In the midst of sheltering-in-place due to the Covid-19 pandemic, vulnerable communities throughout parts of Louisiana and Texas endured Hurricane Laura's collision with the Gulf Coast's petrochemical hub last week only to be bombarded immediately afterward by a heat wave while lacking shelter, water, power, and air pollution monitoring. And—despite this catastrophic convergence of social and environmental risks—the nation's major TV news outlets have failed to mention climate change.
Journalist Emily Atkin painted the disastrous scene unfolding in the region on Monday when she wrote, "Imagine it's a pandemic. You're confined to your home. Then, a hurricane destroys it. You have no power, water, or shelter. Now imagine, amid all that, a heat wave—statistically the deadliest weather event possible. This is a reality for southwest Louisiana."
When politicians say that climate change is not real, it’s not just that they’re lying.— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) August 31, 2020
It’s not just that they’re rejecting science.
They are turning their backs on the people of Louisiana, who are dealing with the catastrophic impacts of climate change today. https://t.co/94vbWA8gtb
Social and environmental scientists use terms like 'compound risk' when referring to multiple risks occurring at the same time or one after another. For civil engineer Ali Mostafavi, overlapping disasters have "complex ramifications" and create "a decision process fraught with contradiction," a phenomenon readily apparent in the recent confluence of tropical storms, wildfires, and the coronavirus.
As Common Dreams reported last week, the epicenter of Hurricane Laura hit the nation's largest concentration of petrochemical infrastructure. Soon after Laura made landfall, a chemical fire broke out at BioLab Inc., an industrial plant in Westlake, Louisiana, near Interstate 10 and Lake Charles.
The fire emitted chlorine gas—especially troubling during a respiratory pandemic—and prompted a shelter-in-place order from Gov. John Bel-Edwards, but photos and videos surveying the damage show that for many residents, adhering to this demand was impossible.
To make matters worse, Sara Sneath, a reporter at the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate, observed that "inhalation of chlorine gas can cause acute respiratory distress syndrome, a common reason that Covid-19 patients dies."
Despite the lethal risks posed by hazardous emissions, "some key state and federal monitors to alert the public of air dangers remain offline in Louisiana," the Associated Press reported on Monday.
Some local residents and environmental activists told the AP that "a shortage of solid government information on the state of the air is typical." Instead, people living in counties with some of the highest exposure to cancer risks are forced to rely on what "the industry puts out."
Ahead of the hurricane, oil and gas facilities located along an industrialized corridor stretching about 60 miles from Port Arthur, Texas, to Lake Charles, and constituting 13% of U.S. refinery capacity according to the U.S. Dept. of Energy, took the necessary precaution of shutting down.
But according to the AP, rapid hurricane-related shutdowns and eventual restarts "typically mean the emission of up to millions of pounds of additional cancer-causing soot, heavy metals, and other hazards from refinery smokestacks."
Reports filed by companies to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality showed that more than 5.7 million pounds of air pollution were released by chemical plants, oil refineries, and industrial facilities in the month after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in late August 2017, with ninety percent of the air pollution released by just 13 companies.
Juan Parras, founder and co-executive director of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS), said last week:
Communities from the East End of Houston and all the way down to Baytown, Texas deal with year-round toxic air pollution from refineries and petrochemical complexes, and they're suffering from higher rates of COVID-19 right now. With Hurricane Laura's impact, these facilities are emitting even more life-threatening pollutants. Local officials may have turned off all air quality monitors in the area, arguing that they're 'too expensive' to replace, but we can still smell the chemicals. Fossil fuel and petrochemical corporations are more worried about protecting their profits than our health.
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Louisiana's stationary air monitors in "storm-battered communities" were knocked offline by the same electrical outage currently denying power to hundreds of thousands of people, the AP reported.
According to the New York Times, "the majority of the state’s deaths have come from people who were overcome by fumes after using generators to power refrigerators, lights and air-conditioners."
Authorities are also scrambling to restore access to running water, which the Louisiana Dept. of Health estimates 220,000 people are currently without.
The lack of power and water alone would be immensely challenging. Amid a heat wave and pandemic, the disappearance of these essentials is exacerbating an already calamitous situation.
A feels like temp of 105° in #LakeCharles, LA will make the cleanup nearly unbearable. No power, no running water, and deadly heat. @weatherchannel continues live coverage in #Louisiana after #HurricaneLaura pic.twitter.com/dz26r5gZuP— Justin Michaels (@JMichaelsNews) August 31, 2020
This combination of hazardous factors, the consequences of which are refracted through underlying inequalities, illustrates the manner in which simultaneously occurring disasters magnify each other.
Nonetheless, despite the anniversaries of Katrina and Harvey as well as the preponderance of evidence linking the extreme weather events currently unfolding across the country and world to increased greenhouse gas emissions, "broadcast TV news is still failing to report or analyze how climate change—driven by public policy choices that worsen the environmental crisis—is fueling record-breaking storms like Hurricane Laura," Media Matters pointed out.
According to a media analysis performed by Media Matters, not one of the 50 combined segments about Hurricane Laura aired by ABC, CBS, and NBC News between August 24th and 9 a.m. on August 27th connected the storm to climate change.
Jamie Henn, co-founder of climate justice organization 350.org and director of Fossil Free Media, also drew attention to the mainstream media's failure to connect the dots between ongoing events and the climate crisis.
ABC, CBS and NBC did 50 news segments on Hurricane Laura without mentioning climate change once.— Jamie Henn (@jamieclimate) August 28, 2020
We’ve gathered over 20,000 signatures on this petition calling on them to #EndClimateSilence — join us, we’ll be talking next steps soon! https://t.co/VU9A3OmG9n pic.twitter.com/6J4JGZ0g0b
The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate's Sneath said:
When we don't talk about the role climate change plays in these disasters, we force people to blame themselves... When our institutions don't take the threat of climate change seriously, we are forced to prepare for unprecedented climate events on our own. That's just setting people up for failure.
In response to the major news outlets' omission of the links between fossil fuel pollution, climate change, and extreme weather 15 years after Hurricane Katrina, Henn urged people to sign a petition telling the mainstream media to #EndClimateSilence.