Anna Hrybyk, Program Director
After I got my MPH from Tulane School of Public Health I was recruited by Catholic Relief Services to serve in their India Program. During my first years in India, I learned about how a dynamic civil society can change long entrenched social injustices: women’s empowerment through literacy, savings and lending programs and Community Based Disaster Preparedness initiatives which saved hundreds of lives during seasonal flooding and cyclones.
In December 2004 the Asian Tsunami devastated the coastal villages of 3 southern states and 10 islands of India. I was asked join the team and co-lead the response to this disaster. We were tasked with rebuilding over 10,000 homes and brand new water and sanitation infrastructure as well as preventing human traffickers from preying on women and girls in tough situations following the disaster. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit my beloved New Orleans. I, along with my 17 staff based in Tamil Nadu, watched the devastation unfold on CNN along with the rest of the world. At some point when I started to cry, we turned off the TV, and all of my staff looked at me bewildered and asked, “what are you doing here? There is plenty to do in your own country.” I had no good answer for them, so I decided to come home.
When I returned to New Orleans, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade scooped me up. As I began combing through the state refineries’ own reports on their accidents, I noticed that refineries emitted the most pollution during severe weather and hurricanes, i.e. Murphy Oil’s 1 million gallon oil spill during Hurricane Katrina and Exxon Mobil Baton Rouge’s 1.2 million pounds of air pollution during Hurricane Gustav. Not only must residents of South Louisiana be concerned about protecting their life and property from natural disasters, but also about protecting their life and property from a more insidious toxic exposure during an inevitable chemical emergency. In disaster lingo, this is called “cascading disasters.” One disaster begets many other disasters in its wake.
Hurricane Isaac in 2012 was no different. Just after the hurricane the LABB counted 91 reports of oil pollution blamed on the hurricane and we are still totaling what facilities in the pathway of the storm have reported. Stolthaven Chemical did not follow protocol and spilled thousands of gallons of a toxic soup, including styrene, which entered floodwaters and the nearby community of Braithwaite. Braithwaite was devastated during Isaac and residents were fighting to claim what was left and had little to no energy to fight the toxic contamination issues as well.
So this issue of chemical exposure by communities neighboring toxic facilities has always been framed as an environmental justice issue, however I see it as a community based chemical emergency prevention, response, mitigation and preparedness issue. If all of the resources that this country has to prevent, respond, mitigate and prepare for natural hazards were thrown at the issue of chemical emergencies, we would see a very different Louisiana because we are the frontlines for hurricanes, tropical storms and oil and gas disasters.