Race, Class And Hurricanes: The Inequality Of Disaster

By Guest Contributor

In the past few days, I have read headline after headline detailing the damaging effects of Hurricane Sandy on the New York metropolitan area. Millions are still without power and dozens have been killed; countless homes and businesses have been destroyed. In scanning through the headlines, however, I can’t help but be concerned about the distorted priorities of coverage. The devastation to New York’s wealthy elite, in the form of closed high-end restaurants or flooded Chelsea art galleries, seems to be the focus of the media. The conversation about who has been disproportionately hurt by Sandy and about the roles that race and class play when hurricanes hit, is altogether absent from the discourse. Once again, the legacy of ignoring marginalized communities in times of national emergency has been affirmed, and what walks and talks like a natural disaster is more likely a man made one.

While wealthy folks from the village were stressing about how they were going to get uptown to charge their phones, as one New York Times article covers, thousands of people were lining up for emergency food and water downtown. The neighborhoods most severely affected by Sandy are, expectedly, the same ones most severely affected by systemic class and racial inequality. While its true that hurricanes don’t discriminate, people and societies certainly do, and this is no exception.

Take the Red Hook Houses in northern Brooklyn, for example, where over 6,500 residents have gone without heat, elevators, food and water for over a week after Sandy. Elderly and disabled residents are being forced to walk up 12 flights of stairs without elevator access, mothers are desperately washing their young children with bottled water and thousands are going to sleep each night without heat, in temperatures dropping into the 20’s. Red Hook has received virtually no aid from FEMA or the city, and its residents are literally surviving because of the generosity of neighbors’ donations. Lower Manhattan, on the other hand, has had almost all of its power restored. Trees in my parents’ upper-class towns in the suburbs are already being replanted. Random? You decide.

Red Hook, similar to many other forgotten communities, like the Jacob Riis Houses in Lower Manhattan, has a long history of marginalization. These are predominately communities of color whose residents live below or near the poverty line, who could not simply leave town when Sandy struck, as many New York City residents did. As one Reuters article states, “Those with a car could flee. Those with wealth could move into a hotel. Those with steady jobs could decline to come into work.” Without public evacuations, people must rely on individual resources, which, in New York City, are distributed far from equally. According to census data, last year the wealthiest 20 percent of Manhattan residents made close to $400,000 on average, while the poorest 20 percent made around $10,000.  As Reuters points out, only a handful of developing nations, like Sierra Leone and Namibia, have income inequality rates that rival those of New York.

So, although the media is overlooking the disproportionate attention given to certain neighborhoods, really it should come as no surprise that the hardest hit are overwhelmingly home to the working poor. The housing projects are, in fact, just the tip of the iceberg as one New York journalist notes: “Waterfront communities like Far Rockaway and Coney Island are utterly devastated, parts of Queens have suffered horrific damage from fires, and […] we’ve heard nothing about what city officials are doing to assist residents of Staten Island who are virtually stranded.” Unfortunately, all of this is really nothing new.

It only takes one look out my window to be reminded of what happens when communities are forgotten by the nation in times of disaster. I am in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, and the street I am living on is lined with houses that have been boarded up and empty since Katrina hit, over seven years ago. If I were to show you a picture of the house across the street, with its roof collapsed in, you might think it was from 2006, right after the hurricane. On the other hand, if I were to take a drive uptown to the wealthy, predominately white neighborhoods back in 2006, they would be almost completely restored.  But hurricanes don’t discriminate, right?

The class and racial dynamics of Hurricane Katrina’s effects are far too complex to go into detail here (although I encourage you to read about them elsewhere), but the obvious comparisons to Sandy must be made. The Lower Ninth Ward is a predominately black and working-class neighborhood, which was hit the hardest by Katrina and the hardest by national indifference. Just like the residents of Red Hook, the Lower Ninth was disproportionately neglected immediately after the storm, and has continued to be neglected seven years later. There are no services or jobs in the neighborhood, the unemployment rate is something like 75 percent, the incarceration rate is the highest in the country and thousands of residents are still unable to return home. To top it all off, the levees that famously broke are being rebuilt just down the street, and are allegedly weaker than the old ones.

Despite the media’s negligence of covering systemic racism and classism in relief efforts, they are realities that must be brought into the discourse if the full story is to be told. As climate change continues to make natural disasters the norm, it is pretty clear that Sandy is not going to be the last hurricane of the decade.  However, if there is a positive (if not bleak) side to storms like Sandy and Katrina, it is that they expose pre-existing inequalities and push us to address them; to make our communities more resilient; and to work towards a more just and equitable future.

Written by JENNY MARKS ‘14.5 of Bedford, N.Y.