Category Archives: Standout

The Louisiana Environmental Apocalypse Road Trip

Justin Nobel | Longreads | July 2017 | 16 minutes (4,000 words)

If you’re visiting New Orleans and want to see something truly amazing, take your beer or daiquiri to-go and walk a few blocks past the Superdome—you’ll find a school being constructed on an old waste dump.

“All the toxins from the landfill are still there,” says toxicologist Wilma Subra. These toxins include lead, mercury, and arsenic, exposure to which can lead to reproductive damage, and skin and lung cancer. Even more astonishing, Subra says hundreds of schools across Louisiana have been built on waste dumps. Why? Dumps represent cheap land often already owned by a cash-strapped town or city, plus serve as rare high ground in a flood-prone state. And this is just the beginning of Louisiana’s nightmare.

The risk of cancer in Reserve, a community founded by freed slaves, is 800 times the national average, making the community, by one EPA metric, the most carcinogenic census tract in America—the cause is a DuPont/Denka chemical plant adjacent to the town that annually spews 250,000 pounds of the likely carcinogen chloroprene into the air. If you think the situation in Flint is bad, there are approximately 400 public water systems in Louisiana with lead or other hazardous substances leaching into the drinking water. Meanwhile, hundreds of petrochemical plants peppered across the state’s lush swampy interior freely emit carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, and neurotoxins into the air and water, as well as inject them deep into the earth.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Louisiana is ranked, according to different surveys, 47th in environmental quality, third in poverty, and 49th in education. Are you still gushing about your latest trip to New Orleans for Jazz Fest Presented by Shell, or French Quarter Festival presented by Chevron? “New Orleans is the best,” one visitor recently wrote to me, “you are so smart to live there!” But how smart is it to allow children to attend school built on toxin-laced waste? How smart is it to allow a community’s cancer rates to shoot off the charts? Louisiana is rich in culture, spirit, and faith, yet what type of state knowingly poisons its own people? What type of country stands by and allows it to happen?

While it is fashionable to critique President Trump for his scientific ignorance, science was misdirected long before Trump laid hands on it. It is time to open our eyes and see what is really going on in this world, to critique our society’s dinosaur methods, then step back and imagine what a new path forward might look like. It is with this aim that I begin a science column for Longreads. In my first story I’ll tour us through a land America should have never allowed to materialize—it’s what I’m calling the Louisiana Environmental Apocalypse Road Trip. As the Trump administration chucks environmental science out the window, evaporates industry regulations, and cripples agencies charged with protecting the environment, this tale is relevant for all Americans, because the poisoning happening in Louisiana could happen in your state too—in fact, it is probably already happening.

But for now sit back, enjoy a signature New Orleans cocktail from the comfort of your couch or chair, and get ready to keep reminding yourself: Yes, this is occurring in 2017 in the United States of America. Read more…

Father of Migrants

Alice Driver | Longreads | June 2017 | 22 minutes (5,698 words)

LEER EN ESPAÑOL

“What good is a border without a people willing to break it wide open?”
— Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, quote from live storytelling at California Sunday Popup in Austin, Texas on March 4, 2017

* * *

On the edge of the promised land dust storms rise out of the desert, obscuring everything, even the migrants waiting at the gate in front of a complex surrounded by a chain-linked fence topped by barbed wire. But Father Javier Calvillo Salazar is from Juárez, Mexico and he is used to it all, and to those who arrive after what is sometimes thousands of miles and hundreds of days with a collection of scars, broken bones, and missing limbs to match the inhumanity encountered along the way. They arrive weeping, they arrive stony-faced, they arrive pregnant, they arrive with venereal diseases—sometimes they arrive telling García Márquez-esqe stories of witnessing a crocodile eat a newborn baby in one swift bite.

Nicole was delivered at a hospital into the arms of her mother, Ana Lizbeth Bonía, 28, who arrived at the shelter in Juárez after spending nine months traveling north from Comayagua, Honduras. She showed up at the migrant shelter Casa del Migrante Diócesis de Ciudad Juárez with her husband Luis Orlando Rubí, 23, and her underweight son, José Luis, 2, who had saucer-like eyes that glistened with emotion. Ana, who had grown up selling vegetables in the street since the age of 4, had never finished elementary school.

The migrant shelter in Juárez is so close to El Paso, Texas that migrants feel the bittersweet pull of land they can see but likely never legally inhabit. The shelter has 120 beds for men, 60 for women, 20 for families, and one separate area where transgender migrants can stay if they choose. Most migrants who arrive at the shelter are single men, and in interviews migrants mentioned that President Trump’s threat of separating women from their children had led to a decrease in migration by those groups. Each migrant is initially limited to a three-day stay, but they can extend that time depending on their condition, as in the case of Ana, who needed time to rest and recuperate after giving birth to Nicole. Read more…

David Brown’s Quiet Resilience

David Gambacorta | Longreads | June 2017 | 15 minutes (3,755 words)

David Brown was a few months into his tenure as the head of the Dallas Police Department when his cell phone started to hum on a Sunday morning.

He’d been on the job long enough to know the drill: At any given moment, a phone call could be the harbinger of an administrative headache, a tactical crisis, or some gut-wrenching tragedy. But he resisted the reflexive urge to answer.

Brown was standing in a pew at the Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship Church. A low-slung building with a sharply pitched roof, the church and its weekly service was his temporary refuge from a chaotic world. He actually considered turning away from his faith once, when he was a younger man and inconsolable over the murder of a former partner, a blow that nearly drove him to quit the police force altogether.

But Brown came to understand loss, the way it coursed through and connected everyone around him like an unseen river. Such lessons had been present in his life from an early age. Brown was born at Parkland Memorial Hospital in 1960, three years before a team of trauma doctors there tried in vain to revive President John F. Kennedy after an assassin’s bullet had exploded through his skull. The very place that had given Brown life became synonymous with the death of a country’s tenuous sense of innocence.

He checked his phone when he left the Sunday service. It was hot outside; the temperature would touch 100 degrees that day. A voice message from the chief of a small-town police department 16 miles outside of Dallas was waiting. It was about Brown’s 27-year-old son, D.J., who suffered from adult-onset bipolar disorder.

D.J.’s behavior had turned erratic that morning, prompting his girlfriend to call 911. But everything was fine now, the chief calmly assured Brown. He tried to get in touch with D.J., but thought better of rushing to him; maybe his son just needed some time to cool down. A few hours later, Brown’s phone started rattling again. This time, it was a no-nonsense detective who took his breath away with just a few words: D.J. was dead.

He’d shot and killed an innocent passerby and a local police officer, the detective explained, and then engaged in a shootout with other cops. D.J. was cut down by police gunfire. The news hit Brown like a sledgehammer to the spine.

It was June 20, 2010. Father’s Day.

The grief could have broken a lesser man, could have swallowed him whole. But Brown clung to his faith, and he somehow endured. What he didn’t know then was that more sorrow was waiting for him down the road, the kind that would draw the world’s attention to Dallas like it was 1963 all over again. And Brown, a quiet, contemplative man who never imagined he’d be a police chief, would emerge from all of the darkness as the embodiment of grace—and the unlikely face of law enforcement in America. Read more…

What We Saw in Washington, D.C.

To cover this past weekend’s inauguration and Women’s March protests in Washington, D.C., Longreads teamed up with Seattle publication The Stranger. Armed with mood rings supplied by their editors, writers Sydney Brownstone and Heidi Groover, along with photographer Nate Gowdy, met those celebrating and protesting, shared their personal perspectives, and examined what it means for the next four years. Here’s their full diary from the events of January 18-23.

Read more…