Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Katrina´s Continuing Costs
distributed 9/9/05 - ©2005

The previous week's Eco-Justice Notes, Katrina, looks at some of the social costs of the hurricane, and the environmental factors that contributed to the damage.

It has been 10 days since Katrina blew her way into the Gulf coast of the United States. The human toll of the storm in death and disruption is still becoming clear.

With the economic fixation that characterizes US society, new reports quickly started to analyze the costs of the storm on the nation as a whole, especially in relation to joblessness, oil prices and disrupted shipping on the Mississippi River.

In some of the financial reports, an upbeat word emerged. One senior economist with J.P. Morgan said, "Plenty of cleanup work and rebuilding will follow in all the areas. That means over the next 12 months, there will be lots of job creation which is good for the economy." Another academic economist said, "On a personal level, the loss of life is tragic. But looking at the economic impact, our research shows that hurricanes tend to become god-given work projects."

I have written before about the stark difference between the Gross Domestic Product -- the economic flow of goods and services -- and what is really good for a community and nation. Once again, I want to point out that the extensive cleanup work that is good for the economy isn't so splendid by environmental measures.

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Waterlogged New Orleans has been the most evident of the environmental stories. What has been referred to as "a nasty brew of toxic chemicals and harmful bacteria" still floods much of the city. Pathogen test this week showed coliform bacteria counts 10 times higher than safe levels, and people in the city were warned to not even touch the water. Among the other pollutants in the stagnating water: gasoline, oil and battery acid from submerged vehicles; fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides -- often from what was stored in residential garages; industrial chemicals from factories, warehouses and dry cleaning plants; and an unknown mix of hazardous materials seeping from rail cars and trucks.

The water from New Orleans is being pumped back into Lake Pontchartrain. As one report said, "the project is basically refilling the lake's basin with toxic effluent, reversing years of effort to clean up the water. But there are few, if any, dissenting voices -- even from the environmental community. There simply seems to be no other alternative."

Once the water is gone from the streets and homes of New Orleans, some of the nastiest of the pollutants -- found in the mud and sludge and sewage that settled out -- will remain. If the pollution is not treated, or if the sludge is used for landfill, the city will be re-built on top of a simmering public health disaster.

Looking beyond New Orleans, several large oil spills have been found on the Mississippi River -- with an estimated 78,000 barrels of oil being lost from just one storage depot. In normal times, that sort of oil spill would be considered an environmental disaster in its own right. The petroleum slick will foul wildlife and habitats across a wide area.

The polluted water from many sources will have several effects on fisheries and wildlife. Some susceptible species will be killed outright. There are also sublethal impacts -- reproductive and developmental problems caused by chemicals that can affect certain species of fish, shellfish or birds over time, significantly reducing their populations. And then there is the problem of bio-accumulation, where toxic substances become increasingly concentrated in predators, with those at the top of the food chain -- including humans -- getting the largest doses long after the initial contamination.

A friend of mine, writing with an account of his family's struggles in the coastal areas, said: "We have been told that about 50% of the trees in south Mississippi were blown down by Katrina. Mississippi is heavily forested, and there is an unimaginable amount of fallen timber. It remains to be seen whether this will later create fire danger or other problems." If the trees are burned -- intentionally or otherwise -- there will be a huge release of smoke and carbon dioxide. If all that wood is mulched or buried, the carbon impact on global climate change will be reduced -- at least in the short term -- but large areas of land will have to be dedicated to the disposal process.

Downed trees are a simple problem compared to the enormous amounts of debris from demolished buildings. Initial surveys for Louisiana alone show around 150,000 homes that were flooded and are "unsalvageable." Across the Gulf coast, wind and storm surges destroyed many other buildings -- homes, apartments, offices and stores. Countless miles of roads will also be replaced, adding concrete and asphalt to the volume of waste.

The amount of debris is staggering in itself, but specialized problems emerge. Mold flourishes on damp surfaces, creating severe health hazards for those doing recovery and rebuilding. Many of the buildings date from periods when asbestos was widely used; safe processing of that highly carcinogenic material will be close to impossible. Computers and TVs are toxic waste that probably will not be separated out from other trash for careful processing. Air conditioners and refrigerators contain freon and other atmosphere-damaging chemicals that should be recaptured, but it is likely that they will just be released into the air.

I think of two other environmental effects which have not made it into the news:

  • Chain saws, leaf blowers (grrr!), generators, and heavy construction equipment all cause enormous amounts of noise and air pollution.
  • The construction materials needed to rebuild hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses will require the felling of huge numbers of trees, the quarrying of enormous amounts of stone and gravel, and lots of metal for wiring, plumbing and ductwork. It is "good for the economy," but a huge impact on the global environment.

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It is important to name these environmental threats. Perhaps some of them can be minimized if awareness is raised. Others can at least be documented so that long-term consequences may be tracked, and better plans made for dealing with future disasters.

On another level, it is important to look at the environmental impacts of this powerful storm as an eye-opening expression of the state of our modern society. The wind and waves have compounded and complicated problems, but the toxins were already present, and a large part of them would have been released into the water, air or dumps within the next decade or so. The storm accelerated an already occurring ecological disaster.

If we care for God's people, if we care for God's creation, then we have to look beyond simplistic measures of economic activity. As we deal with the consequences of Katrina on the Gulf coast, and as we look at the impacts of our technological society, it is essential that we assess and address these often hidden environmental costs.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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