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Rx for Catastrophe

A book on disaster law and policy urges stronger federal intervention to shore up natural barriers and protect the most vulnerable members of the community.

Three days after Hurricane Katrina plowed into New Orleans, swamping 80 percent of the city, a group of 200 evacuees, most of them African-American, fled the wretched conditions of the Superdome and Convention Center and set out to find food and shelter in Gretna, a nearby white working-class suburb.

When the evacuees arrived at the Crescent City Connection, a highway bridge that offered one of the few escape routes out of the flood, they were greeted by a line of white Gretna police officers who fired their shotguns into the air. Gretna, the police told the crowd, was “closed.”

This dramatic standoff, now the subject of a tangle of lawsuits, was not an anomaly: It had happened before, says Robert R.M. Verchick, the author of Facing Catastrophe: Environmental Action for a Post-Katrina World, a compelling recent book on disaster law and policy.

During the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, steamboat captains refused to take black sharecroppers to safety, even as black men were hunted down through floodwaters and conscripted into levee gangs. After the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, white residents stoned Japanese Americans, looted Chinatown and barred re-entry to the Chinese who had fled the wreckage. And in the aftermath of the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 in California, the residents of Watsonville, a city with a great number of Latino farm workers, were left homeless the longest.

“Perhaps what is surprising about Gretna is that such callousness could take place in 21st-century America,” Verchick says. “But if disasters teach us anything, it is that a people should never consider itself immune.”

Read the book

Facing Catastrophe: Environmental Action for a Post-Katrina World
By Robert R. M. Verchick
Harvard University Press, $45

A Katrina survivor himself, Verchick is on leave from his job as a professor of environmental law at Loyola University in New Orleans to serve in the Obama administration. His book makes a powerful case for reshaping federal laws and policies in order to better protect wetlands, forests and rivers — what Verchick calls “green infrastructure” — and to ensure that the poor and all those living “on the wrong side of the ecological tracks” receive special attention when disaster strikes.

Three simple maxims for disaster preparation and recovery — “Go Green; Be Fair; and Keep Safe” — should be a guide for government, Verchick says. His book was written before last year’s earthquake in Haiti, oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and floods in Pakistan, but Verchick frames the lessons of Katrina as universal.

The term “natural” as applied to disasters is a misnomer, he says. Some of the damage can almost always be traced back to failures of engineering, bad land-use planning or a chaotic emergency response. And despite what the media says, earthquakes and floods are not “social equalizers” that affect the rich and poor alike.

“Catastrophe is bad for everyone, but it is especially bad for the weak and the disenfranchised.”

As deputy associate administrator at the Washington, D.C., Office of Policy, Economics, and Innovation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Verchick is now an insider in his quest to make government more accountable. It’s not charity that people need after a disaster, he says in Facing Catastrophe: It’s justice, in terms of the social contract between a government and its citizens. There should be no disagreement about protecting the poor from cyclical storms or shoddy levees.

“For nearly 100 years, that has been as basic a duty as protecting our shores from military invasion,” Verchick says. “That our leaders stripped such basic security from us — without any notice or even debate — is cause for alarm and should be a source of deep shame.”

Facing Catastrophe opens with an imaginary tour through a Louisiana bayou. Verchick calls attention to the thickets of live oaks dripping with Spanish moss and the mucky brown-green water dotted with bits of leaves and thick as “a tureen of lentil soup.” As he paddles along, he points out the green herons, snapping turtles and alligators.

“All of this looks like wilderness, but it’s not,” Verchick says. Farming, logging, fishing, oil and gas exploration and real estate development have carved up the swamps and wetlands of Louisiana into a maze of channels. The marshlands act as vast sponges that soak up tropical storms, but, starved of water and nutrients, they are eroding into the sea at the rate of 30 square miles per year. From a canoe, the bayous may seem to be thriving, but from a plane, they look like “green shag carpet being eaten by a Pac Man.”

Wetlands, Verchick says, are “green infrastructure” cheaper and stronger than artificial barriers and just as worthy of investment as airports or roads. Wetlands can act as “meteorological speed bumps” that block the punch of big storms, not only at the mouth of the Mississippi but also on the deltas of the Nile, Mekong and Yangtze rivers. Half the world’s population lives along a coast. But left to market forces, the coast is being continually degraded for economic gain.

“A high price leads to judicious use and perhaps conservation,” Verchick says. “A low price leads to gluttony. In traditional markets, “nature is worth more dead than alive.”

But there are grounds for hope. In New Orleans, Katrina has helped temper the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ love affair with concrete. The corps, whose levees failed spectacularly to protect the city in the summer of 2005, is now committed to a strategy of multiple lines of defense for the Louisiana coast, one that would replace lost wetlands and build up barrier islands in addition to building levees. Spanning hundreds of miles, it may be the largest effort to reclaim a coast for storm protection in the world, and it will take a generation to complete.

“The good news is that public awareness of the problem is at an all-time high,” Verchick says. “… For the first time, the federal government may be getting serious about restoring the coast, understanding that it will take billions, not millions of dollars.”

Still, there is much more to be done. The U.S. needs a new federal agency solely devoted to flood control, Verchick says, one that emphasizes natural restoration and environmental protection and has the funding to carry out its mission. A “green tax” should be levied on the oil and gas industry to restore the coast it helped dismantle. Property owners who incur storm damage caused by man-made wetland loss should be allowed to sue the guilty parties.

Wilderness, Verchick says, is “the least protected domain in American property law.”

Verchick’s single-minded focus on the “services” provided by the natural environment is occasionally jarring, as if marshland had no higher value than for flood protection. But his discussion of the disproportionate suffering of the poor during disasters is eye-opening and eloquent.

Reviewing the history of New Orleans’ shoddy levees and bungled emergency response to Katrina, including the manner in which hundreds of thousands of people, many of them poor African-Americans, were permanently displaced in cities throughout the nation — the largest involuntary migration in America since the Dust Bowl — Verchick shows how the heaviest burdens of a catastrophe are borne by the people with the least power.

It’s a worldwide pattern. During the Kashmir earthquake of 2005 and the Latur earthquake of 1993 in India, many more women died than men because more women were at home. After Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar in 2008, an estimated 134,000 people were believed to be dead or missing, victims in part of a dictatorship that simply didn’t care. The Myanmar government had no relief plan for a major cyclone and, in the aftermath, denied access to international aid workers. The Karens, the largest minority group in the region, were reportedly left behind while ethnic Burmese were ferried to safety in the storm.

In the U.S., Verchick says, the hurricane belt of the Gulf and southern Atlantic states has a racial character because of the large number of heavily black counties and parishes along the coast. The areas damaged by Katrina in New Orleans proper were 75 percent black. Historically, African-Americans were shunted to the low-lying, flood-prone parts of town. National hurricane policy is an African-American issue, Verchick says.

“As any native Orleanian will tell you, ‘Water flows away from money,’” he says.

After Katrina, the Bush administration refused emergency funds for public sector salaries, and 3,000 city employees were fired. Three historic federal public housing buildings were demolished. At the same time, lucrative contracts for rebuilding were awarded to Halliburton, Bechtel Corp., and Blackwater USA without going out for bids.

America should shore up its health and safety laws to help the poorest members of society recover from the shock of a catastrophe, Verchick says. The Superfund should be replenished to speed up toxic cleanups and prevent spills during floods. Evacuation plans should be drawn up in consultation with poor communities. Congress should consider legislation to guide compensation funds for disaster victims. And the president, Verchick says in the book, should issue an executive order on disaster justice, one that would hold all federal agencies accountable for protecting the poor, the young, the elderly, the disabled and the undocumented against conditions that put them at special risk.

In Facing Catastrophe, Verchick describes the jazz funeral that was staged during Carnival in New Orleans in 2005 to commemorate the lives lost in Katrina, more than 1,800 in all. There was a dirge-like march from the church to the cemetery, and then, after burial, came the “second line” with its scream of trumpets, syncopated percussion and high-stepping dancers with swooping feathers.

“The idea is timeless: Death is loss and death is sad; but out of death comes hope (that ‘thing with feathers,’ as Emily Dickinson wrote) and the promise of a brassy resurrection,” Verchick says. “This book celebrates the beginning of that second line.”

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