2006 CPEO Brownfields List Archive

From: "lsiegel@cpeo.org" <lsiegel@cpeo.org>
Date: 24 Feb 2006 14:49:22 -0000
Reply: cpeo-brownfields
Subject: [CPEO-BIF] My Visit to New Orleans
Thursday (February 23, 2006) I visited New Orleans and nearby Chalmette,
and I was struck by the magnitude of the devastation.

I was visiting Houma, Louisiana, a small city about 50 miles southwest of
New Orleans. In the morning my colleague (Larry Charles) and I had meetings
here to plan an environmental workshop in Houma this Spring. Larry was born
in New Orleans' Charity Hospital, grew up on a bayou near Houma, and
graduated from Southern University in New Orleans in the 1970s.

In the afternoon we drove into New Orleans. I was struck, at first, by the
intensity of commuter traffic and the bustling commerce in the airport-area
suburbs. Clearly, as Mardi Gras celebrations ramp up, the commercial side
of the New Orleans metropolitan area is on the upswing.

As we drove along the Interstate into New Orleans, we saw a checkerboard of
blue-tarp covered roofs, a scene I had observed as my plane landed the day
before. Though the tarps indicate widespread damage and demonstrate the
slowness of repair, they also identify neighborhoods where people are now
living or expect to restore their homes.

There weren't many tarps in the Lower Ninth Ward, the poor area damaged
most by the 2005 hurricanes (Katrina and Rita) and consequent floods. We
took dozens of photos of homes and churches damaged beyond repair, knowing
that most of those that didn't show significant external damage were
plagued by water damage and mold growth on the inside. We saw up-ended cars
and downed trees. Debris was piled up in and near the structures. On some
buildings, a "bathtub ring" marked the high tide of flooding, halfway up
exterior walls that were (in the area we spent most of our time) already on
elevated foundations. Nearby commercial areas were largely abandoned.

But we could have taken similar photos in other hurricane-ravaged cities.
This was different. The devastation continued for miles. It reminded me of
our family visit to Mt. St. Helens a year after its major eruption. We had
seen photos of downed trees, but only in person did we appreciate the
enormity of the destruction - miles upon miles of timber lying on the
ground like matchsticks.

We didn't see much activity in the Lower Ninth Ward. Every couple of blocks
we would see a few people attempting cleanup or a trailer parked out front
of a damaged home. It was hard to imagine that this would ever again become
a the vibrant - though poor - neighborhood it was before hurricane Katrina.

Spraypainted markings on each home recorded and dated the visit by "rescue
crews," looking for the dead, the living, and pets. Thankfully most scrawls
reported zero dead, but some didn't. A few homes carried warnings such as
"You loot our home again, we shoot." One Church, however, posted a hopeful,
storebought banner that welcomed, "Open for Business."

One hardworking man, on leave from FEMA administrative support work,
carefully painted the metal fence in front of a freshly painted home. We
talked to him. He complained about FEMA's wastefulness. He was helping out
a friend. They wanted the home to look good on the outside for tomorrow,
when the friend was to bring his wife to see their home again. But through
a doorway the inside of the house still appeared empty and totally gutted.
Amidst the surrounding wasteland, this was a dim beacon of hope.

We next drove to Chalmette, site of the massive hurricane-triggered oil
spill from the Murphy Oil refinery. It was difficult to spot the impact of
the spill, after months of cleanup, but we did spot dark sand on the ground
in the adjacent residential area, and dark "bathtub rings" on some homes
and fences still. One house displayed a hand-painted sign, "Damaged by
Katrina, ruined by Murphy Oil, USA."

Chalmette exhibited the same devastation as the Lower Ninth Ward, except
that a typical block had two or more trailers and more people visibly
attempting cleanup and reconstruction. In contrast to the low-lying Lower
Ninth, people from this area seem to expect recovery.

We talked to a few people, hearing consistent complaints about government
indifference or incompetence. One woman - perhaps in her 60s - complained
that she and her fiancé have to drive more than 150 miles each way to work
on her house. She is housed in a FEMA trailer in Lafayette, but she can't
get a smaller trailer to park at her home because she already signed for
one elsewhere. 

As we re-entered New Orleans, we saw a police-escorted cavalcade of dozens
of Mardi Gras floats headed across another bridge. The parades have
started, and the tourists are bringing much needed cash back to the
Crescent City. But they seemed far out of place.

Driving back through the city, we visited Larry's old Southern University
in New Orleans campus. The public historically black campus was abandoned,
but Larry assured me that the university survives, with half the student
load nearby in temporary buildings. Trailers serve as dormitories for a
college where everyone always lived in the adjacent community or commuted.
Dillard University's nearby campus also appeared empty.

Driving through a middle-class, predominantly black area, we saw as many
trailers as in Chalmette, and the destruction seemed less extensive than in
the Lower Ninth Ward, but the area still looked like a ghost town.

Thinking back over my visit, I wasn't as depressed or angry as I should
have been - probably because I expected what I saw. It's clear that months
after America's greatest "natural" disaster, the Neros are still fiddling
while vast neighborhoods in one of America's most prized cities remain
uninhabited with meager hope of recovery. I don't know what should be
rebuilt where, but the longer things remain as they are, the harder it will
be to do anything to bring the residents back together, either to their old
streets or new, drier areas.

As during Katrina and the days immediately after, black people and poor
whites are the ones who are losing out most. At least until the next major
hurricane, New Orleans is likely to regain its Mardi Gras façade. Its
economy will revive, boosted by recovery spending and its irreplaceable
role as middle America's major seaport. But it will never be the same, and
even if these devastated neighborhoods are never reborn, it will take years
and billions of dollars more just to clean up the mess.


Lenny Siegel
Director, Center for Public Environmental Oversight
c/o PSC, 278-A Hope St., Mountain View, CA 94041
Voice: 650/961-8918 or 650/969-1545
Fax: 650/961-8918

mail2web - Check your email from the web at
http://mail2web.com/ .

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