At the Front Door - A column about climate change in our lives
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June 1st marked the beginning of wildfire and hurricane season, both of which are forecast to be above average in severity according to the AccuWeather forecasters and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Non-profit organizations across the United States have banded together to protect and empower their communities in the face of what they consider to be a broken disaster relief system.
“FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) doesn’t show up until about two weeks after a storm,” explained Ashely Shelton, CEO of the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice in Louisiana, at a June 3rd Ethnic Media Services briefing with advocates from Organizing Resilience. “It creates this gap where folks are desperate, they’re reeling and hurting,” she said.
Organizing Resilience is a network of non-profit organizations from Florida, New Jersey, California, Louisiana and Texas that foster community resilience at the grass-roots level. Many participating organizations have dealt, first hand, with the consequences of hurricanes, wildfires, and other disasters on their communities.
Representatives from the disaster relief community described their preparations for the forthcoming disaster season, and highlighted what governments and officials need to do to better respond to disasters.
Grassroots Activists Help Communities Cope With Natural Disasters
After Hurricane Ida last year, Shelton’s organization was able to provide immediate and direct cash assistance to residents impacted by the storm to cover essential costs such as hotel rooms, food, and bills.
“We have been trying to drive as much of those federal resources to the ground, create as much transparency as possible,” Shelton said, “It is unfortunate that it doesn’t feel like those dollars are there, or are tangible. And it is that disaster economy that sucks up so much of the resources and leaves the everyday family and person and home behind.”
The Power Coalition is also pushing actions that aid in long-term recovery for communities. This past legislative session, her organization supported legislation “to hold insurance companies accountable to their clients” after some insurance companies failed to pay out claims or avoided paying due to unclear provisions that excluded wind damage or placed a ‘cap’ on natural disasters.
Fractured Disaster Relief Systems Leave Out the Most Vulnerable
Two years ago Oregon suffered from very serious wildfires which directly impacted many of the farm workers on Oregon’s agricultural land. Daysi Bedolla Sotelo,, the Organizing Director at Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), noted that during those fires “there was a lot of information coming out in English.” This means that one of the communities most heavily impacted by the fires was “not getting it in the language in which they are needing it.”
Two years ago, Oregon suffered some of the most destructive forest fires in its history. Sotelo noted that during wildfires, many farm workers continued to work despite the dangerous conditions, “They are the ones that are providing the food at our tables,” said Sotelo, “and they weren’t being protected.”
Due to their immigration status, community members are often mistrustful of reaching out to government officials for assistance. “Even when the wildfires were happening two years ago there was an emergency setup and folks weren’t going because there were a lot of rumors that immigration was there,” Sotelo said. “Folks were scared to go to these agencies because they don’t know what the repercussions are going to be.”
PCUN was ultimately successful in organizing some state-level support for farmworkers after the fires two years ago. They also organized financial assistance for farmworkers who lost income during the Covid-19 pandemic. Recently, PCUN was able to work with OSHA to pass smoke and heat rules protecting farm workers that will take effect this year.
Unequal Responses Leave Many Vulnerable to Future Disasters
The legacy of disasters leaves an enduring mark on communities. “Although Harvey almost five years ago,” said Chrishelle Palay, Executive Director of the Houston Organizing Movement for Equity (HOME) Coalition, “There are so many people that are still waiting for assistance and for their homes to be repaired. And especially, low-income communities of color that continue to live in homes with rotted wood and leaky roofs.”
While waiting for assistance, communities are sometimes re-traumatized by subsequent disasters. When winter storm Uri, caused over 200 deaths and knocked out power and water to large parts of Texas, “We were left in freezing conditions and darkness for days, and in some areas actually for weeks,” Palay recalled. “Then after the temps increased and the plumbing pipes warmed up, another disaster struck because there were burst plumbing pipes and water damage to homes and no running water.”
According to Palay, many damaged homes are still awaiting repair, mostly in communities which were already historically underfunded and ignored.
Housing Affordability and the Climate Crisis
Florida, like many places in California, struggles with a lack of affordable housing. The costs of both renting and owning are increasing. “We’re in the midst of a housing crisis. Housing costs have skyrocketed for Floridians, and we know that entering this hurricane season it’s a grave concern because a lot of folks are experiencing housing insecurity.”added MacKenzi Marcelin, the Climate Justice Manager for for Florida Rising, “The climate crisis reduces the pool of affordable housing, or that when homes are rebuilt maybe they are not rebuilt for everyone,” noted panel moderator Jennifer Farmer. According to Marcelin, increasing costs means that individuals are “moving to areas and living situations that are less resilient, more in disarray, and aren’t able to withstand these disasters as well as the previous locations.”
Black and Brown People Are the Least Responsible But Suffer The Most
To protect low-income residents, Florida Rising has pushed local officials to “establish landlord registries to hold landlords accountable to local safety ordinances and implement housing anti-discrimination ordinances.” They have also encouraged cities to adopt a tenants’ bill of rights that include mandated ninety-day eviction notices for pregnant women and tenants with children. “Black and brown women are more likely to be the ones facing eviction,” Marcelin added.
This was a recurring theme in the discussion.“I find it ironic that the people least responsible for the climate crisis are the people who bear the greatest toll,” said Farmer. “Black and brown people, indigenous communities, poor communities, are least responsible but suffer all of these devastation effects.”