for our natural storm defenses (link to: http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=aZ0haa8rKMYU)Yet, as these events take place, and the national media focuses some attention on our fledgling recovery, it is apparent that most of our political leadership has failed to learn the lessons of the past failed government policy which have contributed greatly to the mass destruction we faced in 2005.The most glaring example of the failure of our leadership four years after Katrina is the lack of leadership from Louisiana’s congressional delegation on the issue of climate change. While the passage of the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 was a giant step forward in the fight against global warming, the lack of a single vote from any member of Louisiana’s delegation sends a strong message, that well, we just don’t get it. Now that the Senate will be taking the reigns over climate change policy, Louisiana has one last chance to get it right and to be on the right side of history. Yet, Senator Vitter is out of the question as he is a climate skeptic, leaving only Senator Landrieu to show real leadership on this issue. Unfortunately, she seems more interested in expanding offshore drilling in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico than addressing the culpability the Oil and Gas industries are guilty of in destroying our wetlands, our coast, our communities, and our climate. But, until Senator Landrieu casts her final vote (hopefully this fall) on climate, clean energy and green jobs, there is still a chance for her to step up and join ranks with those who see the looming threat of climate change as an opportunity for economic and environmental prosperity. Rest assured, with the memory of Katrina as our motivation, we will continue our fight down here in New Orleans until we, and our leadership, finally see the light.Jonathan Henderson is the Louisiana Global Warming Organizer for the Gulf Restoration Network. For more information, contact Jonathan@healthygulf.org

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