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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

September 9, 2005

Air Date: September 9, 2005



Draining the Streets of New Orleans

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What lies in the water and beneath it is a question many people are asking as the so-called “toxic gumbo” of New Orleans pumps into Lake Pontchartrain and beyond. Host Steve Curwood talks with Darin Mann of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality about the extent of pollution in the city. (04:00)

Rising Up from a Toxic Legacy

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Anyone familiar with the stretch of Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans knows it as "Cancer Alley": a string of industries including petrochemical plants. The people who live along this alley are mostly poor and African-American, and many of them have suffered illnesses. Host Steve Curwood talks with the Sierra Club's Darryl Malek-Wiley about the area's toxic hotspots. (08:00)

Environmental Injustice

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New Orleans has one of the highest poverty rates in the country. Prior to Katrina, 28 percent of its residents lived below the poverty line. Host Steve Curwood talks with environmental justice attorney Monique Harden about how Katrina further exposed the fissure between the haves and the have-nots. (08:00)

Health of the Gulf

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The toxic gumbo emptying out of New Orleans into Lake Pontchartrain could eventually funnel out into the Gulf of Mexico, a body of water that's been the bread and butter for corporate and local fishermen alike. Host Steve Curwood talks with scientist George Crozier about the possible effects of this toxic stream on fisheries. (03:40)

Shrimping Future

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Shrimping is a way of life in Louisiana that's been passed down for generations. Now that culture is in jeopardy, as families of shrimpers have lost everything because of Hurricane Katrina. Host Steve Curwood talks with Kerry St. Pe, who's leading an effort to preserve Louisiana's wetlands and way of life. (05:20)

Emerging Science Note/Arctic Shrubs / Jennifer Chu

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Living on Earth's Jennifer Chu reports on new shrub growth in the Arctic that may be part of a warming feedback loop. (01:30)

Pets 911

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Thousands of pets were left behind in the initial search and rescue efforts after Hurricane Katrina. Now, organizations like the Humane Society are patrolling for lost animals wandering the streets or stranded in rubble. Host Steve Curwood talks with the Humane Society's Laura Bevan, who heads up the rescue operations in Mississippi, about the challenges of reuniting pets with their displaced owners. (05:30)

The Great Storm / Janet Heimlich

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On September 8, 1900, a hurricane struck the seaside town of Galveston, Texas. The so-called “Great Storm” killed more than 6,000 people and destroyed a city that once boasted a booming seaport and was a popular tourist magnet. Janet Heimlich visited Galveston to talk to town residents and descendents of the storm survivors. She finds that there may be lessons in Galveston for victims of Hurricane Katina. (11:30)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
GUESTS: Darin Mann, Darryl Malek-Wiley, Kerry St. Pe, Laura Bevan, George Crozier, Monique Harden
REPORTER: Janet Heimlich
NOTE: Jennifer Chu


CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. Many people of color who got short shrift in the response to Hurricane Katrina say the treatment was not unexpected. They say there's a long history of neglect in the form of pollution forced on their communities.

HARDEN: At no point during the advent and continuing expansion of industrial facilities in the state of Louisiana did African Americans have any say or political power to impact those decisions.

CURWOOD: And now as floodwaters are pumped out of the city, advocates of environmental justice say a new New Orleans needs to be made safe and healthy for everyone. Also, lessons from the deadly Galveston Hurricane.

FINCHER: When we have a hurricane, next time we have one, and we will have one, but when it happens you're going to see the destruction, possibly, just like what we're talking about today about the 1900 storm.

CURWOOD: Those stories and more, this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.



ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.


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Draining the Streets of New Orleans

(Photo: Liz Roll, courtesy of FEMA)

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

Hurricane Katrina did more than rip up the lands and structures of the Gulf Coast and flood out New Orleans. It also tore deep into the social fabric, scattering families, putting communities under pressure and highlighting America’s racial and economic divide. Now, the thick, blackish broth of water that covers New Orleans is raising concern among advocates of environmental justice. They worry that, as in the past, the poor and people of color in the region will be subjected to an excess amount of toxic pollution—or if their neighborhoods are cleaned up, they will be pushed out in a gentrified reconstruction.

We’ll visit those questions in a moment, but first, an update on what officials know now about the extent of pollution. Darin Mann is with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. He's seen quite a bit of the city and he says he's finding no major pollution problems so far.

MANN: The preliminary water samples that we have obviously has high levels of fecal coliform, very low levels of lead, no VOCs, which is volatile organic compounds, pesticides, no metals, no herbicides, no PCBs, which, you know, we would consider priority pollutants. We have not seen any validated data that would indicate that – not to say it doesn’t exist – but we’re not finding it.

CURWOOD: Why do you think there’s so much lead in the water that’s been tested?

(Photo: Liz Roll, courtesy of FEMA.)

MANN: Well, the traces are very small. And a lot of that, the way I understand it, is attributed to many of the homes. Much of those homes down in the flooded area of New Orleans, they’re more than thirty years old, forty years old. What the scientists are telling me, it’s due to the lead-based paint.

CURWOOD: But what about the chemicals though?

MANN: The chemicals? What we’ve done is, as far as chemicals go, we’ve flown a helicopter that’s attached to an infrared gas imaging camera. What this camera does is, from the air, it can pick out or detect chemical leaks that the human eye just cannot see. We have not seen, through this technology, any major leaks, chemical leaks, of any kind.

CURWOOD: Now, what does the Louisiana DEQ see as the biggest short-term problem right now?

MANN: The biggest short-term problem is what we’re seeing from the air. As you fly down to the mouth of the river along the river you see quite a few oil spills. But in New Orleans, on the flooded area of Jefferson Parish and St. Bernard, there’s oil sheens everywhere. You have 2,000-plus gasoline stations that are submerged with three underground storage tanks each. So that creates an oil sheen. Cars. Every car’s gonna create an oil sheen. You’ve got well over 100,000 cars that were submerged.

Murphy Oil, which is in Chalmette, Louisiana which borders a neighborhood, we had about between ten and fifteen thousand barrels of oil that seeped into a neighborhood. But this was a neighborhood that actually the houses were flooded to the rooftop.

Other issues right now that we’re dealing with is the water that’s being pumped out of the city back into the lake. We’re monitoring the effect that that is gonna have onto the lake. Once the water is drained out of the city then the biggest problem I think that we’re going to be dealing with is how do we dispose of between 22 and 25 million tons of debris. And that’s going to be a challenge.

CURWOOD: Darin Mann is with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. Darren, thanks so much for taking this time with me today.

MANN: Thank you, I appreciate it.

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Rising Up from a Toxic Legacy

CURWOOD: One person who is also worried about the short and longterm clean up of New Orleans is Darryl Malek-Wiley. He's a thirty-year environmental justice organizer for the Sierra Club in Louisiana.

Mr. Malek-Wiley coined the term “Cancer Alley” – the moniker he gave to a swath of hundreds of petrochemical and other industrial plants along the shore of the Mississippi from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. The population of this area is mostly poor and African American and over the years there have been disproportionate rates of environmental illness, ranging from cancers to miscarriages that have led to lawsuits and the abandonment of entire communities.

Mr. Malek-Wiley, thanks for joining me.

MALEK-WILEY: Hello Steve, how are you doing?

CURWOOD: Good. I wanted to ask you, based on what you know of the areas that were most highly contaminated before Hurricane Katrina, what are you most worried about now that the city’s been flooded?

MALEK-WILEY: Well, I’m worried about all the toxic chemicals that are in the water, and the impact of the flooding of the oil refineries in Chalmette. I’ve seen television footage of the oil tank that contaminated the community with this heavy oil. I’m concerned about all the gasoline stations underground and their impact popping up. I’m concerned of what’s in everybody’s garage and under their sink. You know, all those different chemicals are out there in who knows what levels in flood water cooking under a hot New Orleans sun. And we’re probably having chemical reactions that have never happened before in the history of the world.

CURWOOD: What about some of the specific areas that you were working with residents. I know, for example, there was a lot of controversy about the Agricultural Street neighborhood and the landfill there. It’s a former Superfund site. What do you think will be going on there?

MALEK-WILEY: I don’t know, there’s been no reports from that area. That area’s called Press Park and it was an environmental justice tragedy from the word “go.” They built a community of first-home buyers, it was a federal program that they allowed people who had not bought a home to buy a house in the area, mostly African American, on special low-interest loans. But they didn’t take into account the environmental impacts of building on top of a landfill. They also built an elementary school on top of the landfill.

So it’s been an ongoing environmental justice struggle around the Agriculture Street Landfill. What the people in the community wanted was to be relocated off of the site. The EPA came in with a quote “cleanup plan” which involved removing three feet of dirt out of people’s yards, putting down a geotech fabric, and then putting three feet of dirt back in. But we don’t know what’s happening now with the site underwater, and what type of chemicals are bubbling up and further contaminating those homes.

CURWOOD: On these sites, the question comes, if people are going to go back to New Orleans. What do you think? Should they be resettling these communities? Or is this an opportunity now to get relocated as the folks at Agricultural Street wanted to be?

MALEK-WILEY: I think it’s gotta be a case by case basis. For the folks at Agriculture Street, I think that that whole area should be bulldozed down and those folks given appropriate dollar-for-dollar houses in other parts of New Orleans or where they want to relocate.

CURWOOD: In a horrible tragedy like this there can be some silver linings. How do you see the people of New Orleans benefiting from all of this?

MALEK-WILEY: With New Orleans rebuilding, and with the Gulf of Mexico rebuilding, we have an opportunity to really step back and think. Since it’s going to be, from what I’m hearing in the media, months until we’re able to get back into New Orleans to do any kind of rebuilding, we should really be thinking about how we want our city to grow and develop.

How can we make it more environmental friendly? How can we make sure that when we rebuild homes in New Orleans they are able to stand hurricane-force winds? They’re more energy efficient? They’re built back in the neighborhoods that are such a strong component of New Orleans?

You know, people wouldn’t leave New Orleans because they didn’t want to leave their neighbors. And we want to make that strong neighborhood community rebuild, at the same time putting the people who were most impacted back to work building, rebuilding New Orleans in a very visionary new way. New Orleans should become the greenest sustainable city in the world.

CURWOOD: To what extent do you think your vision is moving forward? I mean, what’s going on right now with funds for rebuilding New Orleans?

MALEK-WILEY: Right. Well, right now it’s not moving forward in New Orleans. But I heard on one of the press conferences by Governor Blanco, I heard her say, this is sort of a rough quote, I want to make sure that Louisianains have the jobs to rebuild our state. So, you know, that’s part of the vision. The bigger vision of the green vision, that’s gonna take a while.

CURWOOD: Already the Congress has approved a $10 billion emergency measure for Louisiana, for the Gulf area, and it looks like another $40 billion is going to move forward. What’s your understanding of how those funds would be spent? And what do you think of those plans?

MALEK-WILEY: The concern I have is: will these funds make companies like Halliburton and Bechtel richer? Or will they rebuild the hope and community of the citizens of New Orleans and Jefferson and St. Bernard Parishes? Will this be another transfer of American wealth to giant corporations? Or will it be to the communities, and the people in the communities that need the help?

CURWOOD: How would Halliburton be involved?

MALEK-WILEY: Well, Halliburton’s already gotten a contract to do cleanup on one of the U.S. Navy bases.

CURWOOD: Some people have said that the transportation of the evacuees from New Orleans to other communities may be part of the view of eventually gentrifying the city of New Orleans when it is rebuilt. What concerns do you have that New Orleans might be gentrified in a rebuilding process that would leave out the low-income folks that have been so much a part of the city for so long?

MALEK-WILEY: Yeah, I’ve heard that, you know, concern. It is a concern, but I think that New Orleans is a community-based, neighborhood-based society, and we had extended families throughout New Orleans. There’s been an effort, lots of effort, for people of lower income to buy houses and actually own land in New Orleans. So hopefully, that will continue, but we need to have some kind of program in place to make sure it doesn’t become a yuppie Disneyland.

CURWOOD: What are you most worried about at this point? I mean, what’s the worst-case scenario that you can foresee?

MALEK-WILEY: The worst-case scenario is we’d close the door to New Orleans and walk away and leave that wonderful cultural heart of America to rot. That’s worst-case scenario.

CURWOOD: Darryl Malek-Wiley is environmental justice organizer for the Sierra Club in Louisiana. Thanks for taking this time with me today.

MALEK-WILEY: Thank you very much, Steve.

[MUSIC: Randy Newman “Louisiana 1927” from ‘Good Ole Boys’ (Reprise - 1998)]

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CURWOOD: Coming up: how Gulf Coast fisheries are fairing in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Not Drowning Waving “Walk” from ‘Through The One Last Door’ (Liberation Music 2005)]

Environmental Injustice

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Many of the African American faces that were caught on camera during the prolonged evacuation of New Orleans are among the more than a quarter of citizens of the city who live below the poverty line – and half of the poor are children.

Monique Harden is an attorney with Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, a New Orleans-based legal group that has been battling the concentration of toxic facilities in or near communities of color. She joins me now from member station WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama. Monique, thanks for taking this time.

HARDEN: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Give me a brief history as to how so many black people wound up in these areas.

HARDEN: Well, the evolution of Louisiana’s economic development has only been two things: either slave plantations or industrial plants. Those are the two primary ones in the state’s history. And at the time that industrial facilities began entering the state of Louisiana, because of its navigable waters and rich natural resources, the state began instituting economic policies that encouraged the location of these facilities in the state and the expansion of those facilities in the state into perpetuity, without any regard for the long-lasting consequences and effects of such industrial development.

The situation for African Americans in particular under this kind of economic development history in the state has been that as they founded communities, from 1790s on, they didn’t have political status. They were unincorporated communities. So that, as the state began inviting and luring more industrial development into the state, the decisions about where those facilities would locate were not made by African Americans who had settled communities. Added to this problem is the fact that, as individuals, African Americans were denied the right to vote until the 1960s in Louisiana.

So at no point during the advent and continuing expansion of industrial facilities in the state of Louisiana did African Americans have any say or political power to impact those decisions. So you see the state now where African American communities with long histories, going back hundreds of years, are located in very close, dangerously close, proximity to industrial facilities. In the case of New Orleans, as these companies decided to abandon and leave those facilities in the midst of African American neighborhoods, to this day, in the year 2005, we’re still dealing with the situation of all the toxic waste that has been left on these sites. Where, you know, homes are across the street, there are playgrounds, there are churches, small businesses.

CURWOOD: So, do you have any indication so far of the kind of toxins people are finding in the water in these neighborhoods? Or is it too soon to tell that?

HARDEN: Well, we can definitely anticipate the kind of toxins that would be in the water based on what we know was in the neighborhoods prior to Hurricane Katrina. You’ve got lead, arsenic, DDT and its metabolites, heptachlor. A number of cancer-causing, reproductive-damaging chemicals are in these neighborhoods in New Orleans that now have, chances are, been released through the flood waters and the impact of the hurricane.

CURWOOD: So, how safe could it be to resettle these neighborhoods if all these chemicals are being exposed in this process? The water dries up, the chemicals stay behind, right?

HARDEN: It’s going to require an extensive remediation process, and one that needs to be planned with the participation of people who have long been working on the environmental cleanup of their communities. Many of these people are now displaced. And I think a concerted effort needs to be made in reaching out to displaced residents of New Orleans and reconnecting them with their families and neighbors to be a part of the rebuilding of this city.

CURWOOD: To what extent do you think the city was adequately warned about this kind of disaster happening? And who would you hold accountable for not paying enough attention to these warnings?

HARDEN: I really hold the federal government responsible for this. What we know about the city of New Orleans is this: is that there’s been, for a number of years, efforts made to do a number of things with regards to the redistribution of royalties from oil and gas drilling off the coastline to restore the coastal area of Louisiana. I should say that without a coastal restoration plan in place, rebuilding the city of New Orleans becomes something that is in vain. You’re basically setting up the situation once again for another hurricane to have a devastating impact on the city because you don’t have a reinforced coastal area.

CURWOOD: Say more about that.

HARDEN: Well, there have been plans upon plans upon plans, with some levels of public participation in the process of developing plans, for coastal restoration. It’s just one example. And when those plans are presented to Congress for funding it’s denied. Just look back the last few months in the development of the energy bill and, you know, seeing the comments by the Department of Energy, by President Bush himself, by senators like Pete Domenici, castigating and rejecting adequate funding for coastal restoration. That’s one example of how the local officials really do not have the wherewithall to take care of the impacts of a hurricane because the coastal erosion is such a huge problem that needs federal attention, and which has not ever happened.

CURWOOD: Through the years, the federal government has declined to put the kind of infrastructure cash on the table for New Orleans, to have the place be safe to live in. In terms of all the toxins that are exposed there that would have to be removed, that would have to be remediated. I imagine the tab would be just huge – billions upon billions beyond the discussions I hear about rebuilding. How realistic do you think it is for people to be able to go back into the historic black neighborhoods of New Orleans and live safely, in terms of toxic exposure?

HARDEN: I’m optimistic. I’m optimistic that this is an opportunity for us to really transform, in a positive and progressive way, the lives of people in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast of the United States. Transform the lives in a way that undoes the systemic forms of racism in these areas, that could also be able to have ripple effects for the entire country. And let me just say that as we’re spending billions upon billions of dollars in the Bush administration’s efforts to rebuild Iraq, that if that’s possible then rebuilding the Gulf Coast of the United States and New Orleans, in particular, is definitely possible.

CURWOOD: I’ve been speaking with Monique Harden, an attorney with Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, a New Orleans-based legal group. Monique, thanks so much for taking this time with me today.

HARDEN: Thank you.

[MUSIC: Sigur Ros “Saeglopur” from ‘Takk…’ (Geffen – 2005)]

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Health of the Gulf

CURWOOD: Crab bisque, crawfish pie and oyster po boys – not to mention fried shrimp, stuffed shrimp, shrimp gumbo and shrimp on the Barby – these are the dishes that give the Gulf Coast its unmistakable flavor. But it could be a while before Creole kitchens have adequate local seafood stocks. Hurricane Katrina has devastated fishing and shrimping fleets all along the coast, and the long-term consequences for the health of the Gulf and its fisheries is yet unknown.

George Crozier has been studying the Gulf of Mexico's fishing industry and environment for years. He's executive director of the Dauphin Island Sealab--that’s a marine research center located on one of the Barrier Islands of Alabama in the Gulf. Mr. Crozier, hello!

CROZIER: Hi, how are you today, Steve?

CURWOOD: Well, not too bad. Yourself?


CURWOOD: We’re hearing some accounts that the fisheries might have a very hard time recovering from Hurricane Katrina, not just from its immediate damage but also from what might be soon emptying into the Gulf. I’m thinking of, that is, whatever refuse, the toxins and pollutants that will come tumbling out of New Orleans. What are the major fisheries that are at risk here?

CROZIER: Well, the largest cash crop, and the one people are perhaps used to, in a funny way, is actually menhaden in cat food. But as far as people are concerned it’s the shrimp. That is an enormous issue for the north-central Gulf Coast. And the intriguing thing about this is that the impact on fisheries from hurricanes is normally minor to beneficial. That’s kind of conventional wisdom. The rainfall is generally good and the infusion of nutrients has frequently stimulated fisheries’ production in the Gulf of Mexico. But this is not a situation that is going to be conventional, and I think a lot of us are quite concerned.

Although there’s certainly nothing else to do at this point. I mean, the waste from the city, and I am a native of New Orleans, has got to be moved out, and so it’s going to be pumped out. My information is that it’s going into Lake Pontchartrain which then will lead into the Gulf of Mexico through a huge estuary system. And I think the dangers of the impact in that estuary, and then eventually the Gulf of Mexico, is probably very severe.

CURWOOD: What specifically are the dangers? What’s at risk?

CROZIER: The problem is going to be one of toxins that are almost of unknown mixture. They keep talking about it as a toxic gumbo. It’s wastewater, it’s sewage, it’s decomposing animal flesh of all kinds that we don’t even like to think about it. And the residue in the estuary itself is likely to be quite long life.

The problem that I foresee is a residence time in the estuaries where it, in fact, negatively impacts the habitat that larval forms of shrimp and an awful lot of fin fish take advantage of that area for protection and for nursery services, basically. They feed there, they are protected there, and they grow through some critical life stages before they reemerge in the Gulf of Mexico.

And the impact that this discharge is going to have is extraordinarily difficult for us to predict. We don’t understand the system as well as we should, and this is a almost unique circumstance. We’ve certainly never experienced anything like this before, and it’s going to be a difficult learning situation for the marine science community.

CURWOOD: George Crozier is executive director of the Dauphin Islands Sea Lab. That’s a marine research center located in one of the barrier islands in the Gulf of Mexico, off Alabama. Mr. Crozier, thanks for taking this time with me.

CROZIER: Thank you for the opportunity, Steve.

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Shrimping Future

CURWOOD: Joining me now to talk about how the Louisiana shrimping community has weathered the storm is Kerry St. Pe. He's led the effort to preserve the state's wetlands, fisheries and Cajun culture, and he's also director of the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program. Mr. St. Pe, hello.

ST. PE: Hello.

CURWOOD: Tell me what you’ve seen in the shrimping community since the storm. What’s it look like down there?

ST. PE: Well, as you might expect our shrimping community has been devastated. Both the region, a lot of the wetlands have been impacted, of course, but the infrastructure that supports that industry has been just decimated. Of course, this is the time when our shrimpers make their living. This is when they make their money.

CURWOOD: And their boats are gone?

ST. PE: We have several boats, many – of course, the shrimpers, they’re used to the impacts of hurricanes. So they’re aware that they have to move their boats to safe harbor, and most of them have moved out into protected waters. But, of course, you can’t move the infrastructure: the places where they sell their shrimp, the places where they get ice to preserve their catch, the roads that transport truckloads of shrimp to the processing facilities. All that has been destroyed.

CURWOOD: So, even if folks are out there trying to catch, they can’t sell catch, huh?

ST. PE: That’s right. And our shrimpers have been impacted economically for many years. I think most of the nation is aware of the artificially low prices of our shrimp, largely caused by cheap imports that have been coming into our country. It’s kept the prices down, and the money that the shrimpers are getting in just is not keeping up with the expenses.

CURWOOD: So, it was already a bad year before the storm.

ST. PE: Our shrimpers have had several years of heavy impacts to their industry, yes. And because of the stresses on the industry we have seen people reluctantly moving on to other jobs. But we have a large, large shrimping community that has stubbornly tried to stay with this way of life.

CURWOOD: Take me for a brief excursion into this way of life. What does a shrimper do? Tell me what happens. They get up in the morning, and then what happens?

ST. PE: Well, the large commercial shrimpers have very large boats. These boats are capable of going out in the open Gulf. There’s a small crew, a captain. There’s food to sustain them on board. They may go out for a week or two at a time, depending on the size of boat. They’re in constant communication with each other over radio. It’s a great experience to hear them talk on the radio, they all have nicknames for each other and it’s a very close-knit community. And when their holds are full of catch they will come in to shore to what we call the shrimp sheds. They offload their catch onto conveyor belts and from there, trucks will take the catch and bring it into the processing plants.

CURWOOD: And now none of this is going on.

ST. PE: Well, there’s no place to bring the shrimp. The shrimp sheds themselves, the first place that the shrimpers would pull into, are gone, literally. Additionally, there’s a lot of debris out in the Gulf. Damage to nets is highly probable, highly likely. All of these things have just put them out of business for this season.

CURWOOD: Looking down the road, do you think this is going to be just a year’s loss of this shrimping industry? Or might it take longer to bring things back?

ST. PE: It depends how much, how quick the infrastructure is rebuilt. We could be back as a shrimping industry next year if the ice houses and the shrimp sheds are rebuilt. My only fear is that our culture, since it’s so tied to our wetlands, and our communities have been so intact for generations, we’ve maintained this cultural identity. My worry is that forces beyond our control will dictate how we rebuild and we will look like something other than what we’ve been for generations.

If we’re going to rebuild these communities, you know, the physical infrastructure in the communities themselves, and the levy systems that protect them, we’ve got to do that at the very same time that we restore our wetlands. We cannot have a wetlands system – the system that clothes our communities – and not have the communities themselves. I mean, they’ve go to be restored together if we’re going to keep our identity as a people.

CURWOOD: Kerry St. Pe. is the director of the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Project between the Mississippi and the Atchafalaya rivers. Mr. St. Pe, thanks for taking this time with me today.

ST. PE: OK. Thank you for calling and allowing us to tell our story.

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Emerging Science Note/Arctic Shrubs

CURWOOD: Just ahead: saving all creatures great and small in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Jennifer Chu.


CHU: In the barren core of Arctic tundra, winter seems infinite, endless, as if it could – and would – last forever. And it almost does. Eight to ten months out of the year, it is winter in the treeless land at the top of the world. But cropping up amid the starkness and the snow are increasing numbers of shrubs – shrubs that could shift the tundra’s delicate energy balance and cause warming of several degrees over the next few decades.

A new study by the American Geophysical Union found that increasing vegetation reduces the earth’s albedo, or the reflection of the sun’s rays from the surface. While snow reflects solar energy, dark-colored shrubs absorb it. The study monitored terrain ranging from forested canopy to tundra, and found that melting began several weeks earlier in places where shrubs were exposed than in snow-covered areas.

Climate warming seems to stimulate shrub advancement. Scientists call it a feedback loop- increased shrub growth produces higher temperatures, and higher temperatures induce further growth. Scientists predict that if shrubs continue to grow on the tundra, winter heating could increase by up to 70 percent over a period of decades. And the continued transition from tundra to shrub land could substantially alter the character of the Arctic.

That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science. I’m Jennifer Chu.

CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

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[MUSIC: Fan Modine “Marigold” from ‘Slow Road To Tiny Empire’ (Rykodisc/Phovsho – 1997)]

Pets 911

A Humane Society worker tries to coax a cat to come to her on a New Orleans street. (Photo courtesy of HSUS)

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood and coming up: Remembering Galveston, Texas and its Great Storm. But first: As search and rescue teams try to locate the stranded and sometimes stalwart holdouts amid hurricane Katrina's wreckage, there's another population of victims that's mostly been left behind: pets.

The Humane Society, along with other groups, is now organizing a massive effort to try and locate and reunite pets with their owners. So far, more than 1,200 pets have been rescued from Louisiana and Mississippi, including cats, dogs, ferrets, and chinchillas, as well as a pot-bellied pig and a sea lion.

Laura Bevan heads up the Humane Society's Katrina Rescue Operations in Mississippi. She joins me by phone from Hatti esburg. Laura, thanks for being here.

BEVAN: You’re welcome.

CURWOOD: Can you tell me a little bit about what you’re seeing now? The conditions among the animals?

A Humane Society worker tries to coax a cat to come to her on a New Orleans street. (Photo courtesy of HSUS.)

BEVAN: What we’re seeing now is that as we’re working in there you’re finding more animals that have been without food and water, more animals that are packing up, more animals that have tried to survive for the past week. And people are under the mistaken impression that, you know, dogs and cats are going to just revert to their wild nature and take care of themselves. And certainly, you know, you do get some packs of dogs starting, but most just suffer, and they don’t pack up. I have four dogs and four cats, and if it’s not delivered to them they would not know what to do. They’re also suffering because of the heat. Many of them are used to being, you know, sleeping on the bed or the couch, and now they’re outside, they’re confused, they have no food and water, they don’t know where their family is. And so it is a very desperate situation.

CURWOOD: Where do you find them? Are they sitting out on roofs? Where are they?

BEVAN: In some cases. In Mississippi the flood water’s pretty much gone down, so what you’re finding is animals that are roaming, animals that are in the rubble of their former homes, animals that are hiding. Certainly with cats, they’re not going to come out when we call; we’re going to have to trap into areas and try to get those cats out of there. So, you know, horses standing at the side of the road, or maybe even in the road. Cattle, that kind of thing.

So, it’s not so much actually on the rooftop now. Yesterday we did a rescue of a dog that in the storm had actually been washed into somebody’s attic. And the woman returned to go and get her belongings, an elderly woman, and she goes every day and has been shoving food and water up to the attic to feed and water it. But she could not physically lift it down. So our teams were able to go in and actually get the dog out, and it is at our Hattiesburg facility right now.

Animal rescue workers evacuate several dogs from the flooded streets of New Orleans. (Photo courtesy of HSUS.)

CURWOOD: If you’re rescuing animals you’ve got to have had some heartbreakers.

BEVAN: Well, there definitely is. We’re just, you know, when you look at people, and you look at these animals, and they’re so confused and they’re so – you know, like that dog in the attic. It looks like somebody loved that animal. Somebody still probably does love that animal. You look at the animals they’re pulling from those areas, and they’re hungry, and they get in the cages and they collapse in the air-conditioning. They’re just exhausted. They’re hungry. They’re thirsty.

But, you know, we even have the long term issues. We have the people reuniting them with their animals, and that’s a huge issue for us. You know, to me, hearing about the little boy who gets the dog taken from his arms, and he’s screaming, “Snowball.” the people in Mississippi, that is breaking our heart, and we’re not even working in Louisiana. What that tells us is we’re getting down to the coast and we’re working even harder.

CURWOOD: Tell me about a reunification that just warms your heart.

A rescued dog gets a bath at a shelter in Hattiesburg, Miss. (Photo courtesy of HSUS.)

BEVAN: Well, haven’t had that many here yet. You know, right now we’re doing the rescues, we’re trying to find the people who called in the rescues. I can tell you that one of the things that I was really taken aback is that a man had bred little Miniature Pinschers, an older man, and the building collapsed on them and killed about half. He had about 160. And he could not physically move the structure to get to the other ones. And he got through to his pastor and they prayed that someone would come help him, because nobody could get to him. And one of our teams found the man, drove in, cut their way into him and then cut the animals out of that facility. Put them in new caging, removed some that he would give up for vet care. So they’re okay now, and he believes that they’re his angels. So we’re going to be as much angels as we can and make those reunifications.

CURWOOD: You know, the famous biologist E. O. Wilson says that since we evolved with all the other species, we need to be with them, and in no case does that seem more evident than pets. People are pretty emotionally attached to their animals. What happens in a circumstance like this?

BEVAN: Well, I think what you’ll find in disasters – of course, you had the people that leave animals behind. Of course, you had the people that decide to move on and not keep that pet. But what you also have is those people who that is what is going to get them through this. This is what they need to be okay. It is part of their family. That they don’t know where it is, that they do not know it’s safe, then they are frantic, just as you would, you know, a child. Just as someone would a family member. I can’t stress how important it is to not just the animal’s health and mental health to get it, but to the people who love those animals to take care of them and to get them either back to them, or at least that they know they’re safe somewhere.

CURWOOD: Laura Bevan is head of the U.S. Humane Society’s Katrina Rescue Operations. Laura, thanks for being here.

BEVAN: You’re welcome.

CURWOOD: If you’d like to help people or pets or both in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, please go to our website, loe dot org. There you can find a wealth of information about humanitarian amd environmental efforts to respond to the Katrina tragedy. And if there is something you'd like us to know, please write us at comments at loe.org. Once again, comments @ loe.org.

[MUSIC: Townes Van Zandt “If I Needed You” from ‘Best Of…’ (Tomato Records - 2005)]

Related link:
The Humane Society

Back to top


The Great Storm

CURWOOD: On September 8, 1900, a catastrophic hurricane struck Galveston, Texas. Thirty-eight thousand people lived in the Gulf Coast city when the wind and water came ashore. By the time it was over some 6,000 had died which, at the time, made it this nation's deadliest natural disaster. In 2000, to mark the one hundredth anniversary of what's called "The Great Storm," we asked producer Janet Heimlich to talk with descendants of survivors who shared what they knew about what happened on that day and how the city rebuilt itself.


CHILD: I think he's going down...

CHILD 2: Let's start digging like this!

HEIMLICH: Looking at a map, it's easy to see just how vulnerable Galveston is to storms. It's located on the eastern half of Galveston Island, a narrow 28-mile strip of land just off the Texas coast in the Gulf of Mexico.


HEIMLICH: Today, as children play in the surf along one of Galveston's many beaches, a hurricane seems to be the last thing on people's minds. But that's not the case with Linda MacDonald, a fourth-generation Galvestonian. Her family survived the Great Storm of 1900.

MACDONALD: My grandfather, Clarence Lacomb, was six years old at the time of the storm, and he lived here in Galveston with his parents and his brothers and sisters. And when I was growing up, I used to hear my grandfather tell the story of the storm. And the first time he started telling me about the storm, I thought the storm had just happened the day before because he spoke of the storm with such feeling, such emotion. And actually, the storm had been over for more than 50 years.

HEIMLICH: Prior to 1900, people here were used to bad storms. Still, hardly anyone on September eighth anticipated the tragedy that was about to unfold. After all, this was the industrial age, when people believed themselves to be invincible, even to nature. Galvestonians were a particularly proud lot. Their port was one of the busiest in the U.S. and their beautiful beaches attracted many tourists. In the 1880s, the state legislature allocated funds for Galveston to build a seawall, but the city refused. Many believed it would hurt businesses along the shore. Ms. MacDonald says that on the day of the storm, her grandfather had no idea of the force growing out in the Gulf.

MACDONALD: Around noon on September the eighth, my grandfather said that he was playing in the street. He said the streets were starting to flood, and he said it was just so much fun to be out there making little toys. He said they made boats out of sticks and they were sailing them down the streets.

HEIMLICH: Others also were unsuspecting. That morning, crowds gathered on the beach to watch the unusually large waves. But by afternoon, that fascination turned to fear as the waves began to erode the beach and tear apart nearby buildings. One man, however, had known something was amiss for some time. Early that morning, Isaac Cline, a weatherman for the National Weather Service, had noticed strange ocean activity and a huge drop in barometric pressure. In Dr. Cline's follow-up report of the storm, he wrote that as the day wore on, he and his staff were overwhelmed by panicked residents.

MAN (Reading from report): Hundreds of people who could not reach us by telephone came to the Weather Bureau office seeking advice. The public was warned, over the telephone and verbally, that the wind would go by the east to the south, and that the worst was yet to come.

HEIMLICH: Throughout the afternoon, the rain and wind intensified and the water rose higher. In the McDonald home, as the family sat huddled, the water outside was rocking the house to and fro. Ms. MacDonald says at that point, her grandfather was handed an axe by his father and told to chop through the floor.

MACDONALD: The harder he chopped, the harder he cried. He said it wasn't just that he was going to die. He said, they were all going to die insane. He said this was madness. But of course, what happened was they cut through the floor, the water came up and settled the house down. It's probably what kept it from being taken off of its foundation.

HEIMLICH: Others tried to escape the rising water by going to higher stories or climbing into trees. But these efforts often proved futile. The highest point in the city was only eight feet high, and by early evening the tidal surge had reached 15 feet. Flying debris proved especially dangerous, as slate shingles from rooftops flew at people, cutting them down. It's hard to say just how fast the winds got. The instruments used to measure wind velocity were destroyed. But meteorologists estimate they were blowing at about 140 miles per hour. Ms. McDonald says her grandfather listened in fear to the sounds of people who had been flung into the raging water.

MACDONALD: And he said he would hear those sounds off in the distance, and then they'd be very faint, and then they would get louder and louder as people floated by, and then get soft again, he said. But most often those sounds would be abruptly cut off, and then he knew someone's life had ended.


HEIMLICH: When the storm was over at about midnight, the devastation it left behind was tremendous. About 3,600 buildings were destroyed. It's believed that at least 6,000 people, nearly a sixth of Galveston's population, died. 2,000 others perished on the mainland. The storm also proved financially devastating. Galveston would never again regain its prominent economic status. But while Linda MacDonald's family talked about the hurricane, many others did not. Galvestonian Mike Doherty, whose family also survived the storm, says he wasn't told much about it when he was growing up. He has many questions about the aftermath.

DOHERTY: You know, what was it like to live here afterwards? Where did they get food? Where did they get water? The railroad bridge was gone. Many cisterns, which was a supply of water, were gone. The water line from the mainland was gone. You really wonder how these people even existed.

HEIMLICH: And despite the great losses, Mike Doherty says the city has never held a public memorial. Until now. Mr. Doherty heads the 1900 Storm Commemoration Committee, which is planning a series of events over the weekend of September eighth, including a memorial where a statue will be dedicated to those who died.

DOHERTY: We wanted to have a proper memorial service for these folks that perhaps was never held, other than little small clusters, I'm sure. We also wanted to educate the public and tell the story about the great recovery of Galveston.

HEIMLICH: That recovery began with trying to figure out how to dispose of the thousands of dead bodies. There were too many to be buried, so hundreds were sent out on barges to be buried at sea. But many soon washed back up on shore, so city officials decided to burn the corpses as quickly as possible. To get residents to carry out the grim task, authorities gave them free liquor and held some at gunpoint. Joe Kirpatrick was a newspaper reporter in Galveston for 40 years. He says he was particularly taken by the account of one storm survivor named Phillip Gordie Tipp .

KIRPATRICK: There was a pond, and Tipp wrote that after the storm they gathered near that pond and they burned bodies. They piled them high and they burned them and they burned them and they burned them. And in his letter, he said that he would never forget the smell of burning bodies in Galveston.

HEIMLICH: The city also tried to protect itself from future storms. In 1904 it erected a seawall that ran for three miles along the Gulf side. Later it was lengthened to ten miles. And what officials decided to do next amazes engineers to this day. They would raise the grade of the city. Eric Larson is the author of a recent book on the hurricane, called "Isaac's Storm."

LARSON: What this entailed was this tremendous, tremendous engineering effort. You know, we're talking here about raising a cathedral using two thousand hand jacks, and then filling underneath with fill, with sand pumped from a canal.

HEIMLICH: When the project was completed in 1910, the land sloped down from about 17 feet high at the seawall to where it meets the bay on the other side. Many Galvestonians boast that the seawall and the grade raising have saved countless lives in storms that have hit since 1900. Fletcher Harris, whose family survived the storm, points to the next major one that came along in 1915 which killed 275 Texans, including 53 on Galveston Island.

HARRIS: At that time the seawall had never been proven or tested. But in 1915 there wasn't a life lost behind the seawall. Now, the historians will argue that, but the truth of it is that they couldn't document one person. Bodies were floating in from both ends, because the seawall stopped at Thirty-Ninth Street; it didn't go all the way where it goes now.

HEIMLICH: The attachment Galvestonians have to their city and the events of the storm was especially apparent last year, when Eric Larson's book “Isaac's Storm” came out. The book centers around Isaac Cline, the weatherman of 1900. In the book, Mr. Larson takes issue with Dr. Cline's claim to have saved thousands of people by warning them about the approaching storm. It's a portrayal that rubs many in the Galveston area the wrong way. Lew Fincher, a hurricane preparedness consultant north of Galveston, accuses the author of trying to make Dr. Cline look bad for money.

FINCHER: I think his angle was, “well, how can I sell this book?”

HEIMLICH: But Mr. Larson, who says he researched Dr. Cline's work thoroughly, says he anticipated such a response when he wrote the book.

LARSON: It's always, I think, a wrenching thing when you kind of take a closer look at a legend.

HEIMLICH: But there's one point on which both men agree: too many people in Galveston seem to have forgotten about the destruction that took place in 1900. They point out that many large homes have been built on the western end of Galveston Island where there's no seawall. Again, Lew Fincher.

FINCHER: When we have a hurricane, next time we have one, and we will have one, but when it happens you're going to see the destruction, possibly, just like what we're talking about today about the 1900 storm.

HEIMLICH: But those who feel personally touched by The Great Storm say they'll never forget what happened on September eighth, even if it was a century ago. Fletcher Harris says he owes remembering the past to his relatives who suffered through it.

HARRIS: I inherited something from those people that went through that storm. I inherited something that has driven me to excel and to do everything that can be done for Galveston and try to make it grow and everything else. That's what I'm feeling. I've felt that all my life.

HEIMLICH: For Living On Earth, I'm Janet Heimlich in Galveston, Texas.

[MUSIC: Duane Eddy “Ghost Riders in The Sky” from ‘Best Of…’ (Curb Records – 1998]

Related links:
- The 1900 Storm
- “Isaac’s Storm” by Erik Larson

Back to top


CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Chris Ballman, Eileen Bolinsky, Jennifer Chu, and Susan Shepherd - with help from Christopher Bolick, Kelley Cronin and Michelle Kweder. Our interns are Ashley Ahearn, Brianna Asbury and Emily Torgrimson. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Alison Dean composed our themes. You can find us at loe dot org. I’m Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

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