The stories, images, sights, and sounds coming out of the gulf coast region this week are overwhelming, and hopefully the response from government agencies and people across America will be as impressive as the hurricane was devastating.
Obviously hurricanes are a natural phenomenon. But there is strong evidence that pollution and habitat destruction made Katrina as strong as she was, and robbed New Orleans of defenses that protected it for most of its history.
Katrina crossed over south Florida before hitting the Gulf coast. Instead of weakening over land, Katrina was able to build its terrifying strength over the unusually warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. These rising ocean temperatures are exactly what computer models of climate change project will become the norm as a result of rising pollution levels.
The storm and aftermath raises other issues about the importance that wetland systems play in protecting communities from floods. Since the hurricane Camille hit approximately the same region, Louisiana's coastal wetlands have been a sacrifice zone for oil and gas exploration and production and other development. Instead of providing a healthy buffer for storm surge, coastal wetlands and Gulf beaches have been decimated again and the extent of damage is currently unknown. According to the Army Corps of Engineers, three-square miles of wetlands can reduce storm surge by a foot. One acre of wetland can absorb a million gallons of stormwater.
Although the extent of the environmental devastation remains unknown, it is clear that the flooding has brought a toxic soup to New Orleans: At least two hazardous waste sites are underwater, at least two oil refinery sites in Chalmette are shut down and possibly flooded, and throughout the city gas stations and natural gas pipelines are flooded and leaking into
water-soaked neighborhoods. In addition, bacteria and fecal matter contaminate the flood waters and mosquito-borne and other disease threatens.
Right now are thoughts are with those still awaiting rescue, attempting to assemble the basic necessities of life, and trying to contemplate their future after such incomprehensible loss. Hopefully in the weeks, months, and years ahead, the horror of Katrina will inform ongoing debates about public policies on energy, climate change, and wetlands protection.