Hurricane Laura made landfall in Louisiana as a high-end Category 4 storm, with winds up to 150 mph. Photo: Julie Dermansky.

The communities who need it most aren't receiving air quality information during disasters like Hurricane Laura

October 21st, 2020

Hurricane Laura made landfall in Louisiana as a high-end Category 4 storm, with winds up to 150 mph. Photo: Julie Dermansky.

Hurricane Laura snapped utility poles in half, blew down trees and left a chlorine fire burning for three days at the BioLab facility in Westlake, Louisiana. Both emergency responders and residents who stayed in their homes had good reason to wonder whether the air was safe to breathe.

That’s because hurricanes — as Harvey showed in Houston just three years earlier — can be major pollution events. But Texas and Louisiana residents who looked to their state environmental agencies to understand their air quality found vastly different responses, said Dr. Grace Tee Lewis, a health scientist with Environmental Defense Fund.

“Louisiana is not doing their best keeping up with what other states do to make information available in real time as much as possible,” she said. “People want to protect their families. Access to information is one thing that can help them do that.”

As Laura swirled closer, stationary air monitors in Lake Charles and nearby in Texas — including Houston, Beaumont and Port Arthur — went offline. That week, Environment Texas found that refineries and chemical plants told the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) that they were planning to emit more than 4 million pounds of pollution collectively due to shutdowns ahead of the storm.

About 15 hours after Laura made landfall, TCEQ sent a mobile air monitoring van from Austin to the Beaumont and Port Arthur area. By the following afternoon, the agency was posting data to the web.

“That was much quicker than Harvey,” said Adrian Shelley, the director of Public Citizen’s Texas office.

It was a different story in Louisiana. LDEQ didn’t post any data online for days. When it was posted, it was reported in units different from the national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS) for pollutants considered harmful to public health and the environment. Meanwhile, none of the state and federal agencies provided context or interpretation that would have helped ordinary residents who aren’t air quality experts answer the urgent question: Is the air safe to breathe?

LDEQ, for example, posted data from two mobile monitors showing “moderate” levels of particulate matter and “good” levels of sulfur dioxide — except those labels are not indicators for health, stressed Monique Harden with the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice in New Orleans.

There is a gap between air pollution levels that meet standards established by law and air that is healthy. “The gap is what fuels the movement for environmental justice,” Harden said. “The pathway of Hurricane Laura was right through environmental justice communities,” the communities typically of color and low wealth living closest to polluting facilities who have for too long been denied full access to the tools of government protection.

READ MORE ABOUT THE IMPACT OF HURRICANE LAURA: Louisiana has been battered during hurricane season. Will the attention last as long as the recovery takes?

The climate crisis is making storms like Laura more severe. Sea level rise is expected to create higher storm surges and flooding and increased risk all up and down the industrial Gulf Coast. TCEQ and LDEQ must rise in proportion to the risk and provide the real-time monitoring and communication that communities need. After Harvey, the EPA’s Office of Inspector General made that clear.

A scathing report concluded that the monitoring in Texas during Harvey was too little, too late. A tank leak at the Magellan Midstream facility, near Galena Park, spilled nearly 460,000 gallons of gasoline. But the company didn’t report the magnitude of the leak until more than a week afterward, Dr. Tee Lewis said. In the meantime, Galena Park residents said they smelled a powerful odor that burned their eyes. Nearly 94 percent of all the extra industrial pollution in all of Harris County in the first few days was concentrated within four miles of Manchester, a community on the other side of the Ship Channel.

Two weeks after landfall, though, the agencies still had not decided which thresholds to use to make recommendations for health and safety. It took more than five weeks for TCEQ’s network of monitors to be fully operational in Houston. The EPA report stressed an urgent need to develop a more collaborative air monitoring and communications plan, spanning multiple languages, in the event of another disaster.

Another disaster like Laura.

Like Delta.

Or the next disaster after that.

With Laura, Shelley explained, “TCEQ is improving its response efforts, but it’s got to continue down that path.”

The agency has finally acknowledged the need to do so. During a virtual work session with the commissioners on September 24, the agency’s executive director, Toby Baker, said, “While we are not a first-responder agency, I feel like more and more we are treated as such and are expected to be on the scene almost immediately with real-time air data going out as soon as an event happens.”

Disasters expose the inequities that already exist in communities, and this is true for the gaps in air quality information for those who need it most. “Information equity is a critical component to address the needs of overburdened communities living with these types of exposures on a daily basis,” Dr. Tee Lewis said. “And I think climate-change-related weather events should put this at the forefront of our minds.”

Sneath is a freelance environmental reporter based in New Orleans. Email her tips at saraksneath@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter @sarasneath.

Take Action

  1. Read the EPA's report on the need for better planning with air quality monitoring during disasters
  2. Learn more about five actionable steps TCEQ can take to make equity part of its mission
  3. See what environmental justice advocates have to say about the lack of equity in Houston's climate plan

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