Back in April, I had the fortunate opportunity to speak at the 2018 Democratic Gala of DuPage County. The keynote speaker at this event was the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulin Cruz. I was blown away by her poise and ability to captivate the entire room. As she recalled the events of Hurricane Maria, I realized that that destructive storm will most likely go down as the worst natural disaster in the history of Puerto Rico. The power supply in the small US territory was destroyed, and the hurricane cost an estimated $90 million in damage.
Despite this very clear crisis, the United States government did not immediately move to help the American citizens in Puerto Rico. When help arrived, it was in the form of Donald Trump literally throwing rolls of paper towels at citizens that had lost their homes, their possessions, and their loved ones. This complete and utter failure is a prime example of why we need to examine the way we treat Americans of color in the wake of national disasters.
Natural disasters may be color blind, but our government is not. When the United States government first began allowing oil and gas refineries to be built, they were not being built in white communities, but rather largely Black and Latinx communities. So when Hurricane Katrina hit, millions of gallons of water were dumped on these refineries, causing irreparable destruction to these communities.
How did those neighborhoods become segregated in the first place? It was through a process called redlining. Mortgage companies used this system in the early 1900’s, where they would draw a red line over communities that they believed posed a “greater risk of repayment”. These communities, by and large, tended to be communities that had a high percentage of black residents. This led black families to turn to subprime lending to obtain loans for homes.
These redlines were also used by companies looking to house their refineries and dump sites – structures that are still in use today. In the face of a natural disaster, communities around these refineries are always going to be hit harder, due to toxic chemicals and substandard containment processes.
To examine in detail how the effects of these zoning decisions have destroyed communities of color, just look at Flint, Michigan. When the city switched the water supply in 2014, the residents – 40 percent of the black population lives in poverty – almost immediately started to notice issues with the water. The government ignored and denied these issues for months, and by the time they admitted that there was a problem, the damage to the pipes was irreversible.
The high levels of lead in the pipes were incredibly harmful, especially to children and pregnant women. The city saw a decrease in the amount of pregnancies during the period when the drinking water contained the highest levels of lead. According to studies done at Kansas University and West Virginia University, fertility rates decreased by 12% and fetal death rates increased by 58%.
In America, black children are five times more likely than white children to have lead poisoning. Outside of Flint, you may notice that a large majority of truck depots are located in Black and Latinx communities, leading to an increase in the inhalation of nitrogen dioxide for those areas. This may explain why one out of every six children of color has asthma.
Another area where systemic racism can exacerbate the effects of natural and man-made disasters is flood insurance. While everyone is fully aware of the importance of insurance, many Black and Latinx communities have a surplus of homes that are not insured. Without insurance, the cost of fixing a home or moving to another home is exponentially higher. Homeowner’s insurance may not cover water damage unless the water came in after the home was damaged, which tends to be incredibly hard to prove after a natural disaster – thus the importance of flood insurance. For the homes in Black and Latinx communities, even having flood insurance may not be enough, because people of color are likely to receive less in damages than their white counterparts. This adversely affects these communities after a disaster, and makes rebuilding a much more difficult process.
The most unequal aspect of the way our government handles disasters is the way in which we evacuate. Evacuation can prove difficult for families that are in poverty. Per reports from evacuees, the average cost to evacuate a family of 4 (two working adults and two children) is $565.00. When you add in fees at a low cost hotel, that number can jump to more of $1500.00. The average American does not have a savings account, so coming up with $1500.00 in a matter of days can be quite difficult, or even impossible for some. This brings into focus the high death count from Katrina. Without financing, a family in poverty can simply be left behind by no fault of their own.
There are quite a few things we can do as a nation to assist with the issues mentioned here. First, we need to invest more into the research of climate change and its potential prevention. Climate change, without a doubt, is the reason we have seen hurricanes and natural disasters with increasing frequency in recent years. Having Republicans in Congress and a White House that refuse to believe the science behind climate reality is a grave concern.
Secondly, we need to undo the environmental deregulation of the Trump-era EPA as soon as possible, and get back to cleaning up our industrial messes instead of making new ones. When we do have a flood, we do not want toxic contaminants washing on our landscape.
Third, invest in infrastructure repair of a magnitude not seen since the New Deal. It is the only way to ensure that levees hold, pipes are lead-free, and our buildings, roads, and hillsides can endure the incoming environmental assaults and keep our most vulnerable citizens safe.
Lastly, if we had in place a means to federally assist evacuees, more people would be able to evacuate. Is there enough money to evacuate communities in the case of a natural disaster? Yes, but we need to get our budget priorities in order. If we put on hold our plans for a “Space Force”, and instead allot those funds to proper evacuation plans for major cities and areas most likely to be affected by the ever-increasing number of natural disasters, we could prevent tragedies like Katrina and Maria and save thousands of lives.
As a nation, we cannot afford to keep denying the disparity during natural and man-made disasters for brown and black Americans. Climate change should be merged into a social justice issue. Activists of all kinds should be incorporating climate change into their platforms. Women deserve clean water, Black lives can’t thrive in dirty air, and immigrant rights are irrelevant if they cannot safely evacuate to another state in the event of a disaster.
We, as social justice advocates, need to make Climate Change a priority.