Hurricane Katrina has destroyed thousands of homes and the lives of millions of people, leaving upward of $25 billion in damages. The most terrifying consequences, however, may be the awareness this natural disaster gives about the pathetic state our country is in with regards to poverty, the environment and cuts in federal funding.
New Orleans has upward of 500,000 people. The Associated Press reported that as many as 100,000 inner-city residents did not have the money, vehicles or alternative housing necessary to evacuate. By relying on the Superdome for emergency housing, the face of poverty, rarely seen in media coverage or talked about by politicians, was brought to the front page of newspapers.
Last year, 37 million Americans, or 12.7 percent of the population, lived in poverty, a number that has consistently risen over the past four years. A Census Bureau report found that 6 million more people lacked health insurance in 2004 than in 2000. The question about what will happen to the poor in the Gulf Region who now face an even more unstable future after the hurricane reflects the pitfalls in how our nation handles poverty. With the face of poverty now too desperate to deny, we need to bring our attention beyond the glamorized visions of wealth and gluttony displayed in MTV shows like “My Super Sweet 16” and instead learn about an issue that has always needed more attention.
Katrina demonstrated, as did last year’s tsunami, how a continued disregard for the environment and global warming has consequences. In studying the levee systems that have protected New Orleans from being swallowed by Lake Pontchartrain, scientists find that they are also responsible for draining the surrounding wetlands. They note that once confronted with a serious storm, the levees would fail and cause the flooding that is now drowning 80 percent of New Orleans. Over the past seven decades, Louisiana has lost more than a million acres of coastal wetlands – making the city of New Orleans even more vulnerable to such natural disasters – since wetlands are a natural barrier to flooding and can slow an approaching hurricane.
Scientists also see Hurricane Katrina as a sign that Mother Nature is taking its revenge on a nation that refuses to adhere to Clean Air Act standards. An analysis by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on global warming stated that since 1970, “major storms spinning in both the Atlantic and the Pacific … have increased in duration and intensity by about 50 percent.” They correlated these trends as “closely linked to increases in the average temperatures of the ocean surface and also correspond to increases in global average atmospheric temperatures during the same period.” It is my hope that we can learn from Katrina that destroying natural habitats does have consequences and the government should rethink the social, economic and environmental costs of political “trade-offs” such as offering tax breaks to high gas-consuming vehicles or drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Reserve.
While there is no way to predict when exactly a hurricane will appear, the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 2001 ranked a major hurricane strike on New Orleans as the No. 3 “most likely, most catastrophic disaster facing the country.” This was only two notches behind the number one concern that fatefully occurred later that year: a terrorist attack hitting New York City. Yet, about two months ago the U.S. government decided to make a $71.2 million cut, or 44.2 percent decrease, in federal funding for the U.S. Army Corps, which can be used to help with natural disasters. This, in conjunction with the fact that 35 percent of the men and women in the Louisiana National Guard are currently deployed in Iraq, forces citizens to decide whether their resources should be spent abroad or at home, and at what cost?
By the time Hurricane Katrina was spotted approaching the Gulf Coast, corporations such as Home Depot pledged millions of dollars to help out after the storm. It is clear that Americans are concerned for this tragedy and people are willing to extend themselves in times of need. But then, why is our country falling to pieces in terms of our commitment to solving poverty and saving the environment? We must ask ourselves: Did the catastrophe occur in the last week due to 160-mile-per-hour winds, or was there already disaster covered up in the ghettos and bayous a long time before Katrina blew through?
To give donations to help Katrina victims visit http://www.redcross.org.
-The writer, a junior majoring in journalism, is a Hatchet columnist.