What have been the most significant environmental impacts of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans?

What have been the most significant environmental impacts of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans?

—Samantha Gray, Tacoma, WA

Perhaps the longest-lasting impact of Hurricane Katrina was its environmental damage that, in real terms, has mainly to do with public health. Significant amounts of industrial waste and raw sewage spilled directly into New Orleans neighborhoods. And oil spills from offshore rigs, coastal refineries, and even corner gas stations have also made their way into residential areas and business districts throughout the region.

Analysts estimate that seven million gallons of oil spilled throughout the region. The U.S. Coast Guard says that much of the spilled oil has been cleaned up or “naturally dispersed,” but environmentalists fear that the initial contamination could devastate the region’s biodiversity and ecological health for many years to come, further devastating the region’s already ailing fisheries, once the economic lifeblood of the area.

Meanwhile, flooding at five “Superfund” sites (heavily polluted industrial sites slated for federal cleanup), and the wholesale destruction along the already infamous “Cancer Alley” industrial corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, have only served to complicate matters for clean-up officials. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers Katrina the biggest disaster it has ever had to handle.

Household hazardous wastes, pesticides, heavy metals and other toxic chemicals also created a witch’s brew of floodwater that quickly seeped down into and contaminated groundwater across hundreds of miles. “The range of toxic chemicals that may have been released is extensive,” says Johns Hopkins University environmental health sciences professor Lynn Goldman. “We’re talking about metals, persistent chemicals, solvents, materials that have numerous potential health impacts over the long term.”

According to Hugh Kaufman, an EPA senior policy analyst, environmental regulations in place to prevent the types of discharges that occurred during Katrina were not enforced, making what would have been a bad situation much worse. Unchecked development throughout ecologically sensitive parts of the region put further stress on the environment’s ability to absorb and disperse noxious chemicals. “Folks down there were living on borrowed time and, unfortunately, time ran out with Katrina,” Kaufman concludes.

To date, recovery efforts have focused on plugging leaks in levies, clearing debris and repairing water and sewer systems. Officials cannot say when they will be able to concentrate on longer-term issues such as treating contaminated soil and groundwater, though the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has begun a Herculean effort to physically remove tons of contaminated sediment left behind by receding floodwaters. Meanwhile, financially strapped state and local agencies are slowly cleaning up or removing contaminated buildings, many of which harbor mold and viruses that can still make people sick.

But just as some of these longer-term remediation projects are getting started, the Gulf Coast is battening down the hatches for what promises to be another whopper of a hurricane season this summer and fall, fueled in part by increasing ocean temperatures due to global warming.

CONTACTS: EPA’s Response to 2005 Hurricanes Website, www.epa.gov/katrina; “The Toxic Legacy of Hurricane Katrina,” emagazine.com/?issue=125&toc.