Much of the world — including white America — has been shocked by the devastation in New Orleans, and by the ongoing failures it has exposed at every possible level of government. Even normally unflappable TV news anchors and politicians have been moved to outrage, asking why those left behind were mostly black, poor, disabled, elderly. Veterans of the environmental-justice movement, especially those working in New Orleans, are just as appalled — but they are less surprised. Indeed, they’re finding their most chilling fears confirmed.

Evacuees make their way from helicopter to bus.

Photo: FEMA/Win Henderson

For years, these advocates have been telling anyone who’d listen that blacks in New Orleans were far more affected by environmental problems than the white folks in, say, the Garden District — and would be far more vulnerable in a disaster. They’ve long realized a truth that the response to Hurricane Katrina seems to be proving: people in power viewed the city’s poorest residents as, says Robert Bullard, “expendable in some sense.”

Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University and author of the forthcoming The Quest for Environmental Justice, has been leading a research project on official responses to environmental disasters with Beverly Wright, executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. Wright and Bullard say blacks and other people of color are all too often overlooked in such crises.

For instance, last January, in Graniteville, S.C., a train crash released deadly chlorine gas, forcing the evacuation of some 5,500 people; black residents contended that white people were evacuated immediately, while a black neighborhood was not evacuated until hours later. There are hundreds of black farmers, their crops and barns destroyed by tornadoes, who have filed lawsuits against the U.S. Department of Agriculture for failing to grant the relief they say is provided to white farmers; in 1999, the government settled a $2 billion class-action suit addressing claims of discrimination. And after Hurricane Hugo devastated South Carolina in 1989, black victims received less emergency shelter and food assistance than whites in similar situations.

Katrina offered another painfully vivid illustration of the way inequities can pervade government planning for an emergency. Bullard explains that the evacuation strategy for a Gulf Coast hurricane, a long-anticipated event, “did not plan for people who did not have lots of money, do not own cars, the poor, sick, elderly.” (New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who is black, was justifiably — in his own words — “pissed” at the slow federal response to Katrina, but his race hasn’t spared him from criticism over his own failure to plan for his city’s least fortunate citizens.) This critical weakness had been exposed as recently as last year. During Hurricane Ivan, rich, primarily white people fled New Orleans in their SUVs, while the city’s poorest and darkest residents stayed behind. That time, the area was spared as Ivan drifted elsewhere, but many warned that the next storm might not be so merciful.

Louisiana, long a nationally recognized poster child for environmental injustice, has seen such inequities for decades. The 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans is home to more than 140 oil refineries and chemical plants, accounting for one-fourth of the nation’s petrochemical production. Known as Cancer Alley because of the industry’s devastating health effects, the area has been a hub of environmental-justice organizing since the 1980s. Oil and chemical companies in Louisiana have long spewed pollutants in local communities, with little interference from any government agency. That’s what helped to create the toxic broth that now fills New Orleans’ streets, which is going to make cleanup difficult and, according to The New Orleans Times-Picayune, may make much of the city uninhabitable for years. Many houses, now stewing in these poisons, will have to be bulldozed even if their foundations are solid, says Wright.

The no-win situation New Orleans residents found themselves in last week has many antecedents. Wright points to a community in the city that was sited on top of the Agriculture Street Landfill, a Superfund site that closed in the 1960s. When the hurricane hit, the neighborhood’s mostly African-American residents were awaiting a judge’s decision on a request for relocation, a battle they’d been waging for over a decade. A 1999 state report found that residents were exposed to pesticides, metals, and numerous other toxic chemicals; the neighborhood’s breast cancer rate is the highest in the state. “It is ironic that the hurricane has given them what they have been asking for all these years,” Wright says.

For anything hopeful to emerge from the wreckage, New Orleans and Louisiana — as well as the rest of the country — will need representative and functional government, committed to a social safety net and environmental health. “When you ask, where is the history of Louisiana defending itself and its people, it’s just not there,” says Monique Harden, codirector of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, which was based in New Orleans until the hurricane struck. “What Katrina has exposed is decades of benign neglect and racism, which you can’t prettify with a crawfish étouffé. This is the other side of New Orleans.”

Observers predict that economic issues will profoundly affect this legendary city’s future, just as they shaped its past. The rebuilding and cleanup will create jobs, and hold the potential for a massive New Deal-style public-works program, advocates agree. It will be critical to make sure that the city’s poor — those who want to come back — get the jobs, says Daryl Malek-Wiley, an environmental-justice organizer with the Sierra Club who took refuge from the hurricane in Houston, but plans to return to the city. “We shouldn’t allow Halliburton” — which already has a $17 million contract to rebuild naval facilities in Mississippi and Louisiana, and is likely to get far more — “to get millions while people who lived there get nothing.”

Keeping the vultures in check won’t be easy, activists acknowledge. “The economic structure of the city is controlled by old-line wealthy families and corporations,” says Wright, also a New Orleans resident. She points out that because the well-heeled live on higher ground, they will have a much easier time moving back than residents of low-lying, predominantly black communities.

“This may sound cold, but I think the [city’s real-estate developers] are doing a break dance right now,” Wright says. “They are really happy to have us gone.” Wright and others fear that the city could be rebuilt as a massive gentrification project, one with no room for Katrina’s displaced. Of course, that would present a problem for the elites: in a New Orleans “cleansed” of poor people and blacks, where would all the petrochemical waste be dumped? Who would live on top of the leaky, carcinogenic landfills? And who would bear the brunt of the next Katrina?