post-Katrina environmentalism

I'm glad to have not yet heard as many right-wing screeds as I expected about, "How can those terrible liberals blame this on environmental policies?!" or "How can those terrible liberals be concerned about the environment at a time like this?!" Places like Salon.com, meanwhile, are doing a halfway decent job of explaining the environmental aftermath as a third human disaster (first two = hurricane, flood).

"The New Orleans area that was flooded was an industrial area where you have all the lubricants and batteries and heavy-metal plating -- it's just hideously dangerous," says geographer Wells. "We can't wait around to test the floodwater before we pump it back into the lake -- people are already dying of disease from it -- but it's a terrible thing to do. We're going to avoid a great human disaster by doing this, but we could be creating a damn big environmental one." Forget for a moment the scenario of a toxic lake in the middle of a major American city; should a future hurricane breach the levees again, New Orleans could literally be submerged in poison.

I'd like it a little more explicit even than that - we're not "avoiding a human disaster" by shuttling around such a volume of water laden with so much nastiness; we're just struggling to put off that human disaster until we handle the current ones. In the best case scenario, Lake Pontchartrain is going to be literally untouchable for decades - swimming, fishing, perhaps even being close enough to look at the lake will be toxic. That's of course, ignoring the contaminants leached to the surface from underground, or washed out of industrial areas (or submerged cars) and spread around the city - everything's going to be coated in a nice layer of sewage and carcinogens when the water recedes. Yummy.

This is another reason why New Orleans should not be built back "the way it was", but also yet another reason to reexamine how all of our cities are built. Even small, environmentally concerned cities like Ann Arbor dump untreated sewage into the river during heavy storms, causing "Do not touch the water" signs to appear in downstream parks. Chemicals don't get disposed of, they just get stored somewhere until something pulls them to the surface and into contact with people again.

Will we learn anything out of this? Maybe.