Five years ago, a natural disaster plus human callousness and ineptitude combined to kill more than 1800 people on the Gulf Coast and plunged an American city into a nightmare from which it has far from fully recovered. Thousands of New Orleanians still live in homesick exile. Four of the hospitals that once served the east side of the city remain permanently closed. Crime is out of control. We had a chance right then, as a nation, to make the catastrophe of 2005 into a flex moment, a window of opportunity not merely to rebuild but rather to go boldly in a new direction, a green trajectory that would restore greater New Orleans and the Katrina-obliterated towns of Mississippi to ecological health with sustainable economies.
But, of course, the Cheney-Bush administration was in office and it had other fish to fry. Once it had completed the botch-job of its immediate response and handed out a few bucks and a few FEMA trailers, it more or less vanished from the scene. As for spurring a move down a green path in a big way, puhleez. Those were the days when the White House was still in its climate-change denier phase. Local politicians suffered their own form of myopia.
This year’s disaster along the Gulf Coast offers us another flex moment. But we can easily ignore this one, too, if we don’t wise up. And you can already taste that unwise attitude in the air. The attitude which says that the roiling gush of oil into the Gulf will probably never spew from that particular well again so we can just do a little more work with the mops and get back to business as usual. Whew! Sure, residual oil in unknown quantities clings to the sea floor, unknown long-term effects may afflict the Gulf’s water-dwelling creatures, unknown damage may be done to those who depend on those creatures for a living, and a hydrocarbons driller or two may screw up another high-tech puncture. But, every day, with the obvious crisis gone - the one with the camera focused on it - these and other problems will capture less and less attention.
We’re told, obviously so, that the immediate tasks in a disaster are to save lives, save livelihoods and prevent bad effects from becoming worse. Emergencies are no time to start rewriting the CPR manual. The problem with this is that emergencies instantly focus our intense attention but, afterward, when the societal adrenaline from the rescue effort ebbs, so does any thorough public pondering or accounting about how the way we live and consume and are organized contribute to creating these emergencies in the first place. What does get studied typically winds up as a 27-recommendation tome collecting dust somewhere, resurrected 10 or 20 years in the future as a curiosity for some columnist to highlight as what-could-have-been.
The possibilities emerging from flex moments such as Katrina and the BP gusher should be pounced on. “Don’t waste a crisis,” said Rahm Emanuel in the best sound bite I ever heard from him. Use this moment to do something big, something transformative for the Gulf, for the people, the ecology, the economy.
Five years ago, I wrote Eco New Orleans: 'A Shining Example for the Whole World', with a slightly different version at Grist. Indulge me as I excerpt a short piece:
Needed is a new city paradigm. Call it Eco New Orleans, a place attuned to the definition of "sustainability" found in the 1987 Brundtland Commission: "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
Not just the city, of course, but the other places blasted by Katrina and Dubyanocchio's five days of indifference. New Orleans doesn't exist in a vacuum, and the Eco New Orleans I'm talking about extends for scores of miles in every direction. …
Eco New Orleans would be even more expensive, take longer, require forming a plethora of public-private enterprises and demand an innovative politics not only to educate communities to the individual and community benefits of an environmentally sound approach, but also to spur them into providing input into how exactly to implement it. To use a phrase from my youth: participatory democracy.
Yes, not only am I asking that we add billions in public investment at a time when our economy is already shaky and undermined by the costs of war, I'm also suggesting that we add another layer or two of difficulty to a recovery that's certain to be time-consuming and contentious. And not just contentious between eco-advocates and those who see the environment as a low priority, but among eco-advocates themselves. …
If, however, we as Americans are unwilling to spend the time and money to rebuild New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast with environmental concerns taking a front seat, then we're as self-interestedly myopic as the Administration that couldn't get its ass out of vacation mode to save people's lives last week.
Of the seven specific, detailed recommendations I made in that piece, exactly zero have come to pass. That doesn’t hurt my ego, it hurts my heart. It wasn’t just the specific recommendations which were ignored – no sympathetic person with political clout read them anyway - but rather the fact that the whole concept of greening the Gulf got such sparse attention.
It could still happen, though. The flex moment created by the gusher has not yet passed. A week from this coming Sunday, President Obama will be in New Orleans to commemorate the fifth anniversary of Katrina. While taking notice of the good things that have come to pass since that terrible August, and the things yet left to be done, and the resilience of the people who have remained, the President ought to announce a bold, new, green restoration-and-rebuild project for the entire Gulf. A project that would rework everything from government regulation of wetlands and the outer continental shelf to new green building standards. A cooperative federal-regional project founded on the idea that government is not the enemy and that environmentally sound does not mean economically harmful. A project with specific objectives, approaches unique to the Gulf as well as others that can duplicated elsewhere.
The Michoud Assembly Plant in east New Orleans would provide the perfect backdrop for such an announcement. That's where a British company will soon be employing 600 people to manufacture wind-turbine blades and components, one of the necessary products of what ought to be our whole nation’s restoration-rebuild-and-rework project.
All the nitty-gritty isn’t needed in the announcement. But the President could make a basic commitment, with major details to come later, but soon.
You could nudge him in that direction with an email message.
Meanwhile, we’ve got another crisis, this one not on our home turf, but about as far away as you get, in Pakistan. Right now, of course, we're in the rescue stage which offers scarce time to green-plan for the long-term needs in that land. But, contrary to popular opinion, whether the place is New Orleans or the Punjab, that planning cannot be put off forever without consequences worse than those already seen.
No Higher Ground: Humanitarian Crisis in Pakistan
One-fifth - 20% - of Pakistan's land mass is now under water: tens of thousands of villages destroyed; more than 1,600 dead, more than 20 million homeless; nearly 14 million without safe water; tens of thousands with cholera and other infections. Those numbers are growing daily.
The World Bank announced a $900 million loan; the EU is donating €70 million; the U.S. has currently committed $90 million. It's nowhere near enough. Experts estimate that the immediate humanitarian disaster requires billions, to say nothing of the additional billions that will be needed to rebuild.
Note: Numerous NGOs are doing important work that may benefit Pakistan indirectly. However, the goal here is direct support, so this list includes only organizations that are actually on the ground in Pakistan. Use due diligence in donating to any unknown group. With those caveats, here are some ways that you can make a difference now:
Direct Relief International: Mobile health teams and medical supplies, including Pedialyte and antimicrobials.
Healing Development Foundation: Relief/reconstruction, including clean water, supplies, disease prevention, sewage disposal, temporary school facilities.
Islamic Relief USA: $2 million Pakistan campaign, including on-ground needs assessments; aid distribution; general relief.
Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders): Medical care; clean water; supply kits, including mosquito netting, tarps, blankets, hygiene supplies, clothes.
Mercy Corps: Water supply kits, including tanks, purification tablets, filtration units; food supply kits, including rice, oil, staples; tool kits.
Oxfam International: Hot food; clean water; boats for search/rescue; installation of tanks and toilets; sanitation kits; hygiene supplies; cash-for-work programs.
Red Crescent: Emergency services; food packs; bulk rice; tents; other supplies; help with field operations, including shelter, water, sanitation, logistics, other relief.
Relief International: Distributing "Survival Kits," including dishes/utensils; water purification tablets; cooking stove; jerrycan; floor mat; mosquito netting; hygiene kits; etc.
ShelterBox: Distributing water carriers; filtration systems; ShelterBoxes, including 10-person partitioned weatherproof tents, insulated ground sheets, thermal blankets, mosquito netting, tool kits, stoves, dishes/utensils, water purification supplies, children's kits, etc.
UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees): Through partner NGOs, distributing tents, sheeting/tarps, cooking sets, buckets, sleeping mats, blankets, etc.
U.S. State Department Texting Program: Forwards $10 donations to UNHCR for distribution of supplies in two provinces; text "SWAT" to 50555.