Gulf Coast residents, already faced with some of the nation’s toughest environmental challenges, didn’t really need Hurricanes Katrina and Rita to emphasize their vulnerability. Environmental groups in the region are short on paid staff but long on a sense of history, outrage and commitment to their communities. The hurricanes devastated these communities and exacerbated the alarming environmental threats. But the natural, political and social upheavals have also engendered hope for positive changes in their wake.
The Louisiana Bucket Brigade, for example, dropped from three full-time staff and 40 canvassers to two staff and no canvassers. “The canvassing, which was a great aspect of our program, is now obliterated,” explains founder and program director Anne Rolfes, “because the homes the canvassers used to knock on are obliterated.” The organization, which works mostly in St. Bernard Parish, bordering New Orleans, is named for the containers residents use to take air samples to test for toxic releases from the many industrial plants in the area.
Last fall, three national environmental organizations tried to poll 255 local environmental groups in the Gulf Coast region; they were able to collect data on just 64, three-quarters of which are all-volunteer operations and all of which reported a loss of personnel, equipment, office space and constituencies due to the hurricanes. In their report, “We Want to Be at the Table: Helping Environmental Groups Rebuild After Katrina,” the Environmental Support Center, the River Network and the Institute for Conservation Leadership wrote, “Allies around the country
need to understand the depth of shock, displacement and day-to-day problems grassroots organizations in the Gulf have to address.” The report proposed streamlining mechanisms to speed funding and technical assistance to grassroots groups in the region.
These small groups are confronting even bigger toxic messes than before, such as the million gallons of oil that spread through St. Bernard Parish when Katrina ripped a storage tank owned by Murphy Oil off its foundation; or the flaring of oil and gas already in the pipelines of refineries in Port Arthur, Texas, when the facilities had to shut down as Hurricane Rita approached. “The flares were sending black smoke into the air and increasing pollution in our city, which is nicknamed “the Armpit of Texas,” because it stinks,” says Hilton Kelley, founder and CEO of Community In-Power and Development Association.
But there are also some positive developments during the months of recovery. One is the spotlight the hurricanes shone on the Gulf Coast, exposing the reality of Port Arthur and other under-served communities. “We have a lot of toxics in the air because of all the chemical plants and refineries,” says Kelley. “People have skin irritations and respiratory problems, and they don’t have medical care. Now we learned there are thousands of people in the Gulf region living in substandard conditions, and this should not be.”
Derrick Evans is a leader of Turkey Creek Community Initiatives, an African -American community settled by freed slaves after the Civil War. “I would say we have the eyes of the nation on us, which has always been historically useful in trying to change things in Mississippi,” he says. Turkey Creek was annexed to Gulfport, Mississippi in 1993. Because of rampant development triggered by the legalization of gambling two decades ago, the community finds itself sandwiched between two highways and the Biloxi-Gulfport International Airport. Evans says most of the 2,000 feet of wetlands that protected his community from storm surges have been destroyed. His group is fighting to save the rest, as well as the trees that are being sacrificed to feed the development boom.
In “We Want to Be at the Table,” many of those interviewed said the official government response at all levels to the disasters has been disappointing, but not surprising. “We were in a terrible stew before this,” Rolfes says. “We’ve been the national sacrifice zone for petrochemical production for a long time.”
Evans adds, “It’s become a volunteer-driven and donor-driven recovery.” Reverend Lois DeJean chairs the Gert Town Revival Initiative in New Orleans. The neighborhood was contaminated by a massive pesticide spill in the 1980s, and soil samples taken by the Natural Resources Defense Council after Katrina flooded the area indicate that contaminants have traveled from the site toward nearby homes, although the Environmental Protection Agency says its testing indicates that chemicals present in the soil “are not expected to pose long-term health risks for residents returning to their homes.”
DeJean is optimistic about the future. “Nobody paid attention to Gert Town before the hurricane,” she says. “Now we have people calling us and asking if they can work with us. And we do have some input into how we want our communities to look not just for today, but long range. We want our community revitalized, and I think the chances of that are good. For example, we want the cement plant in the area closed and we want to build a technology center there.”
The other bright spot is that foundations have expedited their funding process. After the hurricanes, the Environmental Grantmakers Association—a consortium of 250 foundations, big and small—set up the Gulf Coast Ecological Health and Community Renewal Fund. In late May, the fund awarded its first grants, totaling $200,000, and ranging from $5,000 to $37,000, which are a boon for groups that survive on very little money. Community In-Power and Development Association received $15,000 for ongoing research, air monitoring and community education to address pollution from the area’s oil refineries.
Anne Rolfes of the Bucket Brigade says foundations have been generous. “It was a rare event before Katrina that a funder would call and say we have money we want to give you, without us having pursued them,” she says. “We’ve had some experiences like that, and the foundation world is to be credited because they have certainly made a difficult time better by granting us money and giving us at least some degree of financial security.”
And Rolfes thinks Katrina has shifted the ground not just literally but politically too. “In Saint Bernard Parish, for years there’s been this untenable situation in which people actually share a fence with a refinery. Before Katrina it would have been unthinkable to talk about putting in a buffer zone between the residential area and the industrial area because people just accepted that situation. Now individuals and even the local government recognize that a buffer would be a good policy. And I think we’re going to get one.”