Repopulating New Orleans at Any Cost
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
The new New Orleans is a post-apocalyptic frontier town. Residents trickle in to scavenge among the ruins or begin scraping layers of mold from waterlogged homes. Workers pile sodden chunks of houses into putrid mounds on the street, feeding an estimated 50 million cubic yards of hurricane debris.
Amid warnings that the city is reassembling itself in the deepening shadow of toxic contamination, local officials are undaunted. Backed by reassurances from state and federal environmental authorities, Mayor Ray Nagin is beckoning people to come back, clean up, go on with life and get back to business.
"It's a dirty town," said Jeffrey Thomas, a local environmental lawyer who has returned regularly to the city on volunteer relief missions. "It's dusty, and a lot of the residue from the flooding is evident everywhere."
Disturbed that he has no idea if his own neighborhood is safe to live in, Thomas complained, "Nobody's telling me anything â€¦ At what point does the public get apprised of this situation and involved?"
A Sopping Mess
According to sampling data from the Environmental Protection Agency, sediment left over from Katrina's floodwaters harbors fuel components, metals, pesticides and other chemicals. Many contaminants could potentially cause acute and chronic health effects, including nervous system damage and cancer, and some are steadily evaporating into the air that residents are breathing.
Meanwhile, splotches of fuzzy mold consume walls, ceilings and furniture. Indoor mold spores can cause or aggravate respiratory illnesses, especially in people with weak immune systems, and emit chemicals known as mycotoxins, which studies have tied to debilitating illnesses.
"You have a real gemischt in these houses," said David Straus, a microbiologist and mold specialist at Texas Technical University, of the mix of biological and chemical substances. "It's not just mold. You have all these other potential toxins." He pointed out the possibility of "a synergistic effect" as airborne mold compounds the effects of chemical pollutants.
Despite detecting persistent contamination for over a month, the EPA's analysis has generally deemed the chemical concentrations not "immediately hazardous to human health." The EPA has also stated that fuel oil residues would not harm emergency responders wearing appropriate protective gear. The agency reported that most readings for the toxic fuel components benzene, toluene, and xylene were safe for short-term, 24-hour exposures.
Concerned that the EPA's assessments were inadequate, Wilma Subra, a local environmental chemist, conducted her own testing in New Orleans and neighboring St. Bernard Parish last month. She found several carcinogenic toxins, including the probable carcinogen Benzo(a)pyrene, along with concentrations of arsenic up to 75 times greater than the EPA residential safety standard. Subra also detected heavy metals, like lead, and hazardous petrochemicals.
Subra said that although her results are comparable to what the EPA has found, her evaluation lacks the EPA's positive spin. The agency assesses contaminants in isolation, she said, whereas she looks at the confluence of overlapping biological and chemical hazards.
"If it was a Superfund site," said Subra, "and the concentrations were at the levels we're finding, they wouldn't allow people to go back and live there. They would require that that material be removed, treated, detoxified."
While monstrous fungal growths and chemical-encrusted sludge drape the Crescent City, environmentalists say that the EPA's response is scarcely visible, eclipsed by the political momentum of the rebuilding process.
Dana Tulis, deputy director of the EPA Office of Emergency Management, said the agency's role "continues to evolve" and essentially follows the cues of policymakers. "The locals are making the decisions, and we're trying to provide them with the best data we can," she told The NewStandard .
Tulis said the EPA will continue monitoring to determine long-term environmental impacts, and the Army Corps of Engineers is developing plans to clear out the sediment in the coming months. In the meantime, she said, "as long as people aren't sort of trudging through this stuff, you know, barefootâ€¦ they should be okay."
But critics fear the EPA and city officials are paving the way for unprotected residents to enter a chemical minefield.
In testimony submitted to a Senate subcommittee last week, the environmental advocacy organization Natural Resources Defense Council said the EPA's assessments were misleading the public.
For example, the group argued, EPA air sampling results often register levels of benzene, a carcinogenic petrochemical, that fall well below the 24-hour acute exposure limit. But when the same data is compared to the threshold for intermediate-term exposures, many samples jump from "safe" to hazardous. The established health threshold for benzene is 50 parts per billion for 24 hours, but only four parts per billion for a two-week exposure.
Before the city plunges headfirst into the reconstruction effort, Subra cautioned, "let's see whether or not it's appropriate to go back. And then, whether or not you rebuild, whether you bulldoze the house -- that's going to all be decisions made after."
A dirty job
When visiting one of the spots in the city where Subra had recently taken sediment samples, Robert Verchick, a law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, happened upon a mother and daughter preparing to reenter their housing complex. The only barriers between the women and the slew of hazardous chemicals that Subra had detected were sweat suits, rubber gloves and cheap face masks tacked upside down over their faces.
Yes, they had looked on the internet for safety information, they told Verchick, and were following the mayor's instructions to wear protective clothing and proceed with caution. They told him they knew nothing about local sediment contamination.
"It's amazing to me," Verchick told TNS, "that not only is the government allowing these folks to be in areas that we now know have extreme contaminants, but that they're not even giving people information about these contaminants."
According to James Greenwood, director of the Office of Environmental Health and Safety at University of California-Los Angeles, even if residents do try to clean their own homes, the government has a role in minimizing risk and providing detailed guidance on appropriate safety precautions. "People can protect themselves," he said. "The issue is will they, and who will help them?"
Environmental advocates are wondering the same thing, complaining that the official efforts at risk communication are both inadequate and confusing.
The EPA's recent public service announcements advise residents to wear a dust mask when handling debris containing lead, asbestos or chemical residues, but according to industrial guidelines, basic dust masks will not protect against airborne asbestos or toxic vapors.
For mold-contaminated areas larger than ten square feet, the EPA and Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals recommend professional assistance, but the state's two-page mold advisory does not explain how hurricane survivors without insurance, and saddled with other home rebuilding costs, might pay for professional remediation. An estimated 60 percent of New Orleans homeowners lack flood insurance.
Simply learning about what they will be exposed to could pose a challenge for returning residents. The EPA website displays sediment sampling results, but the data charts do not include details on recommended safety levels or potential health effects of individual chemicals.
Darryl Malek-Wiley, a New Orleans resident and an organizer with the environmental group Sierra Club, described the site as "user-hostile" and, to returnees who lack Internet access, practically useless.
"They just throw it all back onâ€¦ individual responsibility," he said, "rather than trying to educate people as to what might be happening."
Environmental groups are also concerned that there is no formal environmental clearance standard for home reentry.
Darin Mann, a spokesperson for the state Department of Environmental Quality, said that city authorities are responsible for ensuring indoor health and safety while environmental agencies are focusing on outdoor assessments. "We just have no jurisdiction over private property," he said. "That's up to the locals."
For its part, the mayor's office reports that building inspection teams are combing neighborhoods and marking some homes "unsafe for reentry," but decisions are based on structurally stability, not environmental quality.
Observers report that people's use of protective gear varies widely. One homeowner might begin a cleanup job in galoshes and a surgical mask, while a neighbor reenters his or her home encased in a white Tyvek "moon suit." Government-contracted personnel are suited airtight from head to toe, while low-paid laborers, many of them immigrants, haul debris in jeans, stirring up dust with ordinary paint masks dangling from their necks.
Subra said that she has observed both residents and response workers coming down with rashes, breathing problems and persistent skin sores since entering the disaster areas. She also predicted that the problem will go underreported: "the responders aren't going to tell you they're being made sick, because then they're going to lose their jobs."
In flood-impacted communities, Subra has worked with the watchdog group Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN) to distribute free kits containing protective gloves, masks and instruction materials. The group plans to use private funds to distribute about 2,000 kits. They say the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has not responded to petitions for government funding.
"I thought Red Cross and FEMAâ€¦ would be out there assisting people in a much bigger way than we've seen," said LEAN Executive Director Marylee Orr. "It's disturbing and tragic."
Between mistrust and misinformation
In addressing the environmental mess smeared across New Orleans, some fear that the only thing worse than government inaction could be government action. Activists in the black community point out that historically, officials have dealt with toxic hazards by shifting environmental burdens, like polluted waste dumps, onto poor, less politically powerful groups.
Environmental justice advocates say that Congress now has an opportunity to reinvigorate a legacy of environmental racism, with pending legislation to allow the EPA to waive environmental regulations that supposedly impede the recovery process.
Residents also warn that in this atmosphere of post-disaster impunity, government authorities might selectively play up environmental danger to target certain communities for demolition. This controversy surrounds the heavily damaged, disproportionately black and poor Lower Ninth Ward, some parts of which remain off limits to frustrated residents.
Beverly Wright, a New Orleans resident and director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, said that some jaded evacuees have come to distrust the official environmental response, for better or worse. "They're getting conflicting information -- about go or stay, go or stay," she said. "So, people just decide, hell, I'm going! You know, I want to get back to my house."
Determined to reclaim their city without compromising their health, concerned residents say that environmental authorities can either engage the public or alienate it further. "We have to find a way to give the community a voice, and let them make an educated decision about what's best for their community," said Wright. "But they have to have all the facts."
Michelle Chen writes, works and plays in New York City. Involved with independent media for the past nine years, she has written for the South China Morning Post, Clamor, INTHEFRAY.COM and her own zine, cain.