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Some Areas Damaged By Hurricane Laura See Spikes In Air Pollution


The death toll from Hurricane Laura is now 16 people. Residents along the Gulf Coast are picking up the pieces, trying to decide how and whether to rebuild. And in some places, they're doing it in the shadow of petrochemical facilities that released enormous amounts of extra pollution because of the hurricane. NPR's Rebecca Hersher has been reporting on Hurricane Laura's connection to climate change and some of the questions that this storm raises about how we power our lives.

Good morning, Rebecca.


ELLIOTT: So let's start with the latest. How are the industrial areas hit by Hurricane Laura faring now?

HERSHER: Well, the immediate acute danger seems to have passed in most places. A plant that caught fire in Louisiana is no longer burning. Environmental authorities in Texas say they dodged a bullet in terms of how much pollution was released. That's compared to past storms. But people who are returning to their homes, working outside, breathing the air - they are still breathing more pollution than normal in many places.

ELLIOTT: Now, Laura came ashore as a very powerful Category 4 hurricane. What role did climate change play in that?

HERSHER: Well, there was really hot water in the Gulf of Mexico, and that just provided a lot of energy for the storm. And it also got really powerful very quickly. Wind speeds almost doubled in the 24 hours right before Laura hit land, and that is something that climate scientists say is getting more common as the Earth heats up - this rapid intensification. And, of course, that is bad. It's bad because there's less time to prepare if a storm gets more powerful really quickly.

ELLIOTT: That makes it difficult for those of us who live on the Gulf Coast. It gives us less time to evacuate. It also is less time for industry to prepare - to shut down things and make things safe before evacuating workers, right?

HERSHER: Exactly. And dozens of major refineries and facilities that manufacture solvents and even the raw materials that are used to manufacture surgical masks and medical gloves - they were in the path of Hurricane Laura. So when this storm was approaching, a lot of those facilities - they shut down, as you said, for safety. But shutting down a refinery or chemical plant - it often means releasing a lot of extra pollution. Basically, they burn off fuel and chemicals that can't safely sit inside pipes. And so according to just the preliminary data reported by companies themselves, they released more than 4 million extra pounds of pollution even before the storm arrived.

ELLIOTT: Wow. What does that mean for the people who live near those facilities?

HERSHER: Well, it's really bad. All that extra pollution is bad for the health and safety of people who are already living with dirtier-than-average air and water even when there isn't a storm. A lot of public health officials and climate scientists who I've spoken to in the last week - they pointed out that Hurricane Laura is a perfect example of how people who are already vulnerable are more likely to live on the frontlines of climate change. Like, this is how Mustafa Ali put it. He was a longtime EPA official - now works for the National Wildlife Federation.

MUSTAFA ALI: We have sacrifice zones across the Gulf Coast. They are communities of color and lower-wealth communities that are often pushed into our most dangerous locations.

HERSHER: And they're dangerous because they're near industrial pollution, dangerous because they're in the path of more and more damaging hurricanes and dangerous because of the combination of the two. When a hurricane slams into industry like it did last week, it releases things that are just bad for people's health.

ELLIOTT: That's NPR's Rebecca Hersher.

Thanks so much.

HERSHER: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF GIRL IN RED SONG, "MIDNIGHT LOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.
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