Katrina gives New Orleans chance to turn green

OPINION - I was visiting my mother in the 9th Ward of New Orleans just days before Hurricane Katrina hit. My mother lost everything she had.

By chance, I was visiting my mother in the 9th Ward of New Orleans just days before Hurricane Katrina hit. We drove to safety before the storm arrived, but the house where I grew up was decimated by flooding, and my mother lost everything she had.

In the days immediately following, America saw that the neighborhoods under water were largely low-income neighborhoods, and the people hardest hit were poor and minority residents, many who had no way out of the city before the storm. People watching at home witnessed first hand how some of our most vulnerable populations are affected by environmental destruction.

But the truth is that environmental challenges plagued New Orleans well before Katrina, and many of them intensified the damage of the storm. Prior to Katrina, New Orleans led the nation in the amount of hazardous industrial waste generated per person. In the storm, much of that waste broke free and became the toxic sludge flooding our streets.

Natural buffers created by marshes and wetlands had been destabilized by siltation, and cut by oil and gas lines. As a result, the city was unprotected from the destructive force of the storm. The people who bore the brunt of that destruction – like those living in the 9th – had little voice in the debate about preserving those wetlands in the years before.

The place where I grew up is like many other places in America today. The burdens of pollution and environmental degradation fall disproportionately on low-income and minority communities. People battle asthma, cancer and other diseases linked to toxins and other chemicals in the air, land and water. Economic opportunities are severely limited because no business wants to invest and bring jobs to a community where pollution is rampant.

The Environmental Protection Agency has made it a priority to broaden the conversation we’re having on environmental issues, and give a voice to every community. We want to aggressively confront the health problems and economic barriers created by environmental degradation, and help struggling communities build new foundations for prosperity. It’s important that everyone sees his or her stake in a clean environment, and that it doesn’t take another natural disaster to move us to action.

Four years after Hurricane Katrina, rebuilding New Orleans has focused on making the city cleaner and more sustainable, and tapping the potential of a growing clean energy industry. People are building efficient homes, riding hybrid buses, installing solar panels and working in green-collar jobs. Many current and former residents, including my mother, are passionate advocates for restoring coastal wetlands.

Having lost so much to Katrina, it is heartening to see that reconstruction is doing more than just building on top of the old. It is strengthening the environmental health of the area. There is still a long, long way to go, but I am hopeful that, by understanding, addressing and possibly preventing the mistakes of the past, we can give the next generation a chance at a better future.

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