What’s race got to do with it? That is a question I walked away with the middle of day two Climate Reality Leadership training. Let me quickly state that the question did not arise from any information provided, discussed or even suggested by presenters. It arose from a comment made to me by another attendee. There were 1500 of us from all walks of life, 37 countries and 50 states. I am accustomed to being in the minority at such events. My attendance was actually sparked by the fact that African Americans, Latinos and other minorities need more faces like their own spreading the message of climate reality. Since I consider conversation with other cultures, races, different sexual orientation, religions, etc. a learning experience and culturally enhancing I will interact with just about anyone. My husband, as I often tease him, is a member of the three foot club. If there is anyone within three feet of him, he is going to involve them in conversation. He had made a conversational connection to the person who ignited this blog topic.
There were four of us sharing a table at lunch. On the long trek back to the Grand Ballroom from the lunchroom my husband and one of the gentlemen sharing our table walked ahead while two of us lingered behind for a moment disposing of trash in the proper recycling bins. As part of our training we were asked to consult with others at our tables in the training center and come up with questions to pose to Mr. Gore. During the walk back my companion related a question posed by a member of his team. Her question as he stated it was why did FEMA take so long to respond to the Katrina tragedy? He added that of course this woman was African American. I could see that he thought this was a perfectly ludicrous question to pose to Mr. Gore. I had to agree that this venue was perhaps not the place for the question. I would not have thought to ask a question about FEMA. As we continued to walk back to our respective places in the ballroom, I think I glimpsed the real statement behind the question. Why after all the information Al Gore made available years ago to our government was an entire city left defenseless against Katrina? We knew about global warming and the effects on weather. We knew New Orleans and other coastal areas would be devastated by storms of increasing magnitude. Why were the levies not improved? Why was there such an ineffective method of getting people out of harm’s way? Why did it take so long to bring aid?
Those of you reading this blog are probably thinking the reasons had nothing to do with race. That might be true but then again here are some facts to consider. Data from FEMA:
1. More than a third of the region’s 1.7 million residents lived in areas that suffered flooding or moderate to catastrophic storm damage, according to FEMA. The majority of people living in damaged areas were in the City of New Orleans (over 350,000), with additional concentrations in suburban Jefferson Parish (175,000) and St. Bernard Parish (53,000) and along the Mississippi Coast (54,000).
2. In the region as a whole, the disparities in storm damage are shown in the following comparisons (arranged in order of the degree of disparity):
• By race. Damaged areas were 45.8% black, compared to 26.4% in undamaged areas.
• By housing tenure. 45.7% of homes in damaged areas were occupied by renters, compared to 30.9% in undamaged communities.
• By poverty and employment status. 20.9% of households had incomes below the poverty line in damaged areas, compared to 15.3% in undamaged areas. 7.6% of persons in the labor force were unemployed in damaged areas (before the storm), compared to 6.0% in undamaged areas.
If the post-Katrina city were limited to the population previously living in areas that were undamaged by the storm – that is, if nobody were able to return to damaged neighborhoods – New Orleans is at risk of losing more than 80% of its black population. This means that policy choices affecting who can return, to which neighborhoods, and with what forms of public and private assistance, will greatly affect the future character of the city. (John R. Logan, Professor of Sociology, Brown University, Director, Spatial Structures in the Social Sciences, The Impact of Katrina: Race and Class in Storm-Damaged Neighborhoods, Jan 11, 2006).
Michelle Chen, in a 2008 article written for the WIP told the story of a displaced black woman attempting to return to her home in New Orleans. In spite of the fact that her building in one of New Orleans public housing projects was left undamaged she and the other residents would not be able to return home. Why? The undamaged buildings would be razed to make way for development. Despite protests, demonstrations and legal challenges the newly elected, majority-white City Council voted to approve the redevelopment proposal.
As I left McCormick Place that evening I thought about the posited question. Where was FEMA and where is social and environmental justice NOW?