Could Hurricane Rita's Rain Aid New Orleans Cleanup?

September 21, 2005

A University of North Carolina scientist thinks rain from Hurricane Rita—which is forecasted to strike Texas this weekend—could help New Orleans recover from the devastating hurricane that struck there last month.

New Orleans suffered heavy damage on August 29 when Hurricane Katrina pushed a massive storm surge from the Gulf of Mexico onto land, causing the levees protecting the city to fail. The powerful hurricane pushed a storm surge of at least 20 feet (6 meters) in some sections of the Gulf Coast.

About 80 percent of the city was flooded when waters from Lake Pontchartrain poured through several breaks in the levee system. The water became a "toxic stew" of pollutants and left behind a layer of mud when it was eventually pumped out.

"Remember what's in that mud," said Seth Reice, an associate professor of biology at UNC and author of The Silver Lining: The Benefits of Natural Disasters.

"It's not just sediment. It's everything from under everybody's sink—household chemicals, oil, gasoline. It's full of toxic chemicals, heavy metals. It's just bad stuff."

That's where Hurricane Rita could help New Orleans—provided it doesn't directly strike the city.

"Five inches [13 centimeters] of rain would dilute all the crap and mud everywhere," Reice said. "That's much better than letting it sit."

Toxic Lake

In addition to helping clean up New Orleans, rain would reduce the ecological problems that are being caused by pumping toxin-laden floodwater into Lake Pontchartrain, Reice said.

"Poor Lake Pontchartrain," Reice said. "We've spent the last 30 years trying to clean it up, and then, in one fell swoop, we're destroying it."

The environmental damage to the lake could have been avoided by pumping the floodwater directly into the Gulf of Mexico, where it would have been diluted, Reice said.

Pumping the water into the lake is "unconscionable," he said. But politics were behind the decision.

Continued on Next Page >>


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