Hurricane Katrina's Environmental Impact

This article was published by Newsletter, issue #11, .

During the last days of August 2005, the tropical storm named "Katrina", having reached hurricane strength, struck the southern coast of the United States, and began cutting a 125-mile swath of death and destruction from coastal Alabama to New Orleans. Having such a heavy concentration of people, industry, and American culture, the damage to New Orleans was especially severe. This was exacerbated by the fact that much of the city is below sea level, with only a few levees separating it from the Gulf of Mexico. Unlike the people of Holland, who have had centuries of experience in reclaiming land from the ocean, the residents of New Orleans were clearly and sadly unprepared for the failure of any of those levees — particularly as the pump stations were obviously vulnerable to disablement due to flooding.

The full extent of the hurricane's ecological damage may never be known. But as people all over the world contribute to the ongoing relief efforts, one unfortunate repercussion may be unavoidable: The millions of gallons of sea water that flooded into the city, have become badly contaminated, after mixing with and decomposing the numberless human and animal victims of the disaster — in addition to incalculable amounts of trash and unprocessed sewage. Officials are not yet certain as to whether the flood water contains toxic chemicals, but they have confirmed that it contains E. coli. Authorities are stating that there is no way to treat such a vast amount of polluted water. So what will be done with it? Unfortunately, it's going to get dumped straight back into the Gulf of Mexico. This is but one element in the overall environmental destruction resulting from Katrina.

Yet there is a silver lining to the tons of sea water stirred up and forced into New Orleans and its environs, regardless of how minor it may be thought relative to the loss of human life. In this case, that light at the end of the tunnel is the ultraviolet light emitted by varieties of sea life that have never before been seen and catalogued by oceanographers. These newly discovered forms of life include fish that produce their own light, as well as a previously unknown variety of squid that grows up to at least six feet in length. Because these ocean dwellers typically live more than 1800 feet below the surface of the Gulf, ocean researchers are delighted to have this opportunity to study these creatures — truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, at least, the researchers may only hope.

As the oceanographers and other scientists learn more about the life forms with which we share this planet, it may give us time to think again about the load that we are putting on that planet by artificially enabling human settlements of otherwise uninhabitable areas, and the incalculable environmental impact of the human-borne technological hurricane.

Copyright © 2005 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.
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