Defending the Gulf Coast from the Next Katrina

By Michelle Chen Aug 28, 2009

Pristine wetlands don’t often come to mind when we think about environmental racism. But the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is a reminder that environmental justice and conservation are two sides of the same struggle. As the post-hurricane recovery effort drags on, a coalition of environmental and community groups is pressing the Obama administration to fix one of the environmental blights that helped usher Katrina’s fury into New Orleans and St. Bernard Parishes. In the 1960s, the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO) was created as a “shortcut” between the Gulf of Mexico and New Orleans. The Army Corps of Engineers’ construction obliterated the natural environmental buffers against storms and intensified the threat of flooding, especially in poor and mostly Black neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward. The coalition, which includes grassroots organizations like the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association and Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation, summarized the mechanics of man-made disaster:

The south bank of the MRGO levee and the north bank of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW) levee form a funnel that focused wind-driven flood waters into the heart of the New Orleans metropolitan area and St. Bernard Parish. During Katrina, the funnel increased the height and velocity of the surge and contributed to the failure of levees and floodwalls.

As for the MRGO’s commercial value, each trip up and down the channel cost taxpayers $20,000 annually, according to 2003 data. So the public essentially financed the engineered destruction of the Gulf Coast, and now must pick up the tab to clean up the mess left over. The MRGO coalition is calling on Congress to speed up the implementation of a comprehensive environmental remediation effort, which has lagged behind schedule. The proposed recovery plan includes ecological projects like replanting wetlands, as well as infrastructure measures like building a surge barrier to shield the Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East. Just helping people elevate their homes would help, too. Four years on, the scars of the storm are still raw. Communities in Mississippi and Louisiana are still displaced and depressed. New Orleans is still strewnwith blighted and empty homes, the healthcare system remain in tatters, and racial inequality still reigns. Still, though much of the damage is irreparable, the city today in some ways has more to protect. Grassroots groups are fostering green building initiatives, activist movements, and community-based health programs. Yet even if these small projects help put communities back together again, the progress could be wiped out in an instant if another massive storm descended on the city. If the government’s fails again to build up the city’s defenses against both human and natural destruction, the next time around, the loss would be immeasurable. Image: Institute for Southern Studies