Gulf 's Toxic Stew Adds to Crisis for Black Residents
BET, News Report, Mary M. Chapman

Sep 02, 2005 - Weary, anxious and in shock, Thomas Reed is doing the only thing he can do – wait. He's sitting in a hotel room 400 miles from his drowned hometown, fielding calls from worried loved ones, one eye on the TV set.

He can barely believe what he's seeing.

"I have never, ever seen anything like this," says Reed, a Black group insurance salesman who fled New Orleans with his two kids Sunday for Greenville, Miss. "I even see some faces I recognize."

Most of them Black faces.

TV cameras reminded America just how Black New Orleans is, as they showed thousands of African Americans pouring into the Superdome arena for shelter.

Reed lives in the heart of New Orleans, overwhelmingly Black and poor. At least he did. Right now, he doesn't know whether he has a house at all. He has no relatives in New Orleans, but he hates to see what's happening to those left behind.

Jennifer Burns does too. A Tuskegee, Ala., resident, who lived in New Orleans for 30 years, wonders aloud whether friends she knew have survived. But as it turns out, besting the hurricane is just the start. Those who lived face another adversary: floodwaters poisoned by several agents, including raw sewage and toxins from the floating dead.

The toxic soup likely has other ingredients too, nasty by-products of petrochemical plants, industrial sites, oil refineries, storage tank farms, underground gas stations and sewage treatment plants, facilities common throughout the Gulf. Even before Katrina, such by-products had already seriously compromised the soil, air and water in areas heavily populated by impoverished African Americans, says an internationally renowned environmental expert.

"Even when there's no natural disaster Blacks have lived the closest (to these facilities)," says Robert Bullard, founder and director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University. "These issues have been exacerbated by the hurricane. So now you have a combination of things coming together, flooding and the mix of pollutants. A hurricane releases all that stuff.

"Then when you talk about a group of people who lack health insurance and homeowner's insurance, when something like this happens, you know just who is going to be the most vulnerable," says Bullard, who wrote "Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality" (2000, Westview Press).

Going beyond a widely circulated 2002 United Methodist Church report on the increasingly contaminated state of groundwater in rural America, Bullard has called the recurring proximity of hazardous materials plants to impoverished, mostly Black neighborhoods environmental racism.

"Then when something happens like this, most aren't able to pack up and drive 300 miles and buy gas and check into a hotel with no credit card," says the Ware professor of sociology at Clark. "This is a race and class issue."

The southern United States is characterized by “look-the-other-way” environmental policies and giveaway tax breaks, Bullard said in a report presented last year to the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.

"Lax enforcement of environmental regulations has left the region’s air, water and land the most industry-befouled in the United States. The Lower Mississippi River Industrial Corridor has over 125 companies that manufacture a range of products including fertilizers, gasoline, paints and plastics," the report said.

Bullard advises watching to see how rebuilding unfolds in Katrina's aftermath. "It would be great if everything were equal and fair, but we know who gets the royal treatment. If you live across the tracks, you are going to get treated like you live across the tracks. Let's see who gets the levees put back in first.

It's downtown, the French Quarter. It's sure not going to be the neighborhoods," he says.

"If their houses are standing – there's also a lot of public housing – there's going to be mold when they get back. And they have no nest egg, no savings accounts to do anything about it."

Indeed, the 2000 U.S. Census shows that in New Orleans, 11.5 percent of Whites lived below the poverty line, compared with 35 percent of Blacks. In Mobile, Ala., another hard hit area, 8.2 percent of Whites were impoverished, compared with 34.7 percent of African Americans. Some 27.3 percent of Blacks in Biloxi, Miss., lived beneath the poverty line, compared with 10.5 percent of White residents. For Gulfport, Miss., it was 11.2 percent for Whites, 29.2 percent for African Americans.

"These are people who mostly work service jobs and who just couldn't get out. But New Orleans is important ... , so it'll get fixed back up," Reed says.

About the latter, Marc Morial agrees. President of the National Urban League, Morial was the mayor of New Orleans from 1994 to 2002. "It has to berebuilt, it just must be saved," says Morial. "It's important to the nation, important to the world.

"But the most immediate thing is to save people's lives; this is catastrophic. Then some people only have enough money for a hotel room for two or three days. From what I'm seeing, it's nearly brought me to tears. There's story after story of pain in all three states.

"This is like Noah's flood."

U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) spoke to BET.com from his home near Jackson, Miss., his phone hooked up to a generator. He arrived in town about a day after Katrina struck. "The one thing that people miss is that a lot of Blacks here don't have their own means of transportation," he says. "So when you say 'evacuate' to a person who doesn't even have a car, what are you saying? Most of these people were not able to go."

And those left behind, he says, may have to deal with toxic stew. "There is no question that if you look at where all these sites are located, irregardless of this occurrence, they tend to be located in low-income, minority communities. Anytime a situation like this is upon us, it exacerbates the dilemma."

As for Reed, he's doing the best that he can.

"I'm just playin' it by ear, basically. Stay here a few more days, see what's goin' on.

"There's not much more I can do."

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