America’s Sordid Legacy on Race and Disaster Recovery

A mother holds her baby as her husband works to reconstruct their home destroyed by Hurricane Maria in San Isidro, Puerto Rico, on December 23, 2017.

Six months have passed since Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Category 4 storm destroyed houses and significant infrastructure, leaving mass devastation. Many Puerto Ricans—who are American citizens—remain without electricity, access to clean drinking water, employment, and even housing. While this storm’s ferocity was nearly unprecedented, the Trump administration’s reaction was predictable. People of color are frequently the victims of environmental disaster while their government neglects and underserves them time and again. Too often, public officials fail to make the necessary investments in preparedness and resilience solutions, then place savings and corporate profits over the health and well-being of residents of color. The global climate is changing, and extreme weather disasters will only increase in regularity. Unless the federal government prioritizes equity in preparedness and recovery policy, environmental hazards will continue to bring ruin, displacement, and death to communities of color.

Even in times without extreme weather disasters, the United States has an abysmal record when it comes to protecting people of color from environmental hazards stemming from dangerous industrial activity and harmful infrastructure. These failures undermine trust in government and persist even to this day.

For instance, in Louisiana, more than 150 industrial plants and refineries have been built along an 85-mile stretch that people of color predominately populate. Known as “Cancer Alley,” this stretch is home to communities with high rates of cancer, illness, and death. While state officials have downplayed the risks and praised polluters for their commitment to health and safety, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports have indicated that some chemicals emitted from these plants are carcinogenic. Due to emissions, the five census tracts with the highest estimated cancer risks nationally are in Louisiana.

Meanwhile, in Flint, Michigan, officials diverted city water in an effort to save money but neglected to treat the water to prevent corrosion as it traveled through lead service lines. Their actions exposed more than 100,000 people to dangerous levels of lead. But, for months, the state ignored the predominantly black residents’ concerns and reassured them the water was safe, even as state employees received “coolers of purified water.” Many residents continue to use bottled water—for drinking, bathing, and even flushing their toilets—almost four years later.

Additionally, just last year, President Donald Trump signed an executive order reviving the Dakota Access oil pipeline, which jeopardizes the water resources of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. His blatant indifference to months of protests reemphasizes the administration’s position that Big Oil profits take precedence over the health of native people.

While the failure to adequately respond to problems facing communities of color is ongoing, it’s at its most blatant following natural disasters.

Even before Maria struck Puerto Rico, emergency personnel and public health officials understood that they faced a major crisis. But when President Trump arrived in San Juan two weeks later, he downplayed the disaster. So, while the president was throwing paper towels at the survivors of the storm, there was no real effort to fix the approximately $100 billion in damage or help the families of the estimated 1,000 people who lost their lives. At a time when real policy solutions were needed, the president’s misleading statements and actions undermined recovery and rebuilding efforts by diminishing the urgency of the situation.

Just weeks after the storm, Puerto Rico asked the U.S. Congress for $94 billion to fund recovery and rebuilding efforts. Since then, Congress has appropriated a mere $23 billion in direct aid, and the Trump administration has only spent a fraction of it. As a result, approximately 1 in 10 Americans in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands remain without power—and thousands still await permanent access to clean water and housing. These problems heighten the risk of respiratory illnesses, heart disease, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and myriad other health issues. Due to the slow response from Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have barely begun the long road to recovery. Now, as winter turns to spring, the people of Puerto Rico face the hottest and rainiest months of the year, as well as a looming hurricane season that threatens to worsen this nightmare scenario.

Hurricane Harvey dumped 27 trillion gallons of rain on Texas and Louisiana. Houston—which is now home to as many as 40,000 Katrina survivors—was inundated with water. Months after the storm dissipated, Hispanic and black residents were twice as likely as their white counterparts to report experiencing an income shock following the storm and then not getting the help they needed to recover. White residents were twice as likely as black residents to report that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had already approved their applications for relief.

However, inequitable disaster response transcends the Trump administration. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy tore through New York and New Jersey, killing 159 people and causing $70 billion in property damage. In much of the region, low-income people and people of color were hit the hardest. Yet, they did not receive equal attention or resources from government officials. In particular, New Jersey’s policies and practices for recovery favored largely white homeowners at the expense of largely black and Hispanic renters. To this day, many buildings that house some of America’s most vulnerable families remain unrepaired and unprepared for extreme weather in the future.

In 2005, under the George W. Bush administration, Hurricane Katrina resulted in nearly 2,000 fatalities and displaced an estimated 1 million residents. African American communities, especially in metropolitan New Orleans, were disproportionately affected by the storm and underserved by the federal government. Rather than receiving the resources they needed to recover, rebuild, and return to their homes, many were forced out of Louisiana completely. Ten years after Katrina, 90 percent of New Orleans residents had returned to their neighborhoods, yet just 37 percent of residents from the predominantly black Lower Ninth Ward had come home. Today, there are 92,000 fewer African Americans living in New Orleans compared with before Katrina.

Hurricane Maria—in addition to the past extreme weather events noted above—provides yet another chilling reminder of the consequences of systemic racism in America. Time and again, communities of color have been left behind. By 2043, these communities will constitute a majority of the U.S population. Therefore, policymakers must ensure they are fully equipped and prepared to withstand extreme weather fueled by climate change. Instead of employing dog-whistle rhetoric about how Katrina survivors are “a bunch of whiners” or how Puerto Ricans “want everything done for them,” elected officials must promote equity; provide long-term aid to disaster-affected regions; and invest in resilient housing and infrastructure for a changing planet.

Connor Maxwell is the research associate for Progress 2050 at the Center for American Progress.