What Katrina revealed

Hurricane Katrina has been, first and foremost, a human disaster -- a seemingly endless tale of suffering marked by lives lost, communities dispersed and families torn asunder. Our hearts go out to the hundreds of thousands of displaced people who are now struggling to piece some semblance of their lives back together.

NRDC is doing all that we can -- as I'm sure you are -- to aid the ongoing relief effort in the Gulf states. We're also contributing our special expertise on oil spills, toxic pollution and drinking water in order to help meet the immediate challenges.

As the flood waters begin receding, Americans are also beginning to gain some much-needed perspective on our fragile place in the natural world. Few events in our lifetime have revealed so dramatically the deep interconnectedness between people and nature.

As an environmental organization, NRDC has a profound obligation to ensure that the environmental lessons of this disaster are not only learned, but that they are heard loud and clear in our nation's capital. Hurricane Katrina destroyed more than human lives and homes. She also blew away a decade's worth of denial about major environmental problems that confront America.

Katrina destroyed the fantasy that we can blithely go on increasing our dangerous dependence on oil -- whether imported or domestic. Our oil-addicted economy is just too vulnerable to supply disruptions, as anyone who filled up their gas tank last week discovered. The solution is NOT to drill and destroy the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- or our beautiful coastlines -- as many in Congress are now suggesting. Drilling in the Arctic would not have any impact on gas prices until 2025, and even then it would only reduce prices at the pump by a trivial 1.5 cents per gallon. Our nation simply does not have enough oil reserves to affect world oil prices. The only way out of this mess is to reduce our appetite for oil by improving the fuel economy of our vehicles (which consume 40 percent of our oil) and by relying on smarter, cleaner and renewable ways to power our economy.

Katrina also exposed the fiction that we can dredge, bulldoze and fill millions of acres of coastal wetlands without paying a price. Wetland ecosystems are Mother Nature's perfect buffer against catastrophic storm surges. Destroy that buffer and you destroy the last line of defense, not only for New Orleans but for a host of other American cities. In this case, as in so many others, what's good for the wildlife of coastal America is also indispensable to its people. We are part of nature.

Katrina demolished the pretense that we needn't reckon with global warming. While no single hurricane can be directly linked to global warming, climate scientists agree that we are entering an epoch of warming oceans, rising sea levels and much more intense storms. We know full well what kind of pollution controls are required to reverse this trend. If we don't act, Katrina will be our future. You can't say she didn't warn us.

Finally, Katrina tore the lid off one of our nation's most shameful truths: that petrochemical plants, toxic waste sites, oil refineries and other industrial threats to human health are most often sited next to low-income minority communities. The rest of America regularly averts its eyes from this injustice. But with the poorest neighborhoods of New Orleans drowning in a hazardous sea of fuel, sewage and chemicals, it's hard not to notice just which of our citizens are paying the ultimate price.

Oil addiction. Wetland destruction. Global warming. Environmental injustice. You're well aware that NRDC has been working for years to awaken America to these terrible problems and to champion urgently needed solutions. But Katrina has changed everything. The public is finally paying attention. And officials in Washington are looking to respond.

Our challenge is making sure our leaders take away the right lessons from this disaster and respond with real solutions, not with the old ways of thinking or business-as-usual giveaways to well-connected industries.

It won't be easy. The Bush Administration and Congressional leaders have spent the last four years digging us ever deeper into a hole of oil dependence, wetland destruction, global warming pollution and environmental injustice. It's unspeakably tragic that it took a deadly hurricane to expose this gaping crater.

There's an old proverb that says, "If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging." Getting our leaders to stop digging will be a tall order. But with more hurricanes sure to follow in Katrina's wake, we have no choice but to dedicate ourselves to the task at hand. As always, NRDC will be counting on your commitment, your support and your activism at every step of the way.


John H. Adams President Natural Resources Defense Council


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September 2005

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