We are comforted by the images of the unity and resilience of the people of Houston, Texas after Hurricane Harvey. It will be those traits that will be so important in the recovery from the torrential rains and flooding that devastated Houston and other Texas and regional communities. Here, in an article by Oliver McAteer (Metro.co.uk Wednesday 30 Aug 2017 5:17 pm), we see the discussion of another issue.
Understanding who is most affected by natural disaster and what this teaches us is of great importance in our attempt to achieve and maintain social justice both in the face of natural disaster and in the everyday lives of all people. Black Americans and poor people will be hit the hardest by Hurricane Harvey, a UK researcher has said.
Mainstream media is painting a picture of unity and resilience in the face of adversity, but it is race and social class, which will determine the impact of the storm—just like they did during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, says Dr. Anna Hartnell.
The Birkbeck, University of London lecturer, and author of After Katrina: Race, Neoliberalism and the End of the American Century said a number of factors put black Americans at risk of suffering greater repercussions from Harvey.
She told Metro US: ‘Although Texas itself is more central to the American imagination than Louisiana–New Orleans in particular has been constructed as a kind of pariah–it is nonetheless home to pockets of extreme poverty. In Houston 30 percent of residents live below the poverty line. And, like New Orleans and indeed most other urban centers in the US, poverty in Houston is overwhelmingly and disproportionately racialized.
‘Race and social class will determine the impact of storm’
‘Cheaper land tends to also be floodplains in flood-prone areas. Car and home ownership are measures of short term and long term resilience with respect to disasters like Hurricane Harvey, and just as with Hurricane Katrina, people of color in Texas are far less likely to own cars that might enable them to evacuate or homes on which they can claim insurance and rebuild later on.
‘Black Americans are also much more likely to live in undervalued neighborhoods which will secure fewer recovery dollars down the line, which are then in turn less likely to be able to return and regroup, and so are vulnerable to gentrification—as was the case in New Orleans after Katrina.’
Dr. Hartnell said it is a ‘great myth that disasters are social levelers’ and Donald Trump is only perpetuating this stereotype. She explained that waving around the Lone Star State flag and shouting, ‘it happened to Texas and Texas can handle anything’, obscures the fact that ‘resilience is not created equal but rather something that is built into people and communities according to relative wealth and status’.
Almost as soon as the New Orleans metro area began to fill with water in the late summer of 2005, following the catastrophic breaching of the levees by Hurricane Katrina, the story was one about race and class. What is striking about the mainstream coverage of Hurricane Harvey, by contrast, is that it is largely being presented as illustrative of the great myth that disasters are social levelers.
Houston is also home to a number of oil refineries, some of which have been damaged by the storm or have had to be shut down, leading to the emission of potentially hazardous and carcinogenic pollutants. Again, just like Louisiana’s petrochemical corridor, which has been dubbed “cancer alley,” the communities living closest to these sites are low-income communities of color. They are exposed to these pollutants on a daily basis, an injustice that some commentators describe as ‘environmental racism’, but the risks have been enormously exacerbated by the storm.
Dr. Hartnell added: ‘So beneath the narrative of resilience and unity that the mainstream media and the US government and authorities have done their best to circulate, the reality is that race and class disparities will determine the impact of the storm just as dramatically and unjustly as they did in 2005.’
For the Diversity Committee