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Race Played Major Role in Hurricane Survival

A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release Sept. 12, 2005

Class and Race Issues Played Major Role in Who Survived Hurricane

Interview with Darryl Malek-Wiley, Sierra Club’s environmental justice staffer in Louisiana, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

Listen in RealAudio: (Needs RealOne player or RealPlayer)

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina's destruction of cities and towns along the Gulf coast, some media outlets have pointed out that the poor and mostly African American residents of New Orleans suffered disproportionately -- with fewer resources to call upon to flee the approaching killer storm. Other outlets have focused attention on looting and violence, painting the whole black community of New Orleans, comprising almost 70 percent of the city's population, of being responsible for their own plight.

The regions hit by the hurricane, including New Orleans, are made up of some of the poorest communities in the U.S. People living in the worst hit areas of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama had incomes $10,000 below the national average, owned fewer cars and had significantly less health insurance coverage than other Americans.

Derrick Malek-Jones is the Sierra Club's environmental justice staffer in Louisiana. He's lived in New Orleans for 20 years, and worked with the city's poor and minority residents to oppose the concentration of pollution-generating industries in their neighborhoods. After being evacuated to Texas, he spoke with Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus about the issues of race and poverty effecting problems with evacuation and the task ahead of rebuilding New Orleans.

DERRICK MALEK-JONES : We see the very few folks who are very upset and have started looting, but that’s the media clip that gets repeated time and time again on CNN and Fox and other media networks. It seems like they’re making criminals out of everybody in New Orleans if they’re African American, when that’s not the fact. You have to understand that New Orleans is one of the poorest cities in America; 30 percent of the folks are below the poverty level. This storm hit at the end of the month, when a lot of people’s welfare checks, support, had not reached them. They’d gone through their savings and they could not physically pay for gas to get out of town, if they had a car that was able to get out of town. I think that whole issue is being portrayed as, that’s the way they want to act, rather than this is something that’s just environmental injustice.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What do you think about officials’ describing those trapped in the city as “those who chose not to leave?”

DERRICK MALEK-JONES : I have been part of the LEPC – Local Emergency Planning Committee in New Orleans – in the past, and know the emergency directors, and they just said, from their point of view, they didn’t think they could evacuate everybody who needed to be evacuated that did not have transportation. And this is stuff they told me years ago; they just didn’t have the financial resources or the physical buses, to get everybody out.

BETWEEN THE LINES: The wetlands around the city have been all but destroyed, which increased the impact of the hurricane. Do you see that destruction connected to environmental racism in any way?

DERRICK MALEK-JONES : The wetland destruction in Louisiana is not a new thing. It started in the 1950s when they started to do oil and gas exploration in the water offshore in Louisiana. And the energy companies built a whole series of canals cutting across our coastal wetlands, and destroyed millions of acres of wetlands. So Louisiana’s wetlands have basically been a sacrifice zone for America’s energy needs. And with a healthy wetland, without cuts, our scientists have said that for every mile of healthy wetlands buffer, you get one- to two-foot reduction in storm surge. Rebuilding the wetlands in Louisiana has been one of the premier environmental concerns, and an environmental justice concern also because a number of the folks who make a living off the fisheries in Louisiana are native American, Vietnamese American, Cajun American, so there’s a whole range of folks who make their living off the sea, and the wetlands are the nursery ground for all the different fish and shrimp and oysters, so there’s sort

BETWEEN THE LINES: Some federal officials called last week for just abandoning the city. What do you think of that?

DERRICK MALEK-JONES : New Orleans is a unique city in that it is below sea level. That’s something we all lived with. But it’s also a culturally rich and architecturally rich city -- buildings built in the late 1880s, early 1900s -- beautiful buildings architecturally originally, and then have fallen into disrepair because people don’t have the money to keep things up. So, it’s a mix of architectural styles and designs that is a cultural heritage for America. And to hear statements that we should just bulldoze everything and turn out the lights is just astounding to me. What we in the Sierra Club are talking about and trying to come up with is a new vision for New Orleans, a new vision for the Gulf of Mexico. Since we have so much destruction, we need to think about how we can take that 30 percent of New Orleans population that doesn’t have a job and put them to work rebuilding their community -- not bringing in contractors from Brown & Root, or wherever the big Republican contractors that make millions and

BETWEEN THE LINES: Do you think the city could be rebuilt still below sea level?

DERRICK MALEK-JONES : I think we could rebuild the city of New Orleans where it’s at. It’s just an engineering issue. The levees, we’re talking about breaches in just a couple of places. So, I think it’s technically able to rebuild, and I think morally, we need to rebuild New Orleans. And we need to rebuild that cultural history of New Orleans as a city of the world, and I don’t think, as a country, we can just let that go away.

For more information, call (415) 977-5500 or visit the group's website at


Melinda Tuhus is a producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 35 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending Sept. 16, 2005. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Melinda Tuhus and Anna Manzo.



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