Unnatural Disaster in New Orleans

One of the Worst Storms on Record Unleashes Toxic Cocktail in Flood Waters

Feature story - August 29, 2005

Hurricane Katrina, one of the largest and strongest storms on record, caused massive devastation to New Orleans and surrounding areas in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. Part of a growing trend, scientists have been predicting a greater intensity for hurricanes as a result of global warming.

In fact, a study published in the journal Nature, notes the accumulated power of hurricanes has more than doubled in the past 30 years. Kerry Emanuel, a climatologist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and author of the study writes, "My results suggest that future warming may lead to an upward trend in tropical cyclone destructive potential and - taking into account an increasing coastal population - a substantial increase in hurricane-related losses in the 21st century."

Meteorologists have called Katrina one of the most powerful storms on record. New Orleans, which sits 10 feet below sea level, experienced some of the most significant damage, with a storm surge of 20 feet flooding the city and submerging up to 80 percent of the buildings and homes.

Adding Insult to Injury

But the danger to New Orleans and surrounding areas isn't over now that the storm has passed. Following the massive storm surge, the chemical plants in this part of the country, known as "Cancer Alley," also flooded, releasing untold amounts of toxic poisons into the region's waterways and impacting flooded homes and water supplies as well. Standing water of up to 20 feet in some areas exposed local homes to toxins such as chlorine, vinyl chloride, gasoline, and used motor oil.

Tests by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have already revealed high levels of lead in the floodwaters.

The entire region faces severe air and water pollution. "We're talking about an incredible environmental disaster," says Ivor van Heerden, deputy director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center.

In Mobile, Alabama, an oil rig was knocked off its platform by the storm and slammed into a bridge. It is still too early to assess the damage to other rigs and underwater pipelines, but production in the area has been halted, and gas prices around the nation are soaring as a result. Meanwhile, oil tankers, gas stations, and refineries damaged by flooding are contributing to the toxic waste spilling into the region.

Experts have warned about the potential storm risk to New Orleans for years, and the city's levee system is now only worsening the impact of the storm, by keeping flood waters inside the city, with nowhere to drain. The result will be a lake of toxic chemicals, gas and storm debris. "So, we're looking at a bowl full of highly contaminated water with contaminated air flowing around and, literally, very few places for anybody to go where they'll be safe," according to van Heerden.

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