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Tuesday, August 30, 2005 FULL SHOW | HEADLINES | NEXT: Environmental Pollution Along the Mississippi: From the...
2005-08-30

Dozens Dead as Hurricane Katrina Slams into Gulf Coast: A Look at Extreme Weather, Oil Development and Who Gets Hit the Hardest

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Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast with devastating force Monday morning leaving at least 55 people dead and more than a million people in three states without power. We speak with David Helvarg of the Blue Frontier Campaign about extreme weather and Damu Smith about who gets hit the hardest. [includes rush transcript]

Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast with devastating force Monday morning leaving at least 55 people dead and more than a million people in three states without power.

The death toll is expected to rise once rescue units reach the worst hit areas. The number left homeless is unknown. The true extent of the damage may not be known for days.

With 145-mile-per hour winds, the storm was ranks as one of the most punishing hurricanes ever to hit the United States. Insurance experts said that damage could range between $9 billion and $16 billion, which would make it one of the costliest storms on record.

The storm had been on target to directly hit downtown New Orleans but it veered to the east. Still some 40,000 homes are underwater in New Orleans. And high winds tore off part of the rood of the Louisiana Superdome stadium.

The hardest hit area appears to be Mississippi’s Harrison county which accounts for 50 of the known deaths. In Gulfport, three of the city’s five hospitals were left without emergency rooms. The city’s fire chief estimates 75 percent of the buildings in Gulfport have major roof damage or no roof left at all.

President Bush yesterday approved "major disaster declarations" for Louisiana and Mississippi to help them obtain government aid.

  • President Bush, August 29, 2005.

But while Bush pledges support for the relief efforts, some say his record is not consistent.

In June, the publication New Orleans City Business reported that President Bush was seeking to slash funds that would help New Orleans prepare for a major hurricane. The report said that in fiscal year 2006, the New Orleans district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers faces a record $71 million reduction in federal funding. Those cuts would affect major hurricane and flood protection projects.

Katrina was making its second touchdown in the US after striking southern Florida last week, where it caused widespread flooding and seven deaths. On today’s program, we are going to cover several aspects of this storm. As reports talk about this being one of the costliest hurricanes in US history, we look at who gets hit the hardest economically as well as hurricane Katrina and global warming.

  • David Helvarg, President of the Blue Frontier Campaign and author of the books "The War Against the Greens" and "Blue Frontier: Saving Americas Living Seas." He is also a contributor to Feeling the Heat–Reports from the Frontlines of Climate Change.
  • Damu Smith, founder of Black Voices for Peace and executive director of the National Black Environmental Justice Network. For more than three decades, Damu has worked tirelessly on the frontlines of the anti-war and environmental justice movements.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush Monday approved major disaster declarations for Louisiana and Mississippi to help them obtain government aid.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I urge the citizens there in the region to continue to listen to the local authorities. Don’t abandon your shelters until you’re given clearance by the local authorities. Take precautions, because this is a dangerous storm. When the storm passes, the federal government has got assets and resources that will be deploying to help you. In the meantime, Americans will pray, pray for the health and safety of all our citizens.

AMY GOODMAN: But while President Bush pledges support for the relief efforts, some say his record is not consistent. In June, the publication New Orleans City Business reported President Bush was seeking to slash funds that would help New Orleans prepare for a major hurricane. The report said that in fiscal year 2006, the New Orleans district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers faces a record $71 million reduction in federal funding. Those cuts would affect major hurricane and flood protection projects. Katrina was making its second touchdown in the U.S. after striking southern Florida last week, where it caused widespread flooding and seven deaths.

We’re joined on the phone by David Helvarg, President of the Blue Frontier Campaign, author of the books_War Against the Greens_ and Blue Frontier: Saving America’s Living Seas. He’s also a contributor to Feeling the Heat: Reports from the Frontlines of Climate Change. He joins us on the line from Hawaii. Welcome to Democracy Now!

DAVID HELVARG: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about this devastating hurricane that has really struck hardest Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama?

DAVID HELVARG: Yeah. It looks like a natural disaster that has a lot of unnatural features that have made it much worse. When I went to bed last night, there was reports that the levees had given on Lake Pontchartrain. If that’s true, then the disaster, the worst case scenario New Orleans thought it had avoided may, in fact, be happening now, which would put the city under water. The lake’s above the city and the city, of course, is below sea level. And last report I heard, 80% of the city was now flooded.

So the reality is, is while New Orleans has been at risk, some risk, since 1718, since its founding, that risk has accelerated in recent years due to subsidence land loss. Southern Louisiana, the bayous, have been losing 35 to 40 square miles a year for the last several decades. This is both the result of misguided flood control efforts by the army corps of engineers and the government that, as well as canal-building by the oil industries throughout the bayou. When you fly over it, as I’ve done, you see just a patchwork network of canals that have been built to access oil industry infrastructure. That, in combination with the flood control — basically flooding historically has also brought all these sediments down the Mississippi which have built up the bayou, built up the delta region. And once you put in these straight lines they become like speedways. All that sediment and soil that used to build the delta is just flushed down into the deep ocean of the Gulf, along with a lot of pollutants.

And the result is, is we’ve been seeing this tremendous rate of land loss. Historically that wetland acts as, not only as a filter for pollution, but also as a storm barrier. Every few miles of bayou would absorb a foot of sea surge during storms like this. But, you know, where just a couple of decades ago there was 140 to 200 miles of bayou between New Orleans and the sea, it’s now down to 30 miles in some areas. So when you have a major storm like Katrina, all of this water comes in. You have tremendous impacts. You lost that protection. The same in areas hard hit like Biloxi, Mississippi, which used to have a lot of salt marsh. That coastal sprawl took that out and replaced it with floating casinos, which don’t act as that good a barrier.

You know, you have this terrible scenario. Port Fourchon, I think, will probably be closed for a while, which brings in 10% of the oil into this country. I was down there two years ago, and a spokesman for Shell Oil was complaining that the flooding and the storms were making it difficult to bring in the oil. They were thinking that maybe coastal Louisiana was no longer a friendly place for them to do business, which in my mind is kind of like the archdiocese of [inaudible] complaining that kids aren’t as trusting any more. Clearly, a lot of this disaster is the result of the offshore industry and the product it produces.

AMY GOODMAN: Talking about living in the shadow of oil development, in addition to David Helvarg, President of the Blue Frontier Campaign and author of the book Blue Frontier, we’re joined by Damu Smith, founder of Black Voices for Peace and executive director of the National Black Environmental Justice Network. For more than three decades, Damu has worked on environmental justice issues and lived in Louisiana for a decade. He joins us in Washington. Welcome, Damu.

DAMU SMITH: Thank you so much, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. As you look at the area you lived in for a decade, your thoughts about who is being hardest hit right now and the significance of this devastating hurricane?

DAMU SMITH: Well, Amy, we have to remember the demographics, the economic demographics of the states hardest hit: Louisiana and Mississippi and Alabama. These three states are among the poorest states in the United States, ranking at the bottom in terms of poverty and people who are economically disadvantaged. And among those who are most economically disadvantaged are people of color, specifically African Americans. And in the case of New Orleans and Louisiana and those Southern cities along the coast of Mississippi, you’re talking about people who, prior to this disaster, were already economically marginalized on the fringes of society.

And so if you look at the images that we see on television, those who were lined up at the Superdome, going to the place of last resort, I’ve been watching the news all into the evening. It’s mostly black people and poor people who are concentrated in the areas hardest hit. So those who will pay the most in the long term are those who, prior to this disaster, were already hardest hit by the economic injustices that they are already experiencing. New Orleans is a city of many, many, many poor people. And many of those people, along with everybody else, have lost their homes. Amy, I don’t know how many of our listeners have been watching the news, but this is an absolutely devastating catastrophic disaster that has taken place in New Orleans, in Louisiana and Mississippi and Alabama. And it’s going to take weeks, months, if not years for the people in these communities to recover from what has occurred.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Damu Smith, founder of Black Voices for Peace, also David Helvarg, who is author of the book Blue Frontier. Robert Shimek will join us after break, as well — he is with the Indigenous Environmental Network — to talk about Mississippi.

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