Mississippi Delta drought puts New Orleans in fire and water crisis

On Oct. 23, a smoke-filled super fog caused a deadly 160-car pileup on I-10 on a 5.7-mile bridge over Lake Pontchartrain.

In late October into November, New Orleans was blanketed with fog and smoke from fires burning in nearby marshes. The marsh fires came on the heels of a finding that salt water was seeping into the drinking water from the Mississippi River. The fires and the water crisis are caused by the drought hitting the entire Mississippi Delta. New Orleans resident and SLL writer Gregory Williams recently wrote about the drinking water crisis and is interviewed here regarding the marsh fires.

Could you talk about how rare drought conditions are in the Gulf Region?

Yes, there’s nothing normal about this. New Orleans has a humid, subtropical climate. Seattle, Washington, has a reputation as a rainy city but gets 37 inches of rain per year compared to New Orleans, which gets 64 inches.

Normally, in the summer, we’re worried about flooding. It’s partly an effect of being below sea level. This year, Louisiana got 20 inches less rainfall than usual. We’ve never before experienced dry heat in the summer like this. There hasn’t been much rainfall since fall started, either.

Visibility is always low when there are fires, but this is more extreme. Can you tell our readers a little more about why that’s true?

They’re calling it “super fog.” As I understand it, the fire smoke mixes with water vapor released by smoldering, wet material – damp brush, etc. Cooler air from outside the burn area makes the smoky, vaporous mix condense. It just hangs around.

At times, when the fog hits, visibility reaches nearly zero, and that can happen in moments. We were seeing Interstate highway closures weekly.

On Oct. 23, this super fog caused a deadly 160-car pileup on I-10. Eight people were killed. Sixty-three were injured. This was on a 5.7-mile bridge over Lake Pontchartrain. There’s no easy way for first responders to get there. They closed that part of the interstate for around three weeks.

On the morning of the 23rd, I thought that my apartment building was on fire because when I opened my door, I couldn’t even see a few feet beyond. I could barely breathe. I panicked and went around looking for the source of the fire, preparing to go back to leave with my two cats.

Why are the fires burning for so long?

The fires are in different locations, and the type of fire differs.

There’s a marsh fire in the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, far to the south. There’s a marsh fire in St. Bernard Parish to the east. That’s a highly industrial area – white working class, pretty high poverty rates. Then there’s the marsh fire in the Bayou Sauvage Urban National Wildlife Refuge. That’s in what’s called New Orleans East, a very Black and also Vietnamese working-class part of the city. These are suburban areas where a lot of working-class people have been pushed because of post-Katrina gentrification.

The Bayou Sauvage fire is more difficult. It’s a peat fire. Peat is compacted organic matter in bogs and moors. It used to be a fuel source. If you dry it out, you can cut it into bricks and burn it. There’s a lot of carbon tied up in peat worldwide. Two times as much as in the world’s forests. Peat can ignite on its own if it gets dry enough. The peat is burning underground and is hard to get to in the Bayou Sauvage fire.

Also, because we live in a capitalist society, there is the problem that it’s on privately owned land. It’s absurd that land can be bought and sold. But that’s the current reality: the fire is on private property. I don’t know what is happening with the owner, but all the news pieces cite this as a complication, meaning that some landowner is compromising millions of people’s health.

There are no fire hydrants out there, and no easy road access to the site. Parts of the property are bounded by natural gas pipelines (more fossil fuels!), and they’re worried about damaging the pipes by bringing trucks in.

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of information about the danger of breathing in the smoke. Have the city, parish, or state done anything to alleviate that?

Officials are just telling people to take care of themselves and stay indoors if they are pregnant or have pre-existing conditions. That’s not so easy for people who are homeless, depend on bikes for transport, work in construction, or countless other situations.

One NOLA.com article references a 2021 study published in a scientific journal, Current Opinion in Environmental Science & Health. That study says that smoldering peat fires – like the one in Bayou Sauvage – release more toxic heavy metals and 15 times more mercury than flaming fires!

In and around New Orleans, is there a history of protests over the responsibility of energy companies in global warming?

The fossil fuel industry dominates the region. There are plants up and down the Mississippi. People are organized and fighting in St. James Parish between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. There’s a Halliburton office downtown on Poydras Street.

In the aftermath of hurricanes, we get out in the street, and the environmental issues come to the fore. But definitely, we need a broader, ongoing fightback that can connect up the various environmental struggles. The fires are a slow-burning crisis, literally and figuratively. We should take them as seriously as hurricanes.

Strategically, we need targets. At first glance, the Palestinian liberation struggle also seems abstract and distant from the point of view of New Orleans, even though we have a sizable Palestinian population.

But recently, the movement here has started going after more concrete targets. The capitalists and politicians running the Port of New Orleans have significant dealings with the Zionist entity, “Israel.” Just this year, they inaugurated an “Innovation Embassy” between the New Orleans port and the Israeli Port of Ashdod. Now, activists have launched a campaign focused on the port authority, demanding they cut ties. We’ll see how that goes. I think that if we keep it up, we can get somewhere.

There may be more general movement lessons here. With the environmental movement, we also need to figure out where to strike and how to strike, and not just respond to crises but to get ahead of the enemy. 

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