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Keeping Track of Katrina

November 1, 2007 at 10:22 am

Katrina Toy Car

Two years after Hurricane Katrina drastically accelerated the already-in-place systematic marginalization of communities of color on the Gulf Coast, those communities are still fighting for a just and sustainable recovery, while also creating innovative work that combines environmental, social, and economic justice.

The devastation following Hurricane Katrina, and the government's failure to respond to a disaster affecting a mostly African-American area, is our prime contemporary example of environmental racism. Communities affected were already working for social change and address environmental injustice before the hurricane. Now, the work continues, but the problems are greatly exacerbated.

Environmental racism is an issue we cannot ignore, explains Rosina Philippe of Grand Bayou Community United, a grassroots group in an Atakapa and Creole fishing village. "If it doesn't affect you today, it'll affect you tomorrow, personally or economically. We have to start thinking globally, and get away from 'them and us.'"

Reading about communities' response to the disaster, two years later, is both powerful and disturbing. Somehow, Katrina has been all but forgotten and the Gulf Coast left behind. How should environmentalists respond to Katrina, two years later?

The Gulf Coast holds valuable lessons for environmentalism about diversity within the movement and about the power of underprivileged communities fighting injustice at the grassroots level. As Derrick Evans, director of the Turkey Creek Community Initiatives, an African-American community grassroots group, says:

"It's no secret that environmentalists tend to be overwhelmingly white, and that many within environmentalism would like to see that change. This is a fantastic opportunity to achieve that change....You've got readymade environmentalists in these communities of color all along the coast....Environmentalists need to recognize that they cannot fail to have this region, and the whole Katrina dimensions of it, inform, invigorate, broaden, and redefine environmentalism.

The environmental community would be greatly enriched by coming down here and learning from the incredible people doing fantastic work against enormous odds. If they fail to seize this opportunity, it's environmentalism's loss. Like what we're seeing in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. No one is expecting black people in the Lower Ninth who are struggling to rebuild to be talking about being the nation's first carbon-neutral community, but that's exactly what they're doing. Nobody would think that Turkey Creek residents who are fighting Superfund sites, airport expansion, and urban sprawl would be talking about creating a bird-watching sanctuary, but that is exactly what we're doing."

Photo by Flickr user the voice of eye used under a Creative Commons license.

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