Comparing the initial events associated with the unexpected water release from the Gold King Mine above Silverton with the landfall of Hurricane Katrina at New Orleans 10 years ago provides some initial, but limited, comparisons. For the residents of New Orleans it was much, much worse, multiplying the spill by a factor of thousands, the hurricane’s effects on New Orleans and the pain, missteps and confusion that followed. More than 1,000 in that city would die.
The EPA and its contract crew at the Gold King apparently had not planned for the worst as it probed the plug at the mine’s entrance, and the federal agency, as the spill was occurring, lacked the quick-response skills necessary to react and to alert downstream water users on the Animas River in a timely fashion. (This is a case of it being fortunate that mineral-laden hard-rock mining goes on high above fertile plains, and that the distance between the mine and the inlet structures on the Animas for irrigation ditches and potable water systems allowed many hours to pass.)
For the EPA, the spill travelling the Animas, San Juan and Colorado rivers would cross three of its administrative regions.
Ten years ago, the levees that were to protect New Orleans, a city that is largely below water level, would prove to be inadequate and with design flaws. That was a federal failure, over decades. And, had the natural marshlands between the city and ocean not been reduced in size by expanded river channels and economic development, some of the force of the storm would have been blunted. That environmental factor had not been fully appreciated.
The failure of governments to act was extreme. The federal government’s response agency stood by, only partially equipped and organized and led by a political appointee, while the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana failed to shape and to coordinate the needed responses. There had been no planning, even to respond to more minor events. Days were to go by before thousands of New Orleans residents were rescued from their homes, apartment and hospital rooms, or moved from temporary gathering locations such as the Superdome. Temperatures were high, water, food and simple medical care lacking. Some emergency workers put assisting their families above their civic responsibilities, and staffing and law enforcement were lacking. There was violence.
When the city finally dried out, different challenges emerged. There was uncertainty within families and neighborhoods as to whether to rebuild or to relocate, and bureaucracies were an obstacle. Some homeowners rebuilt only to discover that now they were among many still-damaged and condemned structures. Understandably, some who had lost their homes believed their future would be better in other cities, and that this was an opportunity. Some small businesses did not come back, schools were relocated – charter schools were a fresh start in replacing the sluggish traditional public-school system, causing uncertainty – and neighborhoods changed in character. That continues to be the case today.
Healing on the scale that New Orleans faced does not come in the same form, or at once.
With a warming planet, expect extremes in weather to become more commonplace. Coastal areas, which in this country and elsewhere can be heavily populated, will be vulnerable. What was learned following Hurricane Katrina – the much that went wrong, the little that went right – could too easily serve as a model. Next time we will have to do much better.
As to the southern San Juan Mountains, we now have a greater appreciation for the inherent dangers that exist in those mineral-laden mountains, dangers that have been exacerbated by mankind.