NEW YORK—The destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami that hit southeast Asia could have been far less devastating had natural environmental protections not been destroyed or removed, according to experts at the panel discussion “The Role of Environment in Poverty Alleviation: Protecting Communities from Natural Disasters,” held on Feb. 1, at the Lincoln Center campus.
“It’s really hard to blame this on a natural disaster,” said Erik Olson, the senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, about the severity of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
According to Olson, who is also the chair of the Hurricane Katrina Task Force of the Green Group, some of the resulting devastation was a “nature-triggered man-made disaster.” He pointed to the destruction of more than 1,000 acres of wetlands in southern Louisiana, as a contributor. Without the wetlands and the natural runoff of the Mississippi River, the land sank below sea level making it susceptible to powerful storm surges.
“Intact habitats, rather than modified habitats, fair better [during natural disasters],” said Sanjayan Muttulingam, Ph.D., the lead scientist from the Nature Conservancy.
Born in Sri Lanka, Muttulingam assessed the damage to the coastline of Indonesia immediately after the December 2004 tsunami. Like in New Orleans, Muttulingam said, development of the environment contributed to the severity of damage in some areas. He pointed to two regions in close proximity to one another; the more severely damaged area had removed natural protections against a storm surge, such as dunes and coral reefs, while the less damaged region had left these protections in place.
A lot has to be done before the regions that were affected by the disasters are back to normal, and it will take time, according to Annie Maxwell, a partnerships and outreach officer with the U.N. office of Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery.
“Survivors are in desperate need to return to normalcy. The need for housing, either temporary or permanent, has put tremendous stress on development,” she said.
The panel discussion was hosted by Fordham University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) and was the first in a four-part series on the topic of people and the environment. The next installment in the series, “Educating Future Leaders to Meet Poverty Alleviation Goals,” will take place on March 9 at 6 p.m. on the Lincoln Center campus.