By Farisa Khalid
In 1848, a 29-year-old Walt Whitman traveled from New York to New Orleans with his younger brother Jeff to work at a fledgling newspaper, The New Orleans Crescent. A native New Yorker, young Whitman was intoxicated by the exotic, lush quality of the Louisiana landscape, so new and unfamiliar to his sensibilities. He documented this intoxication in a poem in Book four of Leaves of Grass:
I saw in Louisiana, a live-oak growing,
All alone stood it and the moss hung down from the branches,
Without any companion it grew there uttering joyous leaves of dark green,
And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of myself,
But I wonder’d how how it could utter joyous leaves standing alone there without its
friend near, for I knew I could not…
The famous Louisiana oaks and Spanish moss, the source of so much mystery and beauty, are vanishing before our eyes. Due to excessive logging and drilling, the wetlands of coastal Louisiana are disappearing at a rate of 25 to 30 square miles per year, drastically altering the iconic landscape of the American South. Its visual beauty aside, the coastal wetlands provide an essential natural buffer and shock absorber for the powerful storms that hit Louisiana, “a horizontal levee,” as the author of Facing Catastrophe, Robert Verchick calls it. The terrifying, sheer abundance of storms that hit the Gulf Coast in the past decade—hurricanes Georges (1998), Lili (2002), Ivan (2004), Dennis (2005), and Katrina (2005)—are a testament to the disastrous consequences of human exploitation of the land and its effect on our changing climate.
Robert Verchick’s book, Facing Catastrophe: Environmental Action for a Post-Katrina World, is part environmental policy dialogue, part passionate plea to a complacent global audience. “We should protect ecosystems that shield communities from harm. But we also need to think hard about why those communities are exposed to harm in the first place.” Paraphrasing policymaker Janet Abramowitz of The Worldwatch Institute, Verchick asserts, “We continue to put more people and more buildings in harm’s way and have weakened nature’s ability to mitigate hazards. Equally important is understanding that just as our development choices have made the threats, worse, we have the power to make better choices.”
Verchick is a professor of environmental law at Loyola University and experienced the devastation of Katrina first-hand as an evacuee in 2005. Verchick bases his arguments in part on personal stories that demonstrate the way policymaking is fundamentally rooted in the needs and long-term benefits of its citizens, even if they don’t realize the urgency. Verchick is a skilled writer and tempers difficult, often pedantic, policy jargon with anecdotes that are engaging for any reader. In one of his earlier chapters he recounts a story of how enthusiastic residents of New Orleans, who were displaced by the storm and returned home, began the recovery process after Katrina by planting batches of palms, hibiscus, and oleanders, trying to restore the fragile ecosystem that the hurricane devastated. But the mulch they were using came from the very cypress trees that the Louisiana swamps depend on to anchor its coast and buffer its storms. Companies and consumers abuse resources rather than look for sustainable alternatives contributing to so many long-term environmental problems.
The book is structured into three major sections: “Go Green,” which concerns the vital importance of preserving natural habitats as a buffer for potential storms; “Be Fair,” policy approaches to holding institutions and governments accountable for environmental exploitation; and “Keep Safe,” which cautions us about the global consequences of climate change and stimulating change through grassroots activism.
One of the book’s great strengths is that Verchick extends examples in a larger, overreaching global context. The climate change consequences of Katrina reflect similar outcomes in disasters all over the world. The excessive logging along China’s Yangtze River River basin exacerbated the flood damage in 1998 caused by torrential rains, causing $36 billion in property damage and the loss of more than 4,000 lives. Similarly, the loss of forests in Indonesia contributed to drought and wildfires in 1997, with nearly 10 million hectares, an area the size of South Korea, burned to the ground and air pollution affecting the lives of 70 million people.
The significant climatic disasters of South and Southeast Asia also figure heavily in Verchick’s discussion of how the environmental policy failures of Katrina resonate at a universal level. In 2007, Cyclone Sidr, which pummeled the Bay of Bengal, displaced one million people, taking more than 3,000 lives. Years of logging and deforestation in the dense mangrove forests that line the Chakaria Sundarbans wore away one of the Bay’s natural shock absorbers, leaving the coastal region of southern Bangladesh exposed to the gale storm of the cyclone. Similarly, India’s Godavari delta–along its eastern coast curling along the Bay of Bengal–is being worn away by over farming and soil erosion. In 1999, a so-called super cyclone flooded the delta north of the Godavari, killing some 10,000 people.
Verchick uses these compelling examples to justify his argument for stronger environmental legislation or what he calls, “disaster justice.” Everyone, regardless of income and no matter how vulnerable, is guaranteed safety of their life and property in storms. “We should shore up our traditional laws protecting health, welfare, and the environment. I also call for an executive order on disaster justice that would seek to integrate disaster justice values into the planning of all federal agencies, as well as legislation to govern the use of large-scale compensation funds.” Verchick also tells us the federal government isn’t doing enough and if vulnerable populations are horribly affected by disasters, their country is to blame. Federal policymaking decisions need to shift from minimizing damage after the disaster to solid prevention approaches before a storm occurs. “The bias in favor of current generations at the expense of future generations has to end,” Verchick argues.
Fortunately, Verchick’s book is not all doom and gloom. Through sustained and effective activism and pushing for more informed environmental policies (from the perspective and insight of scientists, climatologists, engineers, and public health professionals), the future might be rosier in terms of how disasters are managed. No one can really prevent a tsunami or hurricane, but how we cope with them can be handled so less people suffer.
Verchick closes one of his early chapters with a metaphor for the possibility of effective environmental policymaking—the New Orleans jazz funeral.
“A special version of that tradition was, in fact, staged during Carnival in 2005 to commemorate the many lives lost to Hurricane Katrina. The jazz funeral has two stages. First there is a melancholy, dirge-like march, from the church to the cemetery. After the internment comes the “second line,” which opens with a scream of trumpets followed by a parade of high-stepping dances, syncopated percussion, and a rainbow of fringed umbrellas and swooping feathers. The idea is timeless: death is loss, and death is sad; but out of death comes hope and the promise of a brassy resurrection. This book celebrates the beginning of that second line.”
Verchick’s message is clear and inclusive: The power for informed decision-making and action lies within all of us.
Farisa Khalid is a World Policy Journal Editorial Assistant Emeritus.
[Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons]