Environmental Policy Expert to Speak on ‘Racial Ecology’ of Hurricane Katrina

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Hurricane Katrina killed hundreds of people and demolished much of New Orleans, but environmental policy expert Sheila Foster says the disaster is just one symptom of a much larger problem.

Foster, a professor of law at Fordham University, says America’s cities are shaped in way that divides people by color and class – and keeps poor and nonwhite populations in areas vulnerable to environmental threats. In this year’s Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations Spring Lecture, to be held April 11 at the University of Florida’s Fredric G. Levin College of Law, Foster will explain how these trends determined who was most vulnerable to the effects and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Titled “The Racial Ecology of a Natural Disaster,” the lecture will be held at noon in 285B Holland Hall.

“Hurricane Katrina was more than a natural disaster,” Foster said. “A number of important decisions, from the way government pursued school integration to the housing and infrastructure investment choices made by federal and state governments, resulted in spatially and socially segregated neighborhoods and left the Ninth Ward more vulnerable to natural disaster exposure than more privileged neighborhoods.”

Foster has published widely on the topic of environmental justice, a growing field of law that focuses on the relationship between race, class, environmental policy and urban planning. The term “environmental justice” is often invoked in controversies over toxic waste dumps, garbage incinerators and other potentially hazardous land uses proposed for low-income or minority neighborhoods. Foster says the coupling of poverty and pollution is just one way a community can be placed at an environmental disadvantage.

“In cities across the country, you often find a built environment that isolates certain populations and restricts their access to opportunity,” she said. “You see poor communities or communities of color located in places that are flood-prone or otherwise ecologically vulnerable. And you see damage to environmental resources that protect these areas.”

With its combination of already-damaged wetlands, flooded neighborhoods and stranded storm victims, Foster said, post-Katrina New Orleans offers an object lesson in all these problems. The storm serves as a wake-up call that may lead the country to take on its problems with environmental justice, she said.

Foster’s speech is free and open to the public. News media interested in covering the event should contact the Levin College of Law Communications Office at (352) 273-0650.

Published: April 6th, 2006

Category: News