Over the last 30 days, the United States has been hit with two of the worse storms in the recorded history of weather. Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, devastated the coasts and inlands of Texas, Louisiana, Florida, and Georgia, and South Carolina leaving billions of dollars in damage and hundreds of thousands displaced from the only place they knew as home.
Hurricane damage and rebuild is nothing new in the United States, however, as politics continue to shift in a racially torn country, the rise of a new social justice issue is beginning to come to the forefront of discussion to protect those most vulnerable.
Environmental Justice is defined as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” Unfortunately, in America, history has taught us that anything coming at the intersection of race, color, and income have never been fair to marginalized people. Where Hurricane Harvey hit in Texas, it is said that nearly 80 percent of flood victims had no flood insurance.
When a further assessment was done on the demographics of those living in the danger zone, although Houston as a city is “relatively prosperous,” it is still those “white areas” where the earning figures are the highest. The map shows that in Black and Latino areas, the median income is roughly between $25,ooo-35,000 with the White median income between $75,000-125,000. In regard to Irma, the media coverage would have one think that Florida was of the main impact of the storm, when realistically The Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico also took direct hits, with Barbuda being 95 percent uninhabitable after landfall.
This problem is partly because “Many Americans regard the Caribbean as one vast resort—a convenient place for barefoot weddings, romantic honeymoons, colorful cruise ship stops, or just an escape from winter blues. For millions of people, however, these vulnerable small islands are home.” Millions of people who are primarily Black and Brown, and unable to receive the same resources that those in the states will receive.
When Hurricanes occur in the country, the assumption is that FEMA will swoop in and take care of those families who have been affected the most. FEMA serves as a backup for those who either don’t have the proper insurance coverage in place, or not enough coverage for the total amount of the loss. This unfortunately is a false truth as yes, FEMA will provide funds but has a cap that is never near what the cost per affected family is. Flood insurance–which can be $500 a year to $2000—can have coverage up to “$250,000 in rebuilding costs and $100,000 to replace personal belongings such as TVs and furniture.”
FEMA’s help as a substitute “are capped at $33,300. Most receive significantly less. Funds will be even tighter if Congress doesn’t provide additional emergency funding for Texas soon.” History tells us, that the FEMA budget will never be enough to cover the total loss, and how those left to rebuild are typically from the lower income median, meaning they will either have to relocate or live in substandard replacements of their homes that once were.
Hurricane Katrina was one of the greatest displays of how the government reacts when dealing with populations that are majority Black and Brown. Katrina caused over $100 billion in damage, and had many prior warnings of what was going to occur, yet FEMA was not prepared and almost 10 years later, parts of New Orleans have and will never be rebuilt. The lack of response, preparedness, and funding, intersected with a race and class that could not escape the damage not only displaced hundreds of thousands, but left nearly 2,000 people dead. Death, that in most cases can’t be prevented because the poor often times have nowhere to go, nor have anything to come back to so they choose to stick it out.
Everyone can’t evacuate. The narrative of people being lazy, stubborn, and uncooperative is a distant truth for many who simply don’t have the resources, or necessary help to make evacuation a possibility for them. Several factors come into play at the intersection of race, class, and socio-economic status that prevent victims from leaving areas that may be dangerous for them to stay. The disabled are often forgotten about during these times and with no help, are forced to stay in homes during these hurricanes. The fear of looting from them being away from their homes has also a reason why many have stayed.
The fact remains that those who typically stay are of the lower income bracket. According to a study in 2009 done with Hurricane Katrina victims “the people who refused during Katrina were less financially secure than those who left so they couldn’t leave as easily.” These people were proactive though by “connecting to others, being strong, and maintaining faith in God. Given the limited material resources available in working-class Black contexts, stayers more often than leavers emphasized the importance of connection to and caring for others.” This is a shared sentiment from during times of natural disaster, as the intersections of race and class continue to be a problem in America, leaving those on the lower income spectrum most vulnerable to the devastating losses that follow the storms.
Environmental Justice must become a bigger issue within the social justice realm of the Black community. We often talk about climate change as an “All” issues, not recognizing that climate change creates superstorms, which in turn destroy communities that mainly inhabited by Black and Brown people. Even when areas with higher white populations are hit by massive storms, they tend to fare better due to having proper insurance, a higher median income and net worth, and the ability to restore what was because of it.
As with most systems of oppression, increasing funding will not fix the overarching issue of the wage gap, and inequities in resources, access, and ability to use those services when disaster strikes. FEMA cannot be the fixer of a problem that puts a Band-Aid on an issue with much larger implications.
Furthermore, we can’t allow the government to dictate who deserves resources, and as exampled with the issues in the Virgin Islands, bias comes into play and said resources are never distributed equitably. It is even more important that we lean on local orgs that are doing the ground work and collecting funds to ensure that families who need help the most aren’t falling in the cracks of the federal government which always seems to hurt the most marginalized.
It is going to take years to rebuild much of what was damaged, and in some cases, will never be restored to what it once was. It is our duty to ensure that for those who continually get left out of the safety net be caught on the backend; with efforts made to dismantle the system that continues to hurt Black and Brown people.
Climate change is real, and unfortunately those making the decisions for the masses, will never know how much it affects us on the bottom.
George M. Johnson is the Managing Editor of BroadwayBlack.com. He has written for Ebony, TheGrio, TeenVogue, NBC News and several other major publications. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram