Water in Katrina's Aftermath
The lethal cost of inadequate public water management was indisputable this summer when Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast wiping out some of the levees built to protect the city of New Orleans. Tragically, it could have been avoided if federal government had made public welfare a priority over private interests.
The Trend Against Public Welfare
In 1995 after six people died in flooding in Louisiana, Congress approved the Southeast Flood Control Project, SELA. For eight years the government allocated $430 million to the Army Corps of Engineers to build structural supports to the levees. But in 2003, funding sharply dropped, leaving the project unfinished and the city of New Orleans in dire risk. The Army Corps tied the funding loss to a redirection of aid to Homeland Security and the war in Iraq.
Despite the drop in funding, the Corp continued to request at least $250 million they estimated was necessary to build up the sinking levees thereby avoiding catastrophe should a category four or five Hurricane hit. Ignoring these warnings, President Bush in 2004 proposed spending less than 20 percent of what the Corp said they needed.
In the days and weeks following Katrina, the crisis-oriented media spotlighted the issues of public water systems and the ensuing public health disaster in the Gulf Coast region as its main event. Certainly the story brimmed with calamitous data.
• Drinking water facilities were contaminated.
• Many of Louisiana’s 317 Public Owned Treatment Works were non-operational.
• E. coli levels were greatly elevated.
• Floodwaters threatened the health of anyone who came in direct contact with them.
• High levels of lead, arsenic, barium, thallium chromium, petroleum derivatives benzene and toluene, and a pesticide ingredient found in Agent Orange were all detected in floodwaters.
Nearly every hour, the networks repeated footage of citizens wading through the streets of their communities and languishing under the punishing sun without drinkable water. Americans were outraged at FEMA’S ineptitude. It appeared that the country was poised for a public dialogue regarding water infrastructure, lack of government regulations, public health, and water safety. Instead, the mainstream media redirected the energy of the populace to charitable donations for victims. To the great relief of the White House, the media crisis receded more quickly than the floodwaters of New Orleans.
Privatizing the Crisis
What emerged was business as usual for the Bush administration who, in conjunction with FEMA, awarded reconstruction contracts to the Halliburton subsidiary, Kellogg Brown & Root. (Vice President Dick Cheney is a former head of Halliburton.) FEMA also granted Bechtel National Inc. a contract to provide interim housing for victims of the hurricane. (Bechtel is tied to President George W. Bush through former campaign manager, Joe Allbaugh who was a lobbyist for Bechtel.)
The government-funded awards were granted with little to no bidding. In the first six weeks following Hurricane Katrina, fewer than 33% of reconstruction contracts were awarded to local construction firms. The Bush administration sweetened the pot for its cronies when the president suspended the Davis-Bacon Wage Rule in Katrina effected areas. Suspending Davis-Bacon meant corporations could slash minimum wage requirements and hire nonunion workers. In a region financially devastated by natural disaster, stealing jobs from local businesses and cutting the standard wage for construction workers only multiplied the economic misery of the Gulf Coast community.
The media crisis surrounding Katrina may be gone, but the public crisis isn’t. According to a report by the American Society of Civil Engineers delivered before the Committee on Environment and Public Works of the U.S. Senate in 2002, the nation’s drinking water infrastructure and wastewater treatment plants are in sharp decline. ASCE estimated that drinking water systems alone face an annual shortfall of $11 Billion to replace aging facilities that are near the end of their useful life. Many will not be able to comply with existing and future federal water regulations.
In addition to public water infrastructure, crop-supplying rivers and streams are often contaminated with toxic waste products. American Rivers designated the Colorado River the nation’s most endangered river of 2004 due to radioactive, human and toxic waste. The Colorado irrigates California’s Imperial Valley where most of the country’s winter crops are grown. This river is also the source of drinking water for more than 25 million people across the West.
Unfortunately the Bush administration continues to cut back federal loans to states for clean up of waterways and reconstruction of water system infrastructures. The annually appropriated Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund is only at 66 percent of its 2001 level.
Rising to the Public Crisis
Katrina’s devastation on water infrastructure and public health in the Gulf Coast region shined a momentary spotlight on an even larger catastrophe that waits in the wings. WILPF calls on the collective to act on what Katrina revealed by pressuring the U.S., state and local governments to make water safety their priority.
• Ask public officials to reject the notion of privatization of public water and sewer systems.
• Require congress to stop under-funding public infrastructure facilities.
• Write your state legislators to support bills protecting the state’s freshwater resources.
• Educate your community about environmental justice highlighting the human rights of all people to have clean and safe drinking water that is far removed from toxic dumping sights.
• Contact your local city council to find out what your town is doing to protect and sustain its drinking water supply.
• Organize your community to lobby for better groundwater protection laws and mandatory public updates on water quality from local water suppliers.
“President Restores Davis-Bacon to Katrina-Stricken Areas”
News Room, http://ibew.org/
“EPA Response Activity – October 11- In the Field” Environmental Protection
“New Orleans Levees Not Built for Worst Case Events”
“Did New Orleans Catastrophe Have to Happen?” Times-Picayune,
2002 Report to the 107th Session of the Senate
American Society of Civil Engineers, http://epw.senate.gov
“Firms with Bush Ties Snag Katrina Deals” MSNBC Wire Services
“Hung Out to Dry, Post Katrina Floodwaters Are Dirty, But So Are Other U.S.
Waterways” by Osha Gray Davidson, Grist Magazine