After the Deluge: Building climate justice from the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina

New Republic, June 25, 2015, By Alexander Zaitchik

"The Turkey Creek section of Gulfport, Mississippi, a predominantly African-American neighborhood of century-old shotgun houses and one-story cottages surrounded by pine forest and freshwater marsh, is a small place with a long history of what people today would call 'environmental challenges.'

In 1906, for example, the Gulf Coast Creosote Company constructed a wood processing plant directly adjacent to the wooded waterway that gives Turkey Creek its name. Eighty-two years later, in 1988, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shut down the plant and designated it a hazardous waste site under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, requiring the plant owners to take 'corrective action' to treat, store, or dispose of toxic materials. In 1957, the state located a Mississippi Power coal plant less than two miles from Turkey Creek, at the convergence of Bayou Bernard and the Biloxi River. After a long struggle led by the NAACP, Sierra Club, and local grassroots groups, the plant burned its last piece of coal this April and switched to gas. During the Vietnam war, containment of a stockpile of Agent Orange at the Naval Construction Battalion Center in Gulfport was breached; the defoliant migrated from the site via the area’s deep storm ditches and contaminated the Turkey Creek basin. In 1982, a massive chemical explosion at the nearby Plastifax Corporation left behind a superfund site. 'It lifted the entire house while I was on the living room floor playing Atari with my cousins,' Derrick Evans, a Turkey Creek native, environmental organizer, and civil rights educator, told me.

One subtler, but potentially more damaging, threat to the area stems from the convulsive expansion that Gulfport has undergone. This formerly sleepy seaside town has transformed itself in recent decades into an overbuilt, under-infrastructured, traffic-choked, gambling-boat-fueled, post-modern exurban object lesson. Turkey Creek has suffered more than most. The wetlands in and around the neighborhood have endured 'progress,' as defined by the sprawling subdivisions, light industrial enterprises, strip malls, and bedroom communities that make up modern-day Gulfport. In 2001, the Mississippi Heritage Trust named Turkey Creek to its list of the state’s ten most endangered historic places. 'Gulfport is a giant textbook of incompatible land use,' Evans said. 'I mean, there’s a waste-water treatment facility in the middle of a city golf course.' (Gulfport South Wastewater Treatment Facility is situated in the Bayou Vista Golf Course, directly opposite the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport.)

Perhaps the most tragic consequence of this unchecked development is increased flood vulnerability, all along the Gulf Coast, but felt most acutely in low-income African-American neighborhoods. 'When I was a girl, the streets and ditches would fill up with water during storms, but the wetlands absorbed much of it,' Rose Johnson, a lifelong Gulfport resident and the first black president of the Mississippi Sierra Club, told me. 'Wetlands are crucial for poor communities with aging sewer lines and drainage, no sidewalks, pollution from industrial plants, and other bad development.'

The damage wrought on Gulfport in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina represented a collection of the unpaid civic and social debts rung up during this extended period of irresponsible growth. The storm turned large swaths of this small coastal city into an inland sea. Floodwaters cut the roads and washed away bridges. Among the areas hardest hit by the 25-foot storm surge and flooding was Turkey Creek. More than half of the community’s 50 homes flooded to the rafters. The winds removed a dozen roofs.

The morning of the storm, Evans was in Boston, preparing lecture notes for the fall semester at Boston College, where he was an instructor. Evans has deep roots in Turkey Creek; his family descends from the original eight families of emancipated slaves that founded the settlement in 1866. He knows its history as it evolved through generations, from its origins in the brutal Reconstruction era, through the indignities and violence of state-sanctioned segregation, and into the more recent epoch of embedded bias and municipal disenfranchisement.

So as Evans watched CNN and witnessed the destruction of his hometown, he felt a sinking dread. 'I was certain my mother was dead,' he said. Evans knew the way of things in Gulfport, the South, and, in truth, the rest of the country: Help was going to start with the white neighborhoods, rich first and then poor; and there was no saying when, or if, it would reach Turkey Creek, Turnkey, Old North Gulfport, West Gulfport, Moss Point, East Biloxi, Gaston Point, or any of the African-American neighborhoods in the five linked cities of the Gulf Coast. The same held for the Vietnamese community in Biloxi’s Point Cadet, or any place where the impoverished and people of color—often one and the same—lived. Evans jumped in a car and drove south as fast as he could. ...


...a focus on environmentalism has always been a source of tension among African-American civil rights campaigners: White Americans have historically dominated the membership and staff of the largest environmental groups, which even today remain primarily focused on wildlife and health issues whose import seem removed from the everyday experiences of the urban, the poor, and people of color. ...

The global and all-encompassing causes and effects of climate change have become a bridge across this divide. Just as environmentalists began to consider how habitats and climate intersect with public health and racism, civil rights activists began to see that their interests couldn’t be separated from energy and water policy. Although Evans didn’t use the term that day as he raced to his hometown, what he was thinking of was something called 'climate justice.' A relatively new concept in environmental and civil rights, climate justice emerged at the end of the twentieth century as a way to describe climate change as a global phenomenon with a disproportionate impact on the poor and people of color. ...

Here in the United States, the fundamental tenets of climate justice—equity in disaster planning, relief, and burden sharing—are especially applicable in places like the Gulf Coast, where climate change compounds long and ongoing legacies of racial and economic marginalization. As a result, Hurricane Katrina was, for many Americans, the first introduction to climate justice in both theory and practice: The poor and powerless were more vulnerable to the extreme weather events that increasingly define a warmer, wetter planet than were the wealthy. Five years later, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill decimated the Louisiana and Mississippi fishing industries. 'Katrina and the BP spill exposed a social, environmental, and human rights crisis zone across the Gulf Coastal plain,' said Evans.

A place like Gulfport is indeed a crisis zone, one that exemplifies the specific vulnerability of a single location exposed to harsh elements. But it is more than that: It is a U.S. emblem of a global problem. In Turkey Creek, Evans’s mother survived the storm—barely. One of his cousins, of which he has many—'If you’re black and from Gulfport, there’s a thirty percent chance you are my cousin'—commandeered a submerged 17-foot skiff, plugged it with a pinecone, and began paddling toward the homes on the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare. They rescued more than 20 elderly residents that day, including Evans’s 70-year-old mother and 94-year-old stepfather, whom they found in their single-story shotgun house, up to their necks in murky water. But his concerns about what could have happened to her were no less valid. The Gulf Coast is where the world can see climate justice made plain. ..."

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The Battle for Turkey Creek
“This intimate film tells a gigantic story...It’s about everything that matters in our society.”
Bill Bigelow, Rethinking Schools