Sheltering in a Toxic Place

When the home itself can kill

Emmeline Clein
Image of COVID-19 virus. Graphic by Bianca Ibarlucea.
Graphic by Bianca Ibarlucea

Like most Americans, Shannon Rainey is staying home right now, and feeling anxious. She is turning sixty-five this summer and has stomach and respiratory issues, placing her at high risk for complications from COVID-19. But the virus is not her biggest worry. Since she was ordered to spend almost all her time indoors, Shannon has found herself getting more headaches, and struggling with breathing problems. Strange odors rise out of drains indoors and from holes in the yard. Unlike most Americans, Shannon is not attributing her new symptoms to the coronavirus. Instead, she is sure that what is making her sick, and has caused so many of her neighbors to get cancer, are the chemicals emanating from the toxic landfill her home was built on—a home she is now ordered to stay within.

In the 1940s, people who lived in Desire, a neighborhood in New Orleans’ Upper Ninth Ward, nicknamed their local landfill “Dante’s Inferno,” because of the fires that so often raged through the layers of waste buried underground, invisible but for the acrid smoke seeping into the streets. The area, which is officially called the Agriculture Street Landfill, served as the city’s main dumping ground from 1909 until 1957, when the city closed it after pests infested a local school and a slew of underground fires filled the streets with smoke too thick for residents to see through.

In 1978, twenty years after closing the landfill, the city broke ground on a low-income housing development. By 1980, the city was marketing and selling sixty-seven homes on Gordon Plaza Drive to low-income residents, without mentioning the acres of toxic waste their new houses sat on. After living there less than five years, residents began complaining of breathing problems, faintness, and dizziness. Bizarre items like oil drums popped out of the soil when residents dug gardens.

Researchers from various levels of the government descended on the site and made a series of horrifying discoveries. The soil beneath the Gordon Plaza homes contained lead, arsenic, mercury, and over 140 other chemicals, 49 of which are proven carcinogens, in levels that far surpassed the EPA’s regulations for human habitation. In 1994, the elementary school on the site was closed and the area was officially designated a Superfund site—land so polluted the EPA has deemed it dangerous to human health—and placed on the National Priorities List, eligible for immediate federal cleanup.

But the houses remained. In 2006, a Civil District Court judge called the homes “uninhabitable,” and as recently as 2013, FEMA declared the soil “could pose unacceptable risks” to the health of people who come in contact with it. Over decades, the residents of Gordon Plaza have become indefatigable activists, bringing and winning multiple class action suits against the government, although the city has used loopholes to avoid paying the awarded money. Recently, Gordon Plaza’s activists seemed like they might be nearing a hard-earned and long overdue victory. Last summer, after residents won a summary judgment in their ongoing lawsuit against the city, the mayor, LaToya Cantrell, promised to create a committee to develop a relocation plan—an announcement that could be mere gesture, but carried real weight for residents who had been ignored by five previous mayors.

And then COVID-19 arrived. Fifty-four families still live in Gordon Plaza, and without the financial means to move, they are now legally obligated to remain in homes that have given women breast cancer at rates 60 percent higher than the national average. In 2019, the Louisiana Tumor Registry reported that Gordon Plaza’s census tract had the second-highest cancer rate in all of Louisiana. On one of the abandoned school’s brick walls, the word “cancer” is spray-painted in black and white. Usually, residents like Rainey try to maintain their health by spending time outside, but under the shelter-in-place order effective March 22nd, she and her neighbors are forced to breathe in potentially toxic air all day. Already, residents are suffering from headaches, stomach aches, and trouble breathing.

Recently, I spoke by phone with Jesse Perkins, a Gordon Plaza resident for three decades who has spent his career working for the local government’s Sewerage & Water Board. Perkins pointed to the “injustice” of being “stuck on top of this toxic waste” in the middle of a health crisis, calling the coronavirus a “double whammy for us because we had another epidemic occurring way before this coronavirus.”

“Living on top of a landfill, you already have respiratory problems,” another resident, Lydwina Hurst, a breast cancer survivor in her seventies, who has lived in Gordon Plaza since 1989, told me. “Coronavirus is known to enhance those very respiratory issues.” While Perkins understands the necessity of staying home to slow the spread of coronavirus, he also said he sometimes has to “get out to breathe a little bit.”

The New Orleans People’s Assembly, a workers collective that fights for higher wages, affordable housing, public transport, and public education, has been organizing alongside the residents of Gordon Plaza for years. A representative for the collective said the anxiety of living in a poisonous home is similar to the anxiety safely-housed people are feeling now, in the era of coronavirus. While there is now “understandable uncertainty, anxiety, and concerns for the unknown,” the collective’s representative said, “this is what the residents of Gordon Plaza have been experiencing daily.”

Today, more than fifty million Americans live within three miles of a site officially designated as a “Superfund.” Like most vectors of vulnerability, this one overlaps with socio-economic status. Almost 70 percent of the country’s Superfund sites are within a mile of Department of Housing and Urban Development low-income housing units or homes eligible for HUD subsidies. The sites considered most hazardous make it onto the National Priorities List, and there are currently almost 1,000 low-income housing properties less than a mile from a current or proposed priority site.

The coronavirus emergency endangers not just Gordon Plaza residents’ health, but also their recent progress towards funded relocation. With the COVID-19 crisis capturing the public’s attention, Gordon Plaza’s long fight risks becoming a low priority—or forgotten altogether. Perkins said that the government had already put Gordon Plaza’s struggles on the back burner. He fears “being pushed even further back” as the city shuts down, and coronavirus is invoked by the government in what he called a “delay tactic.”

New Orleans’ history suggests he has reason for concern: it can be told as a story of crises and coverups, capital corroding progressive change in moments of panic. After Hurricane Betsy in 1965, the city government reopened the Agriculture Street landfill for a year as a debris dump, despite the underground fires afflicting the neighborhood that had led to the landfill’s first closure. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, with all eyes on the mayor’s attempts to revive New Orleans, the city quietly closed public hospitals; demolished the city’s four largest low-income housing developments, destroying 4,500 units of largely undamaged housing across the city so developers could build gentrifying condos; and replaced the city’s public school system with an infrastructure of almost entirely charter schools, a process completed this year when the city’s last public school was taken over by a nonprofit.

As the number of coronavirus cases climbs higher in New Orleans, it is important to remember that the health consequences of the coronavirus, like the consequences of Katrina, will not be measurable only in direct mortality outcomes. In the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, the federal government claimed they did not have hard numbers for a death toll; famously, it waited days to send help to survivors. In the end, it gave up on ever getting an accurate count, estimating “direct deaths” from the storm at under 2,000. Other estimates, which include indirect deaths—people who died stranded in the stagnant, locked-down city, from starvation or lack of access to medical care, and people who died after the crisis, due to diseases contracted then—vary widely, with some estimates passing 4,000.

Today in New Orleans, numbers provided by government officials are taken ruefully, with a grain of salt. The government offers statistics about our supposedly resurgent population a decade after Katrina without mentioning the historic disruption to the city’s racial demographics, the tens of thousands of black citizens whose homes and jobs were lost permanently, whose city doesn’t still stand.

This crisis will have indirect deaths, too. While shelter-in-place orders protect people from coronavirus, they also expose a vast swath of Americans to an entirely different array of health risks: those posed by their own homes. Sitting inside the home she distrusts, Shannon Rainey wants to know whether her community’s sacrifice will be recognized. She asks, “How long do we have to breathe this air? How long do we have to wait for someone to decide that our struggle is real?”

Emmeline Clein is a writer and MFA candidate at Columbia University. Her essays and reporting have appeared in The Nation, Smithsonian Magazine, ANTIGRAVITY, and elsewhere.
Originally published:
April 13, 2020


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