For Educators: Environmental Justice Movement

Activity 4: Hurricane Katrina


In August 2005, the north-central Gulf Coast was hit by the third-strongest hurricane on record, Hurricane Katrina. It caused severe destruction along the coast of Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana with the worst damage occurring in New Orleans, Louisiana. In New Orleans, nearly all of the levees were breached, flooding almost the entire city and several of the neighboring parishes. A levee or dyke is an earthen embankment or artificial sloping wall that runs parallel to the course of a river or coast, whose primary purpose is to regulate water levels and furnish flood protection from seasonal high waters. The city’s deteriorating levees (many of them in the communities of African-Americans and the poor) failed to protect the city and its residents from rising waterways caused by Hurricane Katrina. Approximately 1,800 people lost their lives, making it one of the deadliest and costliest hurricanes in U.S. history.

Hurricane Katrina highlighted the vulnerability of low-income communities and people of color to environmental disasters. Many of New Orleans’ black residents were displaced, stranded, and left permanently homeless by Katrina. Among the major issues of this humanitarian crisis were shortages of food, water, and medicine. Many neighborhoods were left contaminated and the state and federal governments were highly criticized for the slow pace of recovery efforts. As a result of Hurricane Katrina, the issue of environmental pollution and contamination was brought back to the forefront demonstrating how the environmental safety of poorer communities has largely been ignored.

Documents Needed:

Materials Needed:

Poster boards
Markers (assorted colors)
8 x 11 white sheets of paper for each student
Pencils or pens for each student
Computers with Internet access

This activity is designed for students to self-explore the Avoice exhibit on Environmental Justice. Direct them to find and review the following document and exhibit spotlight section:

Divide the students into small groups. Provide each student a sheet of paper and pencil for note taking. Distribute a Document Analysis Worksheet to each group, along with the hyperlinks to the Avoice website.

Online Research and Analysis of Information:
Using the computers, allow the small groups of students in-class time to research the recommended document and web page. Ask each group to prepare an outline of key facts they learned about the effect and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (i.e. what happened and what is being done about it today).

Discussion Question:
Lead the students in a whole class discussion about what they learned from their online research and what they think that local, state, and federal government needs to do to insure that this tragedy doesn’t happen again.

Ask the students what other documents they saw on the web site that demonstrated the Congressional Black Caucus’ strong and continued advocacy for the support of the victims of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation.

To end this activity and before the students create their own classroom exhibit, share with them the CNN article of first person narratives from children who experienced Hurricane Katrina as well as the online video clips. Lead the class in discussion about their reaction to the stories. If you have students who may have experienced Hurricane Katrina (or any other natural disaster) or have family members who survived it, this could be an opportunity to share first-hand experience with fellow classmates.

These reflections could also be expressed through a creative writing exercise and incorporated into the classroom exhibit.

Classroom Exhibition:
Have the students create a classroom display about Hurricane Katrina and what we must do to prevent such a major catastrophe from happening again. Encourage the students to explore the themes of environmental injustice, humanitarian efforts, displacement, and rebuilding a community throughout the display. Encourage them to refer to the Avoice exhibit and their outlines. For additional information you may want to also refer students to the following websites.

The Impact of Hurricane Katrina – New York Times picture gallery showing hurricane aftermath
Satellite images of New Orleans– New York Times resource where you can view images of New Orleans’ levees, areas destroyed by the rising waters, the hurricane as it moved across New Orleans, and what improvements are being proposed to improve the levee system.
Extended Activity

Consider screening one of two recommended films: Trouble the Water (2008) and When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006). Both documentaries are awarding winning films.

additional information and links.