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

October 21, 2005

Air Date: October 21, 2005



Brazilian Drought

View the page for this story

The Brazilian province of Amazonas has declared a state of emergency to contend with what appears to be the severest drought in the Amazon in recorded history. The drought has worldwide implications as the Amazon River makes up nearly twenty percent of the freshwater on the Earth's surface. Scientists aren't completely sure why this is happening, but the effects of the drought are both undeniable and far-reaching. Host Steve Curwood talks with Dr. Dan Nepstad, a senior scientist from the Woods Hole Research Institute who's based in the Amazon. (06:00)

Religious Call

View the page for this story

Environmentalists and evangelical Christians may see eye to eye on one issue: global warming. This year, global warming has been added to the platform of the National Association of Evangelicals, alongside traditional positions opposing abortion and same-sex marriage. Host Steve Curwood talks with Richard Sizic, the Association's director of governmental affairs. (06:30)

Visions of a New New Orleans / Jeff Young

View the page for this story

Living On Earth’s Jeff Young recently spent some time talking with New Orleaneans who rode out the storm or have returned to the city about what the future might hold. In Louisiana, Governor Kathleen Blanco has just appointed a blue ribbon panel to lead the rebuilding effort. Host Steve Curwood talks with Darryl Malek-Wiley, an environmental justice organizer with the Sierra Club, and Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute, a non-partisan think tank, and co-chair of Governor Blanco’s Louisiana Recovery Authority. (16:30)

Emerging Science Note/Top Fish

View the page for this story

Living on Earth's Emily Torgrimson reports on dominance and genetics in the cichlid fish. (01:30)

From the Islands to the Ozarks / Jacqueline Froelich

View the page for this story

People from the five islands and 29 coral atolls of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific have come to the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas in search of better jobs and education. They bring with them memories of the 67 atomic and thermonuclear weapons tests staged there between 1946 and 1958, forcing the evacuation of hundreds. Some islanders still cannot go home. And some say they still pay a price in illness and poverty for their Cold War cooperation. From Fayetteville, Arkansas, Jacqueline Froelich has their story. (16:30)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
GUESTS: Dan Nepstad, Richard Cizik, Darryl Malek-Wiley, Walter Isaacson
REPORTERS: Jeff Young, Jacqueline Froelich
NOTE: Emily Torgrimson


CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. With the risk of ferocious hurricanes remaining for the foreseeable future, plans for the renewal of New Orleans obviously have to consider how to handle storm surges. But what is less obvious is how New Orleans can and should rebuild its population and civil society. Some folks see a bright future:

BLAKE: As long as we can get convention center back up and running, and the hotels back up and running, I think we’ll be gold.

CURWOOD: But what about the folks who call the Big Easy home?

LASALLE: The people keep it alive, you know? If you don’t have the people to push it along, or to give it some substance, then it’s really just history. It’s just something to write in the books, you know?

RUE: New Orleans culture has been spread across the face of America like jam on a little kid’s face. It’s not ever gonna come back.

CURWOOD: Visions of a new New Orleans and more, this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.

Back to top


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


Brazilian Drought

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

Brazilian officials have declared a state of emergency to deal with what may turn out to be the severest drought on record in the Amazon. The drought has worldwide implications, as the Amazon River makes up nearly twenty percent of the freshwater on the Earth's surface, and carries more water than the nine other largest rivers of the world combined. But right now, with rainfall running at half of normal levels, the Amazon is at an all-time low.

Scientists aren't completely sure why this is happening, but the effects of the drought are undeniable and far-reaching. Fish are dying, wildfires have been intense, and people who live along the riverbanks may be losing a way of life that dates back for centuries. Joining me now is Dan Nepstad. He's a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center and is based in Brazil. Hello, sir.

NEPSTAD: Hi, Steve.

CURWOOD: Can you describe for us, Dan, what you’re seeing down there right now?

NEPSTAD: I’m here at the lower end of the Amazon, right at the mouth, and the rivers I’ve seen at this end are quite large and they’re amazingly dry. Some rivers where you normally have to take a boat across, you basically walk ankle to calf deep in water, and there’s extensive mudflats where normally there would be clear water. A lot of these mudflats are getting covered with dead animals, especially further up the river.

CURWOOD: Dead animals?

NEPSTAD: Dead fish, in some places dead dolphins, dead manatees. We’re still not sure why a lot of the animals are dying. With the fish, it’s probably a lack of oxygen as the rivers shrink in size and fish actually get stuck in some isolated ponds that run out of oxygen.

CURWOOD: Talk to me about the humanitarian side here. The people that live in this region of Brazil, of course, depend on the river system for survival. What’s it like in the villages there along the rivers that rely on the Amazon for transportation?

NEPSTAD: We’re seeing families and small communities of riverside dwellers getting cut off from society as their means of transportation, the river network, dries up so their small boats can’t get through. They’re running out of water because of the problem of animals dying, and their water supply from the river is contaminated by dying and decaying animals.

CURWOOD: What sort of issues do you see arising in the recovery process for them after a drought, after an event like this?

NEPSTAD: I think, in addition to the large number of animals dying, there’s a lot of other problems that are coming down the pike. Most cities, most little towns in the Amazon, don’t have any sewage treatment. Their sewage treatment is to put a pipe into the river. When you reduce the flow of these rivers, your former solution of dilution stops working and we’ve got cesspools building up around these little towns. That has got all of the makings for disease, intestinal disease, cholera, that sort of thing.

Water that’s not moving is also a wonderful breeding ground for insects, including mosquitoes, that carry things like malaria, that carry dengue, and other diseases.

CURWOOD: Talk to me about the theories that are being thrown around as to why the drought is so bad this year. I mean, I’ve heard that it might be deforestation, then I hear that maybe it’s the rising temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean, and, then again, folks say it’s part of the normal cycle. Why do you think the Amazon is in crisis right now?

NEPSTAD: The best single explanation for this year’s record drought is the heating of the oceans off the coast of Africa, the Atlantic Ocean. That heating started spreading over the Gulf of Mexico, providing a tremendous source of hot, damp air that, of course, started to rise, and that air is descending over the western Amazon. And that’s a typical pattern for the dry season for the Amazon, but the heating of the surface waters of the Atlantic reinforced the typical pattern. So there’s all this air descending over the Amazon, drying it up in the process.

Deforestation also inhibits rainfall events. Perhaps it’s linked to the heating of the Atlantic Ocean. It could be that the heating of the Atlantic Ocean is also at play in the large number of hurricanes we’re seeing this year. So, ironically, the Amazon’s drought and fire and the misery that’s taking place where I am now, and the misery that’s taking place in New Orleans, may have a common link.

CURWOOD: Tell me about the fires. With the drought, and the death of the fish and the other animals, I understand there are a lot fires. How extensive are they?

NEPSTAD: We’re trying to get a handle on how big the area that burned is. Right now, it looks like it’s about half the size of Connecticut. Most years Amazon forests are amazingly resistant to fire; they’ve got root systems that go down the equivalent of a five-story building into the soil so that during droughts they can keep their green, dense leaf canopies which makes them very difficult to burn.

What’s happening this year, though, is they’re running out of water. There’s just not enough water in the soil. And what that means is that there’s a potential for a vicious feedback in which drought leads to tree death, which increases the risk of fire, which increases the chance that drought will be more severe in the future, which increases again the risk of more tree deaths.

CURWOOD: I know you’re a scientist but how do you feel about all of this? You’ve been working there for years.

NEPSTAD: Yeah, I’ve been working in the Amazon for the last 21 years, and I’ve never seen such potential for the whole system to become degraded as I’ve seen this year. And I think what’s surprising to me is how precarious many of the traditional populations that live along the rivers throughout the region, how precarious their existence is in the face of a warming planet and drought such as this.

CURWOOD: Dan Nepstad is senior scientist for the Woods Hole Research Center and a forest ecologist in the Amazon. Thank you, sir.

NEPSTAD: Thank you.

Back to top


Religious Call

CURWOOD: With massive droughts and record-setting hurricanes being linked, at least in part, to global warming, climate change has caught the attention of the U.S. evangelical community. This year, global warming has been added to the platform of the National Association of Evangelicals, alongside traditional positions that oppose abortion and same-sex marriage.

The Association claims the support of 30 million Americans and more than 50,000 churches. It recently produced a report called “Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility.” Now, the report calls on evangelicals to recognize that climate change is real, and urge the government to do something about it.

Joining me is the Reverend Richard Cizik. He’s director of governmental affairs for the Association. Hello, sir.

CIZIK: Hello, Steve.

CURWOOD: Why add concern about global warming to the evangelical platform?

CIZIK: That’s a reasonable question. In fact, we have evangelicals around the country who’re asking the very same question. We’re doing it because of one reason: the Bible mandates us. Not as owners of this Earth, because we aren’t owners. The Bible is very clear in Genesis 2:15 that we’re simply stewards of what God has given us, and that we’re to watch over and care for it. If we’re supposed to do that, then we simply can’t trash it. We can’t simply say, “well, it’s all going to be incinerated and, therefore, it matters not what we do with it.”

So it’s a call to care for creation that’s rooted in the Scriptural tradition from beginning to end, and we’re finding, frankly, enormous receptivity. Now, we’ve upset the apple cart politically to some folk, but at the grassroots, frankly, amazing support. In fact, the surveys indicate already that we’ve gotten surprising support for this initiative.

CURWOOD: Looking at the New Testament, what does Jesus and the Apostles, what do they say that could be applied to climate change, global warming?

CIZIK: Well, Jesus says that, you know, you are to be stewards of the Earth. You are to be the salt and light in society, you are to be the leaven, you see, as in the bread that restores it, keeps it healthy. In other words, we are not to be agents of destruction but agents of His continual creation. And since we are taught by Scripture that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, how is it possible for us to love our neighbor if we are committing transgressions against what he has created and impacting people around the world in phenomenal ways?

I’ve seen figures, Steve, for example, that anywhere from 10 to 15 million people in the next century – this century, the 21st century – will be impacted by flooding because of creation…warming, in other words, what’s called global warming, and that 90 to 100 million people could be impacted by droughts. So, how can you love your neighbor as yourself and simply say, “well, that doesn’t matter, I’m protected here in the United States? I have all the securities of Social Security and wealth and health care and wages and all that and it matters not what happens to our brothers and sisters around the world.” That simply is an impossible thing if you want to be a biblical Christian.

CURWOOD: Now, I’m not much of a theologian so please excuse me, I’m probably going to get this wrong. But at the other end of the Bible you come to the Book of Revelation, that talks about pretty much everything being made new and that really it doesn’t matter much what happens.

CIZIK: Well, wait a second. The Bible does say a new heaven and a new Earth, a renewed Earth. It doesn’t say the Earth is going to be destroyed and simply recreated from scratch, if you will, ex nihilo, as God did it the first time out of nothing. No, He’s going to renew it. In fact, we see in the Book of Romans by the Apostle Paul that He is redeeming creation even now and that all of creation groans for the revealing of his son – that is, Jesus. And that, at some point, he will return – that’s what we, as evangelicals, believe – to a renewed creation. So we simply can’t trash what we have, although that is a prevailing wisdom among some, sad to say.

CURWOOD: Now, what actions are you taking to promote reducing the threat of global warming?

CIZIK: Well, the very beginning, I should say – and we are at the beginning here as a movement – we have distributed a statement which is called “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility.” And it’s going out to all of our churches, all of our leaders. By the way, all of the leaders left, right and center have signed this document. So, at the very beginning, we happen to think we have, first and foremost, a theological assignment, not really a political role but, initially, a theological role to educate our own constituency, and that’s most important. We think that as we do that, politics will inevitably follow. And let’s face it, religion always leads politics, not the reverse.

CURWOOD: Now, why do you think Republicans are going to listen to you when they haven’t listened to major environmental groups, scientists, governments from Germany to the United Kingdom to Japan, on this particular issue?

CIZIK: Hmmm. Well, that’s a tough question. Here’s the answer: we may not be able, as evangelicals, to turn this into a preeminent issue in the 2008 election. We may not be able to do that. But we have within our midst the evangelicals that constitute 100 electoral votes that have historically gone to Republicans. One hundred electoral votes. And our constituency is situated in 15 states, many of them mid-west, west states that inhabit Republican politicians. And some of these are coal states – Kentucky, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, western states such as Wyoming – these are states with high evangelical populations. And politicians listen.

If our constituency, the evangelicals, say this matters, it’s not simply radical enviros who happen to believe the Earth is at stake, but we care about this issue, and the reason we care about it is because people matter. And if the poor around the world are gonna be impacted, shouldn’t we do something? We must. And once we’ve put our imprimatur on this issue then I think we have the freedom to begin to sow some seeds here for a better energy bill in the long run. A better climate policy by the United States. And, frankly, there won’t be a Republican running for the nomination, I don’t believe, in 2008, who isn’t going to hear from us.

CURWOOD: The Reverend Richard Cizik is vice-president of governmental affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals. Thanks for taking this time.

CIZIK: Thank you, it was my pleasure. God bless you.

Back to top

[MUSIC: XTC “Dear God” from ‘Skylarking’ (Geffen – 1986)]

CURWOOD: Coming up: bringing back New Orleans. The call is for smarts, sustainability and soul. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: The Bad Plus “Anthem for the Earnest” from ‘Suspicious Activity’ (Sony/BMG – 2005)]

Visions of a New New Orleans

(Photo: Jeff Young)

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. New Orleans is finally dry. The wreckage of tens of thousands of homes along the Gulf Coast is slowly being cleared. And the question arising from the havoc of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita is echoing from the Superdome to the Capitol dome in Washington: how in the world do we rebuild from such unprecedented disaster?

In Washington, promises of “whatever it takes” have begged the question, “to do what?” and the president and Congress have balked at the staggering early estimates for the cost of rebuilding. In Louisiana, Governor Kathleen Blanco has just appointed a blue-ribbon panel to help craft a vision for the southern part of the state and lead the rebuilding effort.

In a few minutes, we’ll talk with one of the leaders of that panel, as well as a New Orleans environmental justice activist who has a lot to say about what should and should not happen in and around the city. But first, Living on Earth’s Jeff Young recently spent some time talking with New Orleaneans about their hopes for their city.


YOUNG: Just digging out is still a big and dirty job. Flies swarm around a refrigerator, its rotting contents spilling on to the street. Towering heaps of insulation and carpeting nearly hide some houses. But New Orleans is a place with a way of turning misfortune inside out. Funerals become parades. Blues become jazz. And for artist Jeffrey Holmes, mountains of trash became art.

New Orleans artist Jeffrey Holmes arranged the flood wreckage of his gallery into an impromptu installation he calls "Toxic Art." Holmes worries that his neighborhood and others in the city’s Ninth Ward will not recover. (Photo: Jeff Young)

HOLMES: All this stuff out here that you see is all trash from the first floor that was in the water, so it’s toxic, it’s deadly. There’s black mold growing on it. It has to be destroyed.

YOUNG: Holmes arranged soggy artwork and furniture from his gallery and home in the city’s Ninth Ward into a makeshift installation in St. Claude Avenue’s median. Mardi Gras beads hang from a small field of crosses he fashioned from scrap wood. Mannequins are the mourners at a tombstone bearing the epitaph: Ninth Ward, RIP.

HOLMES: Sooner or later a bulldozer will come along and remove it all, just like lower Ninth Ward will be removed by a bulldozer.

YOUNG: Officials estimate three and a half million truckloads of waste will be hauled from the city. Much of that waste will be all that remains of many houses. Holmes worries about what will become of the artists and musicians who lived there.

HOLMES: We don’t know what’s going to happen. We know that developers are just chomping at the bit. They want the poor black people out of there so they can turn it into gated communities, condos, and planned communities. And New Orleans is not a gated or a planned community. New Orleans is a spontaneous community.

Devastation in the lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, a low income, minority neighborhood. Many questions remain about how to rebuild here—or whether to rebuild at all. (Photo: Jeff Young)

[BOURBON STREET ACTIVITY: "It is cocktail hour…it’s always cocktail hour"]

YOUNG: In the city’s French Quarter, there is less anxiety and more optimism. The Quarter was spared most flooding, and Bourbon Street bars were open again just days after Hurricane Rita passed.


YOUNG: The kitchen was not yet working at the Three Legged Dog on Conti Street, so owner Tim Blake grilled burgers on the sidewalk. Blake says the future looks pretty good from the relatively high ground of the Quarter.

BLAKE: Historically, New Orleans is where you are right now, in the French Quarter. And as long as this old part of the city survives, I think New Orleans will keep its charm. And as long as we can get the convention center back up and running and hotels back up and running, I think we’ll be gold.

YOUNG: Blake also sees a bit of what he calls a silver lining. He points north, just past Rampart Street to the now-vacant housing projects.

BLAKE: There’s nobody there now and I feel safe right now. That’s part of that silver lining. It’s sad they get displaced, but I don’t have to deal with that right now. And the ones that come back want to work and the ones that want to work I’m not worried about. It’s the gangs. I don’t want those guys back here, man. Stay away, please. We don’t need you. You know what I’m saying? The good ones? We need them. The Quarter is full of service industry jobs that require filling. We need those people back. And the people we do have left, you could take really good care of these guys.


YOUNG: Just past the projects Blake points to lies the Treme area. The largely African American neighborhood is still largely empty and quiet. Resident Sean Lasalle says it’s usually alive with people and music from nearby Armstrong Park.

LASALLE: They have a lot of second lines, block parties and stuff, where everybody come and hang out. This neighborhood holds so much history and culture. It’s pretty much a very cultural neighborhood.

YOUNG: If neighborhoods like this, if they don’t come back, is New Orleans going to be New Orleans?

YOUNG: Honestly, I don’t think so, because the people give it the ambiance. We have a lot of culture, a lot of history. The people keep it alive. If you don’t have people to push it along, give it some substance, it’s history, you know? It’s just something to write in the books.

YOUNG: Lasalle’s a city native with “N.O.” tattooed on his left shoulder. He’ll stay, and he’ll probably get his bartending job back. But he’s not sure about his neighbors and whether they will come back to stay if the jobs rebuilding the city go to workers form somewhere else.

LASALLE: Quit bringing in people from other places. Give the people here a chance to clean up their own city. They don’t have work, but there’s somebody working. There’s people cleaning up all over and working. But the folks who live in this neighborhood will not have jobs. If they got to come home and stew like that, it’s gonna be bad. The attitude’s gonna go from bad to worse.


Bob Rue scrawled these messages on the front of his Oriental Rug shop on St Charles Ave. Rue never left New Orleans during the storm but fears many of his fellow citizens will never return. (Photo: Jeff Young)

YOUNG: Over on St. Charles Avenue is Bob Rue’s place. It became, briefly, world famous after the storm. Rue owns Sarouk Shop Antique Oriental Rugs, and newspapers around the world carried shots of the handpainted sign he had tacked to the storefront. Rue’s message was aimed at any would-be looters.

RUE: It said ‘Don’t even try, I’m sleepin’ inside with a big dog, an ugly woman, two shotguns, and a claw hammer.’

YOUNG: I won’t ask who the ugly woman is.

RUE: Well, we have some discretion here.

YOUNG: You never left?

RUE: No, never.

YOUNG: So many people left this city. Do you think they’ll come back?

RUE: A great many people won’t, especially middle class people who went away and they’ve got their kids in school someplace else. The school system here was abysmal. People who’ve put their kids in schools in Atlanta or Houston or Dallas are realizing what schools can actually be like. They’ve gotten jobs. They’re not coming back. They’re making more money; they have a nicer apartment.

It’s like the diaspora after the flood of ‘27 in the Delta. The blues went up the river to St. Louis and Chicago and Detroit with the black people who went from the Delta. New Orleans culture has been spread across the face of America like jam on a little kid’s face. It’s not ever gonna come back.

YOUNG: It’s a pretty gloomy assessment of the city’s future, but Rue plans to stay. Before he lets the interview end, he has a request, one that hints at a bit of optimism.

RUE: Any New Orleanians out there: understand this. I got my place for the parade. I’m waiting. And I expect to see you guys come down the street. I want a parade, I don’t care if you gotta wear a milk jug over your head and a sheet, and throw peanuts and dog kibble. The carnival’s coming. Y’all know what that means: get back here. Bye.

YOUNG: This is, after all, the place where funerals become parades. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in New Orleans.

[MUSIC: File~ “Chanson de Mardi Gras” from ‘Mardi Gras Time’ (Rounder Records/EasyDisc – 1998)]

CURWOOD: With us now to discuss some of these challenges and opportunities are two people who’ve spent a good deal of their lives in New Orleans and are now in the thick of the struggle to shape and implement a vision for the future of the region.

Darryl Malek-Wiley has been involved in environmental justice issues in Louisiana for thirty years. He’s currently an environmental justice organizer with the Sierra Club and was himself swept out of his home in New Orleans by Katrina. Hello there, Darryl.

MALEK-WILEY: Hello there.

CURWOOD: And also joining us is Walter Isaacson. He grew up in New Orleans and later worked as a reporter for the Times-Picayune there before eventually rising to become managing editor of Time magazine and president of CNN. And he’s now president of the Aspen Institute, which seeks to build bridges and dialogues in an increasingly fractured world. He’s also just been named co-chair of Governor Blanco’s Louisiana Recovery Authority. Hello, sir.

ISAACSON: Hey, how are you? Thanks for having me on the air.

CURWOOD: Let’s talk about the lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Darryl, this is a poor, largely African American neighborhood that’s well below sea level that’s been hit hard by this. What about the basic question of rebuilding there versus doing something else for the people there? What’s your sense of their desire along those lines?

MALEK-WILEY: Well, I think the desire is mixed, you know. But you have to realize that the lower Ninth Ward, that’s one of the largest areas we have where people own their home. And they’ve got deep roots in the lower Ninth Ward, and I know it’s gonna be a complicated process figuring out who can come back, when they can come back, because of toxic issues. But I think there is a desire to come back and rebuild the lower Ninth and Holy Cross in a new way that removes some of the past problems in the area.

CURWOOD: But what about the basic issue that this is, you know, really about one of the lowest parts of the city in a place where the water is only going to get higher and higher in the years ahead?

MALEK-WILEY: Well, one of the key issues, environmental issues, is closing of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, or MR-GO. And that’s where the flood waters basically were pushed by both Katrina and Rita into St. Bernard and the lower Ninth Ward. So if we close MR-GO and restore the wetlands in St. Bernard we won’t have the type of flooding we had with Katrina and Rita.

CURWOOD: Walter Isaacson, the Governor of Louisiana has just asked you to help head up what is, essentially, a restoration commission. How broad a mandate has she given you, and what level of detail will you be able to address? I mean, are you gonna be able to help New Orleans answer questions like the fate of some of its poorest neighborhoods? And, if so, help them line up the resources to implement their future?

ISAACSON: What we really hope to do is set certain principles, and the first one, to answer your questions about New Orleans and lower Ninth Ward, is that we want everybody to come home. We want to make sure everybody feels welcome in the city and attract everybody back to a city that, hopefully, has a much better education system, has much better social fabric in its neighborhoods.

I grew up in the Broadmore area of New Orleans which also got flooded, and was and is a totally integrated neighborhood. I’ve moved out of New Orleans and lived in New York and Washington, which are segregated cities; I’d love New Orleans to come back with the wonderful mix that makes its culture good, its neighborhoods good, and its social fabric strong. And that means bringing everybody back.

CURWOOD: Now, how does New Orleans deal with its racial history in this? I mean, they’re really, in some respects, three races in New Orleans. You have white people, and then you have the Creole class, of what might be called people of color who have a long history of being free folks, and then you have African Americans who come from the previous plantation economy there, slavery, in Louisiana. And many of those folks really didn’t get to participate in public life until, what, the ‘60s with the Voting Rights Act?

ISAACSON: Well, I think that’s true all over America – you got people shut out of the system, especially African Americans. But in New Orleans you have a much more complex mix, and even what you just said, which is true, you have the Creoles, the African Americans, the “gentlemen of color” they used to be called in the old days. I think what you’re going to have in New Orleans is what makes it strong. What makes its food and its artistic life and its neighborhood life and its music strong is when you have a mix of social classes, a mix of racial classes, and a mix of ethnic influences that create, whether it be a great gumbo jambalaya or jazz festival or anything else.

MALEK-WILEY: That’s exactly true. I was thinking, you know, there’s a large Vietnamese community, there’s a large Hispanic community from a number of different countries; so that whole mix makes New Orleans New Orleans. I live up the river bend, and it’s an integrated neighborhood. But when I go to other cities in America I see very strong dividing lines – the poor live there, the rich live here, and never the two meet. And that makes a poorer society, a poorer culture, and we want to make sure that that doesn’t happen in New Orleans. Developers can come in here, but there is a process that they need to be listening to what the community wants and what the neighborhood wants.

ISAACSON: Let me just say “amen” to that, if I would, because I hope the listeners listening in Boston or any other place will realize the pathologies that we’re going to try to solve in New Orleans are ones that haven’t been solved in many other cities.

CURWOOD: Walter, let me ask you, this governor’s task force is obviously trying to fill a void of leadership and vision; now what does Louisiana, and the whole region, need from Washington? I mean, a lot of big promises, there’s a big price tag out there – what is it, $62 billion? Not much of it has been spent, and there seems to be, actually, a fair amount of finger pointing and bickering. What do you need from the president and Congress?

ISAACSON: Well, it’d be nice to have a coordinator or point person that would, you know, help us break through some of the red tape. But the main thing is, we’re working together right now. I had dinner with the governor who was saying some very nice things about both the president and the delegation there. We have to make sure that we can prove we can spend any money very honestly and do it openly in an open process, that we’re going to spend it wisely and prudently. We’re not going to ask for money for everything in the world, but we need the levees rebuilt, we need some temporary housing right now, and we need a good planning process so that the schools and the roads can come back. If you can give us that, we can do the rest ourselves.

CURWOOD: Darryl, what do you guys need out of Washington in your view?

MALEK-WILEY: What we need out of Washington is some leadership and vision also. What we don’t need is the effort that’s going forward in Congress to suspend environmental regulations for up to a year and a half. I mean, it’s just amazing to see what some Congressional leaders are doing to say, “well, we had this catastrophe, therefor the environmental laws are what are gonna stop us from rebuilding.” That’s totally untrue. So we need some real creative vision to think about how we’re going to rebuild New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast in a more environmentally-sustainable way, not in a developer’s view of, you know, mega-condos and casinos.

CURWOOD: Now we have in Katrina the confluence of both environmental and human catastrophe, both in terms of origins and its impact. So to what degree are the solutions to those human environmental challenges in the region linked?

ISAACSON: They’re very linked, and, unfortunately, they’re not linked at the exact same time. Because you may want to restore the coastal wetlands, I certainly think you need to do that. You need to open the Atchafalaya Basin. You need to keep the barrier islands. That’s a project that we’ve been working on for years called, you know, Coastal Restoration 2025. I don’t know that you want to wait to the year 2025 before you decide how to rebuild each neighborhood, though. We’ve got a quick emergency problem over the next two or three years of making sure everybody feels welcomed back all throughout southern Louisiana.

CURWOOD: How important is it to move quickly here? I mean, a lot of folks who moved away are starting to settle in elsewhere.

MALEK-WILEY: Well, I think we’re going to have a tension between quickness and doing it the proper way, and I think that’s a dynamic tension we’re going to have to work with. But I think every day I’ve been in New Orleans, for the last couple weeks, more and more people are coming back, more and more businesses are opening up. People, once they’re getting back and they’re talking to people who have been in New Orleans and stayed here, are finding that it’s gonna be once again a dynamic, culturally diverse, ethnically, racially diverse community that is unique in the world. And everybody will want to be in New Orleans for jazz and gumbo and beniet.

ISAACSON: Well, it’d be nice to move quickly so people can get bridge loans so they can repair their houses and repair their businesses, otherwise they’ll get settled in elsewhere. But we don’t want to rush it too hard by saying here’s some quick development plans. We want to build the type of state that everybody wants to come home to.

CURWOOD: Gentlemen, that’s all we have time for today. Walter Isaacson is the co-chair of Governor Blanco’s Louisiana Recovery Authority. Darryl Malek-Wiley is an environmental justice organizer with the Sierra Club in Louisiana. Thank you both for joining me.

ISAACSON: Thank you for having us, Steve. I look forward to seeing you down there, Darryl.

MALEK-WILEY: Yeah, thank you very much. Looking forward to meeting you Walter.

Related links:
- Darryl Malek-Wiley bio/Sierra Club Environmental Justice Projects: Louisiana
- Walter Isaacson bio

Back to top

[MUSIC: Mobius Band “Well-Thumbed Page” from ‘Three’ (Prescription Rails – 2002)]

CURWOOD: Coming up: when you can’t go home again, because it’s too radioactive. The Marshall Islanders come to America. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Emily Torgrimson.

Emerging Science Note/Top Fish

TORGRIMSON: How do you turn a wimp into a leading man? Just remove his competition.

So say researchers who work with the cichlid fish, a species that lives in the freshwater lakes of East Africa and abides by strict social hierarchies. In a study conducted at Stanford University, scientists found that when the dominant fish is removed from a tank of cichlids, a subordinate male will undergo a rapid and dramatic transformation to fill his rival’s place.

Within minutes their coloring begins to change from gray to the flashy yellow and blue of a dominant fish. Prominent black stripes called “eyebars” also emerge – the cichlid equivalent of trading in blue jeans for a power suit. The researchers also discovered that the newly-dominant fish begin behaving far more aggressively, making threatening displays and chasing others around the tank. And, of course, they also start taking a more active interest in female cichlids.

These changes take place just twenty minutes after the male begins his social climb. The cichlids’ rapid makeover seems to be caused by a specific gene responsible for ramping up hormone production. Scientists were struck by the speed at which a social factor – the absence of a dominant male – was able to trigger a response in the fishes’ genes. They hope that these findings will help shed light on the complex interaction between genetics and environment.

That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science, I'm Emily Torgrimson.

Back to top

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

ANNOUNCER: Support for NPR comes from NPR stations, and: The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, online at m-o-t-t dot org, supporting efforts to promote a just, equitable and sustainable society; The Kresge Foundation. Building the capacity of nonprofit organizations through challenge grants since 1924. On the web at k-r-e-s-g-e dot org; The Annenberg Fund for excellence in communications and education; and, The W-K Kellogg Foundation. From Vision to Innovative Impact: 75 Years of Philanthropy. This is NPR, National Public Radio.

[MUSIC: Badly Drawn Boy “Bewilderbeast” from ‘The Hour of the Bewilderbeast’ (XL Recordings - 2000)]

From the Islands to the Ozarks

The Castle Bravo Blast in March 1954. (Courtesy of U.S. Airforce)

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. In scattered towns across the United States, you'll find communities of folk from the islands of the Pacific. In the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, for example, people from the five islands and 29 coral atolls of the Marshall Islands have been arriving in search of the same things that draw other immigrants: better jobs and education.

But the Marshall Islanders also bring something else: memories of the 67 atomic and thermonuclear weapons tests staged there between 1946 and 1958. Hundreds of islanders were evacuated from atolls where the bombs were exploded. The blasts disrupted life there and contaminated the land. Some islanders still cannot go home. And some say they still pay a price in illness and poverty for their Cold War cooperation. From Fayetteville, Arkansas, Jacqueline Froelich has their story.


FROELICH: Six thousand miles from the Marshall Islands, there’s now an Islander neighborhood in the chicken processing town of Springdale, Arkansas.


FROELICH: When school is out, Islander kids ride bikes and skate between the faded houses.


FROELICH: Sitting on a sofa in an open garage, two Islander women sing to eight children playing quietly at their feet.


FROELICH: It’s customary for women to keep children at home, says Lumon Benjamin, Arkansas Marshallese community president. Benjamin’s home, like others here, is decorated with lots of island mementos, cascades of artificial flowers and family photographs. He concedes that Islanders are here by choice, but maybe not first choice.

BENJAMIN: I miss the water, the clear water. I miss the oceans, I miss fishing! I always fished every day. There are many other things that are really different from back home – I have not seen any sailing canoes over here! (laughs). That is our main transportation back home.

FROELICH: Back home, Benjamin taught elementary school. Now he makes four times as much money working the midnight shift at a metal siding plant. He says it took a while to get used to the lakes, mountains, shopping centers – even the street lights. And he alludes to another draw, besides jobs.

BENJAMIN: And the hospitals, they are really big. That is one of the main reasons the people want to come over here. They want to be near these big hospitals because of their sicknesses and these things.

FROELICH: Benjamin’s family is originally from the Marshall Island’s Bikini Atoll, where in 1954 the United States conducted its biggest test, a 15-megaton hydrogen bomb. The operation, code-named Bravo, was one of many detonated on Bikini, as well as Enewetak Atoll. The explosion was equivalent to a thousand Hiroshima-sized bombs, and pulverized large portions of coral reef, irradiating the land and sea.

The U.S. Navy, along with Atomic Energy Commission personnel, evacuated people, including Benjamin’s family, from test sites like Bikini before the tests. They were allowed to go back twenty years later. But then it was determined that drinking water on Bikini was still too radioactive, so, six years after that, islanders had to leave once again. In the meantime, some may have received a dose.

BENJAMIN: Right now, I have a lot aunties, and also uncles, they died. They had the sicknesses with them until their body cannot fight it anymore. I got two this year, they passed away. My sister also passed away last year because of cancers.

FROELICH: The testing continued for more than a decade. Islanders on nearby atolls often were not evacuated during the tests. They were deemed to be at a safe distance.

Tony Debrum holding honorary nephew, Lucas Sherman, aboard the "Oleander"near Majuro. (Photo: Jessica Reimers-Langijota)

Former Marshallese Minister of Health Tony Debrum was a nine-year-old boy fishing with his grandfather on the beach of Likiep Atoll when he witnessed the Bravo test on the northwest horizon.

DEBRUM: First the flash, which, at 187 miles away, still managed to blind us. And then I describe it as if we were standing under a glass bowl, and someone poured blood on it. The whole sky turned red, the beach was red, the fish I had in my basket was red, my grandpa was red, his net was red. But I kept hearing him say, “run, run, run to the house, run to the house,” but I couldn’t run. I was too scared.

FROELICH: Bravo’s mushroom cloud rose 100,000 feet up into the atmosphere, and according to the Atomic Energy Commission, fallout reached as far as Memphis, Tennessee. Prevailing winds that morning spread fallout eastward over the populated atolls of Rongelap and Utirik.

Anthropologist Holly Barker has conducted hundreds of ethnographic interviews with survivors. She serves as a senior advisor to the Marshallese Embassy.

The Castle Bravo Blast in March 1954. (Courtesy of U.S. Airforce)

BARKER: The fallout from the weapons started dropping from the sky. They describe it as like a powder, like a mist that made everything foggy and fell to the ground. They didn’t know what it was; they didn’t know that it was radioactive fallout, and so they went and they ran through it and touched it and picked it up and played with it and ate it. And some people would store it in bottles or put it in their pockets.

They just didn't know what it was, and they didn't know it was harmful to them. So when it fell in their water and they drank that water, and fell on their food and they consumed the food, they didn’t understand the connection between starting to feel ill and the radiation.

FROELICH: Reno James is one of about a hundred people still living who witnessed Bravo and experienced the fallout. He first felt the blast from inside his two-room thatched cabin on Utirik Atoll, downwind east of the Bravo Shot. He was 16.

JAMES: And we was hear the noise, the big noise, and our island is shaken and its lightning. Some of trees, the coconut, fell down. And also after that, the powder is dripping down, and after a couple of hours the people become sick, and some people like me, I was vomiting, very dizzy.

See my grandfather, my father’s father, he passed away because he got so many kinds of sick. Some things come out on the skin, is like mumps, really big. Some kind of sickness we didn’t have before, and it’s why he died.

FROELICH: A U.S. Navy ship equipped with medical personnel arrived three days later to treat their radiation sickness. James now has thyroid cancer.

The Republic of the Marshall Islands declared independence in 1986, but maintains a strategic relationship with the United States. An agreement allowed the U.S. to keep an Army base on Kwajalein Atoll in the central Marshalls. There they test ballistic missiles and missile interceptors, support NASA space operations, and assist the U.S. space command with satellite tracking and surveillance.

In exchange, the U.S. helps pay for public education, health and government operations in the Marshalls. Another benefit is one many prospective immigrants would relish: Islanders are free to travel and work in the U.S. for as long as they wish. The compact also provided compensation for damages from the nuclear testing. A Nuclear Claims Tribunal dispensed 72 million dollars in personal injury claims to 2,000 survivors.

Dr. Neal Palafox is a University of Hawaii professor and family practice physician. He also has been a principle investigator for the Department of Energy Marshall Islands Nuclear Victims Program. He says 50 years after the tests, exposed islanders, including those in utero at the time of the tests, those allowed to return early, and cleanup workers, still live with effects, including thyroid disease, mental retardation and many types of cancer.

PALAFOX: The cancers that have been shown are breast, lung cancer, thyroid cancer, brain cancer, stomach, intestine cancer, skin, mouth cancer, bone cancer, liver cancer and kidney cancer. All those have definitely been linked to long term effects of direct radiation exposure in high doses.

FROELICH: Many Marshall Islanders have other health conditions that may not be related to their special history, conditions such as obesity and diabetes.

Before European explorers arrived, the indigenous Marshallese caught reef fish and crabs and grew breadfruit, taro, and pandanas, in their atolls’ sometimes poor sandy soils. The islands’ carrying capacity was limited, infant mortality was high, with intermittent typhoons and famine. More outside contact meant food was more abundant, but now it included white flour, rice and sugar. Locally grown foods were abandoned for convenience. Christian missionaries discouraged birth control. Dr. Palafox says the islands’ public health system is overwhelmed and cannot cope with the Islanders’ great needs.

PALAFOX: They approach the Ministry of Health in the Marshall Islands, but it cannot provide adequate care. So many of them actually go without necessary care that they should receive.

FROELICH: Now, overpopulation, the desire for better jobs, dislocation from radioactive atolls and sickness have all triggered a Marshallese diaspora. Of the islands’ estimated 60,000 residents, 10,000 have immigrated to the United States, most settling in northwest Arkansas. Arkansas Marshallese cultural liaison Carmen Chong-Gum says her people have something special to offer.

Carmen Chong-Gum speaking in Fayetteville, Arkansas at the annual “Remembrance of Victims of War Day.” (Photo: Joannie Conners)

CHONG-GUM: It’s something that we can learn – it’s not just Marshallese, but the whole world – to know that these people already experienced nuclear war. They know what nuclear war is like, experiencing all the consequences of the fallout and losing their land and not knowing if it is really safe to be on their islands.


FROELICH: In memory of those who have suffered and died from the testing, Chong-Gum organizes an annual Nuclear Victims Day in Springdale.


FROELICH: The three-hour-long program featured several processions, testimony from survivors, and a church youth choir. Hundreds of islanders of all ages showed up


FROELICH: This year, Chong-Gum, for the first time, showed a documentary film about the Bravo Test.


FROELICH: It was eerie watching Islanders, sitting motionless, watching themselves on the big screen. Most, like seventeen-year-old Crystalahni Jack, had never seen these unsettling archival images.

FROELICH: How did it make your feel?

JACK: It made me feel sad. Sad knowing that some of the people that was part of the Bikini Island couldn’t go back to the Bikini island because they had poisoned over there, so they could not go back there to live in their own island.

FROELICH: Do you think young talk about this? Do young Marshallese talk about this?

JACK: Yeah. Everybody talk about it. Even young kids talk about. It’s a big thing that happened to the Marshall Islands. They don’t want to forget it because it’s what affected the people of the Marshall Islands.

FROELICH: Now, five decades later, the U.S. State Department says compensation to islanders directly affected by the test program should be considered paid in full. Former Marshallese Minister of Health Tony Debrum was a co-author of the original compensation agreement.

DEBRUM: The problem is the United States is trying to limit its liability to islands that it says were exposed when, in fact, now we know that many, many more than the four atolls were exposed.

FROELICH: Debrum is referring to the long-held U.S. government position that only four atolls in the Marshall Islands were affected by the nuclear tests. New estimates by the National Cancer Institute, however, indicate that all of the Marshalls were exposed to radiation. NCI researchers testified before Congress they estimate 290 more radiation-related cancers still to develop beyond 2004, especially among islanders who were children during the testing. The Marshallese government is asking for 3 billion dollars in additional compensation.

FALEOMAVAEGA: Mr. Chairman, I submit this is much larger than a legal issue. This is a moral issue.

FROELICH: In a packed Senate Committee hearing, U.S. Congressman Eni Faleomavaega, ranking member of the International Relations Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, testified on the Marshall Islands behalf:

FALEOMAVAEGA: The fact is, the people of the Marshall Islands are still suffering severe adverse health effects directly related to our nuclear testing program, and they are still unable to use their own lands because of the radiation poisoning. We have a moral obligation to provide for health care, environmental monitoring, personal injury claims, and land and property damaged in the Marshall Islands.

FROELICH: But Howard Krawitz, at the U.S. State Department's East Asia and Pacific desk, has a different view. Tape of his Senate testimony was not available, and he declined through a spokesman to be interviewed, but he said the United States recognizes there are serious and continuing public health and medical challenges for Marshall Islanders.

But he said the United States will already spend 16 million dollars in health care funds in 2005 in accordance with the compact. Since the 1950s, he pointed out, the country has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on health and environmental problems related to the nuclear tests. Krawitz testified that additional expenditures in the billions of dollars are not warranted.

Back in Arkansas, physicians are getting used to seeing islanders in their clinics. One physician interviewed says practitioners are learning they need to admit Marshallese patients to hospital when they first get an infection. Their immune systems, she says, seem to be compromised.

To better serve Marshallese with their unusual health issues, providers have been gearing up. Medical anthropologist Dee Anna Perez Williams surveyed islanders for Northwest Arkansas Radiation Therapy Institute’s cancer prevention and outreach program.

PEREZ WILLIAMS: One of the main reasons they have migrated to the United States is because of their health. However, ideally, they would like to stay in their homeland. They would like to stay there and make a living, have the health resources, have the educational resources and benefits, because that’s their home.


FROELICH: But for now, these Pacific Islanders are choosing the Ozark Mountains as their home away from home. For Living on Earth, I’m Jacqueline Froelich in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Related link:
Republic of the Marshall Islands information

Back to top


CURWOOD: Next week on Living on Earth – In the 1930s, in a campaign against overgrazing in the west, the federal government wiped out nearly all the Navajo Indian tribe's Churro sheep. But now, Churro sheep are making a comeback and reawakening the central role this animal has played for centuries in Navajo commerce and culture.


MAN: The elders, they would bring their grandchildren, you know, and tears would come. ‘These are the true sheep, these are the real sheep, where have these come from?’ And questions, ‘Can we get some?’ The interest was just overwhelming.

CURWOOD: The return of the Churro, next time on Living on Earth.


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


ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science; and Stonyfield Farm. Organic yogurt and smoothies. Stonyfield pays its farmers not to use artificial growth hormones on their cows.. Details at Stonyfield dot com. Support also comes from NPR member stations, the Ford Foundation, Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, and the Saunders Hotel Group of Boston's Lennox and Copley Square Hotels. Serving you and the environment while helping preserve the past and protect the future, 800-225-7676.

ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth