God Bless You, New Orleans

Today marks the 3rd anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Some may say the greatest tragedy in American history, but in my eyes many of the problems Katrina brought to the front page of the newspapers and the top story on your 6 o'clock news were problems that existed years before the flood (previously mentioned here), particularly corruption.

I have spent most of the evening looking through all the contacts sheets from my year working in New Orleans trying to figure out what I might write about for this anniversary post. I have been reliving that year and the experiences and people I met. It is so bitter sweet, never have love and compassion blended so closely with pain and despair. At times I just don't know what to make of it all. My thoughts and feelings on New Orleans are just too complex and layered to really get into in one little blog post where all I am is just another talking head.

But one thing that stands out for me is the environment. Hands down. I never really got what the "environment" was, it was always this abstract thing for me, until I saw what I did in NOLA. It is terrifying that people are returning to live on Superfund sites, oil spills and dangerous proximity to dump sites because they have no other option, no where else to go. Several years from now we are going to start to see the sickness and the health effects that these places will have.

While working in NOLA the more I saw the more curious I became. I was interested in how communities were responding and what was being done to fight back against this environmental injustice. I began documenting the Vietnamese community in New Orleans East and their efforts to shut down plans for a new hurricane debris dump site less than a mile from their neighborhoods, churches, playgrounds and schools, oh, and not to mention in the middle of a wild life preserve (and remember folks NOLA is below sea level so whatever you put in the ground will spread for miles around). The Vietnamese in the East had stopped relying on the government and city years before the flood. As a small minority in the corner of the city limits it was easy for the city to dismiss them. So after Katrina hit, this community didn't expect any help because they knew they would not get any, they relied on each other and worked together to fight Mayor Ray Nagin and Waste Management.

If you dont know or havent heard The Big Easy isnt known for its honest and moral politicians (some might argue with exception to Huey Long). As I documented this story the more twisted and surreal things became. No one wants a dumpsite in their back yard, especially knowing what happened at Agriculture Street after Betsey dumpsite, and community leaders worked together to fight the city on these plans. In the process of this battle a money trail was discovered. What unfolded was a horrifying set of contracts and back room alliances all too close for comfort which through city and state contracts linked politicians, Waste Management, Entergy, The Army Corps of Engineers, The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and The Environmental Protection Agency all in the same circle. When The EPA and LDEQ are connected to Waste Management and Entergy through money trails, contracts and the politicians are sitting back with their feet on the table and looking at each other with a perky little smile and wink of the eye all in on the same joke, it becomes a living breathing nightmare.

However, after many months of protesting, rallying and gaining media attention the community won its battle in the summer of '06 as Mayor Nagin ended plans for a new dumpsite. While this battle was won there are still many more to come for a environmentally safe New Orleans.