For environmental justice advocates like myself, hurricane season is always a nerve wracking time of year. Unless you have been on a media diet, you know that hurricanes devastated the United States, Puerto Rico and several other Caribbean islands this past month. The science tells us that warmer water due to climate change is making hurricanes more powerful and more frequent. Without addressing climate justice, there can be no environmental justice.
This means that unless we confront the causes of climate change, low income and communities of color will continue to be unfairly impacted by it.
In early September, Hurricane Harvey hit Southeast Texas killing 200 people. Then, Hurricane Irma in Florida and other areas of the Southeast killed at least seventy-five people across the state of Florida. Now, Hurricane Maria has impacted Puerto Rico, and the death toll is rising. While these numbers are lower than that of Hurricane Katrina’s, primarily due to emergency preparedness, recent hurricane survivors are faced with health issues in the aftermath. Environmental justice communities know these health impacts well – they are often the first and the worst hit by natural disasters. Several Environmental Justice Leadership Forum members were affected by hurricanes this month. Hilton Kelley from CIDA, Inc., evacuated his city of Port Arthur, Texas, with his family until recently because his house flooded in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Juan Parras of T.E.J.A.S warned members of his Houston community about the pollutants released in the air. Unfortunately, these stories are not uncommon.
In Houston and other areas of Texas, there are high racial disparities in the exposure of environmental risks. Latinx and African American families are immensely concentrated near toxic sites including petrochemical facilities, superfund sites, garbage incinerators, and landfills. Moreover, stormwater infrastructure and flood management in these areas are in dire need of repair. Hurricane Harvey worsened these conditions for many communities. Among the environmental impacts of Hurricane Harvey, 46 industrial facilities released 4.6 million pounds of emissions into the air. This makes up one-fifth of the unapproved pollution from an oil or gas facility in 2016 in Texas as a result of a malfunction or maintenance issue. Floodwaters were contaminated with bacteria and toxins, including Escherichia coli, a form of fecal contamination, over four times the level that is considered safe by the EPA. The contaminants came from several waste treatment plants in the area. In addition, high levels of lead, arsenic and other metals were present in the water.
Vulnerable communities in the Southeast also experienced the unequal impacts of Hurricane Irma. In South Florida, eight elderly folks passed away due to the sweltering heat in their nursing home, as a result of a power outage that left up to 6.1 million customers without power. As temperatures rose to 90 degrees, residents did not have access to air conditioning. Moving to a cooler location was difficult due to the emergency situation. Those most affected by these types of events are typically low income and elderly populations. Incarcerated individuals, many black or brown, were left without evacuation plans, leaving them to deal with the hurricane and its effects.
Puerto Rico, an island already dealing with economic struggles, is in the midst of a devastating situation. Many are experiencing loss of power, water, and communication in the wake of Hurricane Maria. In addition, heavy rain damaged the Guajataca Dam, leading to its failure and the delivery of a flash flooding warning. A majority of the island is so severely damaged and in need of repair, it will take years to restore livable conditions. Governor Ricardo Rosseló of Puerto Rico has asked the federal government for more assistance in regards to law enforcement and transportation needs, describing that the disaster is “not unlike Katrina or Sandy.” President Donald Trump has spent more time condemning NFL players for protesting racial injustice in our country and criticizing San Juan mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz over Twitter than addressing the situation in Puerto Rico. In fact, he went on a golfing trip as residents struggled to get food and power in their homes. He did, however, temporarily waive the Jones Act which had prevented foreign ships from sending much needed goods to the Island. For years, the law had made the price of goods twice that of nearby islands. Puerto Rico has a higher cost of living than urban areas of the U.S. and a per capita income at almost half that of the poorest U.S. state. Prior to the hurricane, Puerto Rico already faced environmental justice concerns around coal ash, superfund sites, and sewage. These issues are expected to worsen due to the hurricane’s impact.
In just one month, climate change has shown the world the unequal impact of climate and environmental disaster on low income communities and communities of color nationwide.
We expect the effects to only grow worse unless we create policies that address the causes of climate change. The science is clear: human-caused climate change is real. NASA reports 16 of the 17 warmest years recorded were after 2000. This has caused weather patterns that create more powerful hurricanes, cause sea levels to rise (making flooding worse), and increases heavy precipitation. The impacts of climate change hurt the National Flood Insurance Program, which was already billions of dollars in debt before Hurricane Harvey, and is now expected to increase its debt dramatically with each new superstorm. Many families in the United States do not even own flood insurance, which means that they literally risk losing everything. With reports that Hurricane Harvey will possibly surpass Hurricane Katrina in cost, it is important that the United States takes action in addressing these concerns.
Puerto Ricans and the residents in vulnerable cities across the Southeast that were affected by the hurricanes this month had little to do with the causes of climate change, yet they felt the impacts the most. Elected officials in the United States need to do their part to address climate change. We need leaders in Congress to advance policies that address the impacts of climate change, and refuse to make cuts to an already understaffed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other related agencies. EPA leaders must address climate change directly on their website, meet with environmental groups and environmental justice groups and not be influenced by polluters. EPA must nominate science advisors who are unbiased and who use scientific evidence in their decisionmaking. We expect the President of the United States to protect and defend our country from issues as important as climate injustice, instead of pulling out of the Paris Agreement, or removing a federal advisory panel that works to address climate change. Climate change impacts communities of color and low income communities first and hardest. Elected officials should stand up for what is right and fight for these communities.