Report Faults Post-Katrina Cleanup

A recent report from the Russell Sage Foundation finds the U.S. government has neglected black neighborhoods in the eight months since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Ed Gordon talks with Beverly Wright, director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University in New Orleans, and Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, about the report, which they co-authored.

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Though no longer knee deep in water, the waste and debris left behind in New Orleans continues to pose a problem. In fact, the overall environment has been deeply compromised, according to a recent report by the Russell Sage Foundation.

The study: In the Wake of the Storm: Environment and Disaster and Race After Katrina; found that more then 42,000 tons of hazard waste remains on the ground, in mainly black neighborhoods. The report suggests that the federal government has not made cleaning up these areas a priority. I spoke with two authors of the report. Beverly Wright directs the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University in New Orleans, and Robert Bullard is the director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University.

Welcome. I thank you both for being part of the program. Before we get to the study, I wanted both of you to hear what Marc Morial had to say on our program this week. Marc, of course, is the CEO of the National Urban League, but also former Mayor of New Orleans. What he had to say in relation to the cleanup of that city and then talk about what your study has found. So let's take a listen.

Mr. MARC MORIAL (CEO, National Urban League): The recovery has been so inadequate. I mean, the city I visited nine, ten times back home; garbage everywhere; no housing plan in place. Somehow, somebody, someway has to energize this. The future of the city is at stake. We could lose New Orleans, that's the truth.

GORDON: Ms. Wright, let me start with you. No understatement there. And your study really echoes that, does it not?

Ms. BEVERLY WRIGHT (Director, Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, Dillard University): Absolutely. And I would have to, just, first of all, say, that I am a resident of the city of New Orleans, in exile right now in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And I have to agree that this certainly is the case, and this being the first time that we've ever seen anything at this magnitude.

We have come to conclusion that the only way that change is going to occur, is with a grassroots effort. And I really believe that very little attention is being paid to the kinds of organizations and people who are making a difference, in spite of the government's lack of attention, or lack of coordination to getting people back home.

GORDON: Robert Bullard, here's what many people are missing out, that the sewer systems across Louisiana suffered a billion dollars worth of damage. When we're talking about school systems reopening, we're forgetting that in classrooms and playgrounds across that area, there is concern about toxic wastes being on the grounds. When you talk about the sewer system being that badly damaged, of course, we're talking about problematic water running into homes, and schools, and the like. These are things that have not fully been discussed in the media, and I don't know that the public is really grappling with what New Orleans and that region is facing?

Mr. ROBERT BULLARD (Director, Environmental Justice Resource Center, Clark Atlanta University): I think this is really the crux of the matter: the extent to which people can come home; and the extent to which it's safe, in terms of the residuals of the flooding, and the sediments that's left; and the extent to which there has been a little government action in terms of cleanup.

There is a lot of contamination in many African American communities, in terms of lead in housing, and lead in the soil, before Katrina. There are many government agencies, including the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and the Federal EPA's, are saying that because some neighborhoods were contaminated before, and therefore they should not somehow be cleaned up. That is a formula for disaster.

GORDON: Beverly Wright, the title of the study is, In the Wake of the Storm: Environment, Disaster, and Race after Katrina. So much was talked about in terms of the recovery process and race. Talk to me about how race was relevant in this study?

Ms. WRIGHT: Well, I would say that in the study, the one thing that we tried to point out, is that the race of people most affected by this storm are in fact African American. Eighty percent of African Americans in the city of New Orleans lost everything, and the majority of African Americans are still displaced. They have not returned.

The majority of the people who have been able to return, are Caucasian. So I would say that race is a salient factor in the issue of this particular storm and its recovery.

GORDON: Robert Bullard, when we talk about waste left behind, your study suggests that 42,000 tons of hazardous waste remain on the ground, in mainly black neighborhoods. And the argument here, is that the federal government has not made this kind of cleanup a priority in these areas.

Mr. BULLARD: Well, if you look at on the ground, there's waste that was left behind in term of sediment. There's waste left behind in terms of debris. There's waste that's being left behind by houses that are being gutted. And if you drive through, fly over, walked through--you know, you can see with your own eyes that there's too much left over.

You know we're talking eight months after the storm. The communities that were left behind, shortly after the storm hit, are the same communities that are being left behind when it comes to recovery and rebuilding. And I think there is something wrong with that picture and that needs to change.

And what our study points out is that these issues are clearly environmental justice and health issues, and economic development issues, that in some cases pre-date Katrina. The fact that African American communities, were treated differently before the storm. And at least the policies that are in place now, at least they are consistent. They're still being mistreated and treated differently.

GORDON: When we look at the situation and know that we're talking years and years before we see full cleanup, what's the silver lining we can look to here?

Ms. WRIGHT: I would say that the silver lining is the resolve of the people who live in the city, and I think that the numbers of persons who will return has in fact been grossly understated. And the fact that neighborhood associations around the city are organizing and meeting on a weekly basis; in local churches that are partially still standing, and in trailers, trying to find a way to come back home; and using monies from their own pockets, finding a way to clean up other contaminations; and also they're looking for ways to really determine to what extent they are at risk.

Even getting the kind of information that you would need to make a determination, of what it is you have to do to be able to move back to your home safely, is very difficult; because EPA and LDQ have not chosen to share the information in a friendly way, that would allow your average person to go to a website, or to distribute information telling them the extent of the contamination in the sediment around their homes; or what to prepare for inside of their homes.

The silver lining is that New Orleanians are returning home. We are expecting a large number of people to come back home after schools close. We don't know what to expect this summer. And after the FEMA money runs out, we also expect a lot of people to return home.

So with those people coming home, there are those of us on the ground trying to organize neighborhoods, so that when they return, they will have some assistance in cleaning out their homes and moving back home in a safer environment.

GORDON: We should also note that we've reached out to the EPA and are seeking a response from them. Beverly Wright is the director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University in New Orleans, and Robert Bullard it the director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University. And both participated as authors in this study. We thank you both. I appreciate it.

Ms. WRIGHT: Thank you.

Mr. BULLARD: Thank you.

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