“This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.”
This past week we remembered the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. She took nearly two thousand lives, caused billions of dollars in damage, left many people homeless, and permanently altared the landscape of the Gulf Coast both in terms of its physical attributes but also in terms of its economy, its exposure of long simmering racial tensions, and recovery efforts that, largely, left the poor of New Orleans behind.
Some areas of the City of New Orleans have certainly benefited and ten years on, newly gentrified neighborhoods are once again thriving. Others of those, lucky enough to have escaped the flooding, have found that they are unable to return to their homes, due to a lack of employment opportunities that disappeared with the storm. As a result, they lack the financial ability to repair or replace the homes that were either severely damaged or washed away. They have become economic refugees permanently exiled from the city.
I’ve read accounts this week of how much better students are performing over scores from ten years ago, but what isn’t covered in most media accounts is how dramatically demographics in school populations have changed and how, after all of the public school teachers were fired, a network of charter schools sprang up. Charter schools typically maintain a highly selective admissions policy designed to keep test scores up. Adding insult to injury, the poor were once again marginalized.
In the second paragraph of Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si, he says, “This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.” A major reason why New Orleans suffered the tremendous devastation she did was of what happened to the natural buffer of the coastal wetlands. Here are a few facts:
Louisiana contains approximately 40% of the nation’s wetlands and experiences 90% of the coastal wetland loss in the lower 48 states.
60% of Louisiana’s land loss occurs in the Barataria and Terrebonne basins
Louisiana is losing 25 to 35 square miles of wetlands per year and the highest rates are occurring in the Barataria and Terrebonne basins at 10 and 11 square miles per year.
At current land loss rates, nearly 640,000 more acres, an area nearly the size of Rhode Island, will be under water by 2050.
What has caused this deterioration and the resultant devastation of America’s largest port city? Man. He has been creating havoc on the Gulf Coast for some time. It began with the introduction nutria, a type of burrowing of rodent, for the fur trade. Then came rising sea levels, due to world wide climate change, which science can now attribute to human activity. However, today there are two primary causes of the deterioration of these important areas, the first is the decision to “straightjacket” the Mississippi River in between a series of levees. While the levees do protect communities, economic infrastructure and croplands from flooding, the river can no longer supply the Delta with its life sustaining sediments. This has its own negative effect on the economies of fishermen and shrimpers. The second reason is the creation of thousands of miles of shipping channels for the oil and gas industry which have altered the natural hydrology and changed the salinity of the wetlands. This change in salinity has ultimately destroyed protective vegetation which allows subsidence of the land. With subsidence of the land, comes the destruction of the natural barrier that once protected New Orleans. This allows hurricanes, which are becoming ever more powerful, to exert a much more devastating blow.
At the root of the majority of this destruction is man’s greed. The oil and gas industry in particular can be singled out. Koch, BP, Halliburton, Exxon, et al have profited immensely from the exploitation of these natural resources but have not been required to pay any of those profits back toward the restoration of the coastal wetlands. After the Macondo well explosion, and resultant oil spill, a paltry fine was levied against BP to clean-up visible damage and reimburse individuals for lost revenue but it did not altar significantly the way they do business.
It is the moral responsibility of the Corporations who profit the most from this extraction to shoulder the burden of restoring the coastal wetlands, of remediating the damage caused by the creation of shipping channels, and of ensuring the future safety of the people who live along the Gulf Coast. It is our moral responsibility to hold them, and our elected officials, accountable.