Not only were Katrina, the federal flood, and Rita massive human tragedies, they were for reasons which will be detailed below easily this nation's biggest environmental calamity.
And their potential impacts on human health and life in New Orleans and in the rest of the affected area are still being assessed over 2 1/2-years later.
Soon after Katrina and the flood, long-term environmental damage was predicted in the affected area, potentially hazardous to human health. And this damage includes not only contamination but also the additional sinking of New Orleans:
Inside the flooded areas Louisiana were 60 chemical plants, oil refineries and petroleum facilities. Flooding caused six major oil spills between the mouth of the Mississippi River and New Orleans and several smaller spills in other places. Fifty thousand barrels have been recovered, but Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials estimate another 160,000 barrels were not recovered. Each barrel contains about 42 gallons of oil.
Oil from the 350,000 flooded vehicles in the area will take several years to decompose. The sewage system was also overrun during the hurricane. The EPA announced on Sept. 16 high levels of E-coli, a toxin-producing bacterium, in sediment around the city.
Pollution is not the only environmental factor preventing the safe rehabilitation of New Orleans. Geology Professor Jack Ridge doubts the city can sustain further sediment weathering. "Subsidence is one of the greatest threats to New Orleans," he said. Built on the Mississippi Delta, New Orleans rests on soil infiltrated with mud from the river. As the city develops and more structures are built, the accumulation of weight squeezes water out of the muddy ground. New Orleans is sinking further below sea level.
There will be more on the sinking of New Orleans in Part 2 of this series. And the following could have long-term environmental impacts--and this time not just in Louisiana and Mississippi, but they could add to global warming. According to this
Washington Post article,
New satellite imaging has revealed that hurricanes Katrina and Rita produced the largest single forestry disaster on record in the nation -- an essentially unreported ecological catastrophe that killed or severely damaged about 320 million trees in Mississippi and Louisiana.
The die-off, caused initially by wind and later by weeks-long pooling of stagnant water, was so massive that researchers say it will add significantly to the global greenhouse gas buildup -- ultimately putting as much carbon from dying vegetation into the air as the rest of the nation's forest takes out in a year of photosynthesis.
In addition, the downing of so many trees has opened vast and sometimes fragile tracts to several aggressive and fast-growing exotic species that are already squeezing out far more environmentally productive native species.
The article adds that forests over an area about the size of Maine were destroyed, and also says
Efforts to limit the damage have been handicapped by the ineffectiveness of a $504 million federal program to help Gulf Coast landowners replant and fight the invasive species. Congress appropriated the money in 2005 and added to it in 2007, but officials acknowledge that the program got off to a slow start and that only about $70 million has been promised or dispensed so far. Local advocates said onerous bureaucratic hurdles and low compensation rates are major reasons.
"This is the worst environmental disaster in the United States since the Exxon Valdez accident . . . and the greatest forest destruction in modern times," said James Cummins, executive director of the conservation group Wildlife Mississippi and a board member of the Mississippi Forestry Commission. "It needs a really broad and aggressive response, and so far that just hasn't happened."
Then there are the human costs of this disaster that can be attributed to its environmental impact on the region. Survivors are being exposed to pollutants and other hazards to long-term health from the formaldehyde-emitting FEMA trailers many thousands still live in to dusts and molds that contaminate New Orleans' air and have caused "Katrina cough." Also, when the toxic floodwaters of New Orleans receded, they left behind all sorts of pollutants including lead, arsenic, asbestos, and other heavy metals in such places as playgrounds, schoolyards...all over. People cleaning out their homes and gutting them are being exposed to toxic dusts and molds which have been contributing to New Orleans' elevated post-Katrina death rate.
All of the above are issues environmentalists must tackle in a post-Katrina Gulf Region. But there's more. In tomorrow's installment, there will be more about the sinking of New Orleans and the rest of southern Louisiana and efforts to halt before a unique part of this country is wiped off the map.