Five Years After Katrina: Lessons Still Not Learned

By Benjamin Todd Jealous, NAACP President and CEO

Cross Posted from TheGrio.Com

Ms. Sadie is an African-American woman who was born and raised in Pointe a la Hache in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana. When Hurricane Katrina struck five years ago she lost the only home she had ever known. Due to a series of administrative and procedural gaffes, Ms. Sadie is still living in the trailer assigned to her by FEMA after the storm. In April of this year when the Gulf oil disaster occurred, Ms. Sadie watched her entire community crumble under the devastating weight of economic and cultural loss.

Now as she looks out of the window of her trailer, she sees fishermen just meandering about because their place of work has been defiled and many weren't even afforded the chance to engage in the "vessels of opportunity" program. Ms. Sadie and her community embody the conundrum faced by coastal dwelling communities and beyond-- the interconnectedness of cause, effect, impact, and response to climate change.

Five years after Hurricane Katrina, we are still failing to absorb the lessons that Katrina and the multiple subsequent disasters should be teaching us. US over-dependence on fossil fuels is wreaking deadly short and long term destruction, and we've only seen the tip of the impact.

Not only is our excessive fossil fuel use driving climate change, but it is also directly affecting the health and well-being of millions of people right now. In the lead-up to Earth Day the NAACP Climate Justice Initiative conducted an investigation of the communities surrounding the nation's most toxic coal fired power plants. In city after city we discovered elevated rates of respiratory illnesses in communities surrounding those plants. In 2001, a Harvard School of Public Health study estimated the Fisk and Crawford plants in Chicago, two of the plants visited during our investigational tour, are responsible for 2,800 asthma attacks, 550 emergency room visits and 41 early deaths every year.

Since the Earth Day investigation, we have continued to see the hazardous nature of working in the coal industry through the numerous fatal accidents resulting in 29 deaths in West Virginia, 2 in deaths in Kentucky, and then, most recently, there is the oil drilling disaster that has stolen the lives of 11 workers and robbed thousands of their livelihoods and culture.

Irrefutable evidence has been presented by scientists globally establishing the causal relationship between the extreme emissions of greenhouse gases--through burning of fossil fuels--and the advancement of climate change.

Due to climate change, we have seen more severe disasters and accompanying loss of life and wellbeing in these past few years than ever before from hurricanes Katrina, Ike, and Rita domestically, as well as flooding in Tennessee and the most recent flooding tragedies in Pakistan and China.

Though all will experience the impact of climate change, not everyone is equally affected. Communities of color and low income communities in the US, as well as countries in the global south face the first and worst effects of climate change. Compounding the sense of injustice is the fact that proportionately communities of color emit less than the general population and countries in the global south emit far less than countries in the global north.

Yet it is African-Americans who disproportionately live in coastal communities most vulnerable to disaster and urban areas most affected by heat, Native Americans whose lands and health are defiled by processing of fossil fuels, and countries in the global south that are ravaged by disaster, displaced by rising sea levels, and starved by drought, who suffer the most.

Those in decision making positions have failed to provide regulations to protect communities and prevent climate change on the front end and then when disaster strikes, they fail to adequately respond and, in the case of Katrina, five years later thousands remain displaced as the "road home" is yet unpaved.

Policymakers are smart and there is no logical reason for the ongoing failure of many of them to make these obvious connections. The problem is that they have too little stake in making these links because corporate and wealthy special interests--who want to maintain the status quo--often control the state of play in policy making arenas. We must change this picture for what are all too often low-income and communities of color who stand to lose the most, particularly in the near term, and for the sake of the planet as the impacts will be increasingly far reaching and pervasive.

Without a shift in how energy policies are made and by whom, our disastrous trajectory toward peril will be unabated. We must eliminate civic disenfranchisement and ensure that most affected communities have seats at decision making tables where their fates are being determined. We must put people over profits and ensure that toxic and dangerous industries are regulated to eliminate pollution and damaging effects on communities and the environment. We as a nation must drastically reduce consumption and significantly lessen our disproportionate contribution to the global toll of greenhouse gases. We must make the shift to renewable and safe energy sources. Therefore we will continue to see the increase in frequency and severity of extreme weather events.--we need a disaster response that works for all. We cannot afford another Katrina and the world should not continue to suffer such loss due to the excesses of a wealthy few.

This October 2nd people will gather from all across the nation in Washington DC to demand jobs and justice. We know that green jobs are not just a pathway to economic recovery but to the environmental justice that will sustain our communities and our planet.