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Conflicting interests complicate New Orleans' rise from the rubble

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A veteran in the fight for environmental justice on the battlefields of New York's Love Canal and Louisiana's Cancer Alley, Beverly Wright now finds herself in a struggle to reclaim her own land in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Wright, executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, described in words and pictures the devastation wreaked by Katrina on New Orleans—a community already divided by race and class—and how this division is playing out in the hurricane's aftermath in both predictable and disappointing ways, Wright said Jan. 16.

Her talk, "Surviving Katrina: the Interplay of Race and Class," was sponsored by the School of Natural Resources and Environment and the School of Social Work as part of the MLK Symposium. Prior to taking the podium Wright was recognized as an original member of the Michigan Coalition—an ad hoc group that advised William Reilly during his tenure at the Environmental Protection Agency. Wright was among the first to conduct research on environmental problems mainly affecting African Americans and their communities.

Adopting the song "I Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans"—that speaks to missing the city "each day and night," and it being "where you left your heart"—Wright described her continuing love for the Gulf Coast city, its sites and smells. She also described a city that, pre-Katrina, was 70 percent African American, with all major political offices held by African Americans, a sizable black middle class and an even larger lower-middle and working class.

"Many of these people are poor but not pitiful," she said. "These folks have learned to live on a little, and they know how to make little things special. Many own their homes." New Orleans had an extremely high poverty rate—35 percent, of which 80 percent were African American, many working in the low-paying tourist industry, she said.

Issues such as maintaining residency requirements for police officers and the state takeover of the troubled school system have led to further racial polarization. "Schools were failing across the state, so the takeover of New Orleans schools raised questions," Wright said.

As an environmentalist Wright pointed to the failures of the levee system as the primary cause of the flooding of 108,000 households that were hit with more than four feet of water. She said that New Orleans has one of the world's best pumping systems, studied by engineers and planners from other vulnerable areas such as Venice, Italy, and the Netherlands—areas that have sophisticated systems to hold back water.

Said Wright, "They studied our pumping system but we didn't study Venice or the Netherlands so our city could be protected."

Wright showed pictures of mountains of debris, and described the hazardous waste, toxic contamination and health threats left by Katrina, especially in the Black sections of the city—New Orleans East, where Wright grew up and lives, and the Lower Ninth Ward. Wright said these areas contain middle class as well as poor working class neighborhoods of homeowners who want to reclaim their property, and are willing to clean up the contaminated muck if the levees are fixed.

New Orleans East and the Ninth Ward, however, currently are under a building moratorium due to contamination and officials are unwilling to waive regulations to allow property owners to clean up their land, she said.

"This is the first time since the 60s that we can truly say that race matters," she said, "because we're talking about areas that are occupied by Black people."

The residents do have a hope of reclaiming their land, but it conflicts with a more comprehensive plan that essentially would eliminate the two areas as they were, displacing thousands of people and depriving them of their homes, Wright said.

Wright declared her intention to join neighbors to fight against the larger plan, to rebuild her house and neighborhood and reclaim the New Orleans she loves.

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