230749 Building Community Capacity and Addressing Social Justice Issues in Underserved Communities

Monday, November 8, 2010 : 9:10 AM - 9:30 AM

Beverly Wright, PhD , Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, Dillard University, New Orleans, LA
Even as Katrina was sweeping away businesses, homes and lives, a steady stream of stark televised images of desperate and seemingly abandoned residents that flowed through the media, began to shatter many of the illusions Americans held about things associated with disasters. The first illusion to be shattered was that the government would always be there as an effective safety net for everyone in times of catastrophic disaster. The second illusion that Katrina swept away was the traditional belief that natural disasters are a sort of equal opportunity occurrence – acts of God that affect us all. But as images flowed in, there was no escaping the harsh realities of race and place in the wake of the storm. As the government's emergency rescue and recovery efforts floundered, particularly in beleaguered New Orleans, the country and, yes, the world began to realize that this was not the case. It was a largely African American and often poor population that lived in the areas most vulnerable to the collapse of the levees that was unable to secure transportation for evacuation, and who was now scrambling in frightening conditions to secure scarce resources and aid for their families, friends and themselves. Both the impacts and the response to disasters, it seemed, were heavily affected by income and race.

Although this seemed a revelation to many reporters and politicians, environmental justice researchers were not at all surprised. While the evidence is still emerging, the best assessment is that disparities are common, and researchers increasingly suspect that some observed differences in health outcomes are attributable to environmental factors, particularly in combination with social stressors related to poverty and lack of or decreased access to health care. Further, it is not simply income which plays a major role in these health outcomes, but race seems to be a more significant predictor in many studies, suggesting the interplay of deeply-rooted systems of privilege and discrimination.

Minority and low-income Americans are also more likely to be underserved by government and private relief agencies before, during and after environmental calamities such as Katrina. Before a disaster, minorities are more likely to be underprepared and underserved in addition to be living in unsafe, substandard housing. During a disaster, minorities and the poor, due to economic and language barriers, are often less exposed to disaster warnings, and are more likely to encounter ethnic insensitivity (conscious or unconscious) at the hands of relief workers and government officials. After a disaster, minorities and low-income individuals suffer slow recoveries, not only because they have less insurance and lower incomes, but also because they receive less information, fewer loans, and less government relief. Additionally, they encounter bias in the search for long-term housing. This sort of second disaster for those with scantier economic and political resources seems to be playing out in the aftermath of Katrina.

The deferential effects of this disaster were neither natural nor accidental. They were consistent with a pervasive continuum in which low-income and minority communities suffer from both higher socioeconomic stress and greater environmental exposures to air toxins, hazardous wastes and other environmental disamenities. Now, with the onset of problems due to the BP oil spill, some communities are doubly affected. Their residents were just beginning to see some improvements in their lives since that terrible storm. The BP oil disaster has dealt another devastating blow to Gulf Coast communities.

As reconstruction and rebuilding move forward in New Orleans and the Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama Gulf coastal regions, it is clear that the lethargic and inept emergency response after Hurricane Katrina was a disaster that overshadowed the deadly storm itself. Five years after the storm and now the BP oil disaster, in addition to the onslaught of the clean up, it just might be a “policy surge,” not a storm or oil spill that will complete the job.

Real examples of the perilous consequences of policy decisions are already being experienced in New Orleans. Communities least affected by the storm tend to have a larger percentage of white residents. These communities are also more likely to describe the recovery as satisfactory. Areas slated for immediate reoccupation and redevelopment after Katrina and receiving a large percentage of hazardous mitigation funds as well as an increased level of levee protection are predominantly white areas in a city that was approximately 65% African American. An examination of how these disparities occurred all pointed to administrative policies that favored more affluent and white residents of the city.

If policies are not developed to protect vulnerable populations, there will be a permanent and systematic depopulation and displacement of African-American, other minorities and the poor in communities of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Extraordinary efforts must be taken by leaders and allies to effectively ensure the inclusion of environmental, public health, and social equity in the New Orleans and Gulf Coast restoration process.

Learning Areas:
Public health or related public policy

Learning Objectives:
Describe the impact of Katrina and the BP oil disaster on impacted communities. Analyze the role of the government and public policy on the recovery of low income and minority residents. Describe health challenges after Katrina and the BP oil disaster.

Presenting author's disclosure statement:

Qualified on the content I am responsible for because: I founded the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice in 1991 and have been working in the field of Environmental Justice since its inception and recognition as a cutting edge academic and scientific field intersecting social justice, environmental advocacy and community education, my experience spanning 20 years.
Any relevant financial relationships? No

I agree to comply with the American Public Health Association Conflict of Interest and Commercial Support Guidelines, and to disclose to the participants any off-label or experimental uses of a commercial product or service discussed in my presentation.