Democracy Alliance Blog / November 9, 2017

Extremes All Around: Racism, Climate Change, and Recovery

by Roger Kim

In September, Hurricane Maria pummeled Puerto Rico, and the overt incompetence of the Trump Administration’s response has worsened the disaster into a dire humanitarian crisis. And now, nearly 50 days later, Puerto Ricans are struggling to survive. Vast portions of the island are still without power or clean water, medicine and food are running out, and there is not enough fuel to deliver emergency supplies or run generators at hospitals and other critical facilities. The destruction of the island’s communications and road infrastructure has made it difficult to reach people. The situation requires an aggressive federal response and leadership from the President, but instead we got more racism.

“Not only are communities of color bearing the brunt of climate driven disasters, they are also more likely to live with the immediate effects of our fossil fuel economy, living near petrochemical, oil and gas refineries or other energy infrastructure.”

When President Trump tweeted that “they want everything done for them,” he continued his racist assault on the Latino community by insinuating that Puerto Ricans were too lazy to help themselves. While visiting Puerto Rico, President Trump implied that the crisis was not a “real catastrophe” because the “death count” was not as high as in Hurricane Katrina.

President Trump’s comparison of the disasters is cruel and callous, and in the weeks after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, we see the same mismanagement, incompetence, and failure we saw in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Many Americans will never forget the desperation of black families on rooftops in New Orleans after Katrina devastated the city. The Bush Administration abandoned black families who could not evacuate, just as brown families are being abandoned in Puerto Rico today.

When white supremacy intersects with the environment, it is called environmental racism. Environmental racism is the fact that extreme weather events, like the hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico, Texas, and Florida, demonstrate again and again that the effects of climate change hit communities of color first and worst. Well before the storms arrive, environmental racism puts communities of color in vulnerable places and conditions. A history of racist housing policies in Texas, for example, left historically African American communities in less desirable areas, often in dangerous floodplains. Indeed, some of the only subsidized housing in Houston is in 100-year floodplains, areas designated as high risk by emergency managers. In Florida, sea level rise is already driving up housing prices and contributing to the gentrification in poor neighborhoods of color on higher ground.

In the aftermath of storms, community groups and residents struggle to ensure people can return to safe and healthy homes knowing that recovery efforts after disasters like Katrina have led to the displacement of entire neighborhoods of color. Puerto Rico is even more vulnerable because of the extractive financial practices that wrought economic devastation to the island well before two hurricanes made landfall this year. Without any political representation and power, Puerto Ricans will have to fend off the vulture financiers that created the debt crisis and fight for control of the massive effort to rebuild the island’s entire infrastructure.

Not only are communities of color bearing the brunt of climate driven disasters, they are also more likely to live with the immediate effects of our fossil fuel economy, living near petrochemical, oil and gas refineries or other energy infrastructure. These sites spew dangerous chemicals in the air and exacerbate asthma, result in higher levels of respiratory illness, and have been shown to lead to higher rates of cancer.

Communities of color, like those in Puerto Rico, Florida, and Texas, are the frontlines of the climate crisis and need to be supported as leaders in the effort to stop climate change. They have the most to lose if we do not slow down climate change, and also have the most to gain by transitioning to a clean energy economy. But first we need to help them recover.

Where government has failed, community-based organizations have stepped up to provide emergency relief, basic services, and ongoing support for recovery. In Puerto Rico, Florida, and Texas, local groups – many of which are trusted partners of the DA, the Climate Fund, and the Inclusive Economy Fund – have set up community relief funds to drive resources to the communities who need it most. Please support them.

In Texas, Texas Organizing Project and its allies have established the Hurricane Harvey Community Relief Fund to support rebuilding in low-income communities in Houston and the surrounding areas. Resources will help ensure the most vulnerable victims have access to critical services from first response and basic needs to healthcare, housing, transportation, and legal assistance.

A coalition of groups in Florida – anchored by New Florida Majority, SEIU, Organize Florida, Faith in Florida, Florida Immigrant Coalition, Dream Defenders, and Central Florida Jobs with Justice – has established the Hurricane Irma Community Relief Fund to ensure no neighborhood gets left behind in the rebuilding efforts. They are providing access to critical services, including basic needs such as healthcare, housing and transportation, legal representation, and longer term organizing.

The Hurricane Maria Community Relief & Recovery Fund is housed at the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD). One hundred percent of monies raised will be used to support immediate relief, recovery, and equitable rebuilding in Puerto Rico for the communities hit hardest by the storm. The Fund is governed by organizations like Puerto Rico-based Taller Salud, the G8 of Caño Martín Peña, and other local, grassroots organizations. The Fund will support organizations working with these hardest hit communities in Puerto Rico.

Other ways to support Puerto Rican relief efforts include providing air transport through private or charter flights, as commercial airlines are not yet fully operational.  Please contact Florida Alliance if you are able to assist in this effort.  Please consider a generous contribution to one or many of these efforts, as recovery will be a long road and your support can help keep American families safe, healthy, and get their communities up and running again.

If you would like more information about one or more of these relief efforts, please contact Robin McQueen.

For more information about the Climate Equity Action Fund, please contact Roger Kim.