The SeeingBlack.com 411
The Real Looting: Katrina Exposes
of Discrimination and Opens the Door for 'Disaster Capitalism'
By Robert D. Bullard and Beverly Wright
Special to SeeingBlack.com
are the real Hurricane Katrina looters? Tell us here!
Katrina survivors have a right
determination. All displaced persons should be allowed to
return to their home and neighborhood and allowed to exercise
their democratic rights guaranteed under our constitution.
BATON ROUGE, LA—As floodwaters recede in New Orleans and
the Gulf Coast region, it is clear that the lethargic and inept
emergency response after Hurricane Katrina is a disaster that overshadows
the deadly storm itself. Questions linger: Is government equipped
to plan for, mitigate against, respond to, and recover from natural
and manmade disasters? Can the public trust government response
to be fair? Does race matter?
Using case studies dating back more than seven decades, government
response to Hurricane Katrina can be examined in a historical context
of response to other public health emergencies, natural disasters,
industrial accidents, toxic contamination, epidemics (natural and
manmade), and terrorism threats in African Americans communities.
Generally, emergency response reflects the pre-existing social and
political stratification, with communities of color receiving less
priority than White communities. Equity issues revolve around which
community needs are addressed first and which community is forced
Blinded by Racism
Blacks and Whites see the world through different lenses. Whites
are far more likely to reject the notion that racial inequality
remains a major problem in America and that race plays a part in
government response to emergencies. Although Black and White hurricane
survivors find themselves in similar circumstances (displacement
from their homes), because of institutional discrimination, Blacks
may face different experiences and challenges than Whites in rebuilding
their lives, homes, businesses, institutions, and communities.
Hurricane Katrina left a wide path of destruction and despair across
Gulf Coast counties in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. The
powerful storm toppled offshore oil platforms and refineries sending
shock waves throughout the economy with the most noticeable effects
felt at the gas pump.
Thousands of Gulf Coast Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama residents
lost their homes in the hurricane. The needs of many African Americans
and low-income disaster survivors in Gulfport, Biloxi, and Mobile
remain invisible to the relief and recovery process. African Americans
in the region are "invisible" victims of Katrina and racism.
At every class level, racial discrimination artificially limits
opportunities and choices for African Americans. Unfortunately,
this sad fact of American life is not wiped away by the floodwaters
Rebuilding Public Trust–A Matter of Homeland
Hurricane Katrina is the first major national catastrophe in the
United States since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack. As
such, Katrina also created waves of a different sort. Millions of
Americans now question the nation's emergency preparedness, capability,
and commitment to address natural disasters in a fair and just way.
The events unfolding in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast have national
implications for emergency preparedness and homeland security. Billions
of dollars have been given to local, state, and federal government
agencies for homeland security "toys" (equipment) and
"training" (counter-terrorism) in the aftermath of the
September 11 terrorist attack—with little accountability or
evaluation of program effectiveness.
Katrina did not discriminate in
its devastation but numerous studies show that race and
class factors play a role in disaster victims' ability to
obtain loans, locate temporary and permanent housing, settle
insurance claims, recoup losses and return and rebuild.
Level of public trust—and for good reasons—differs
widely across racial and ethnic groups. A legacy of slavery, "Jim
Crow" segregation, institutionalized discrimination, and unequal
law enforcement has left Africans Americans displaying greater distrust
of physicians, medical research, and the health care system compared
with Whites. Distrust that many African Americans and other people
of color feel toward the government in general is an issue of social
justice and the government has an obligation to eliminate or mitigate
Differences in trust reflect divergent experiences of African Americans
and Whites. The mistrust of the medical profession and biomedical
community dates back to the antebellum period in our nation's history
when slaves and freed blacks were used in nonconsensual experimentation.
Successful public health response to epidemics and related health
emergencies will depend heavily on overcoming the historical legacy
of suspicion and distrust.
The sad legacy of the infamous Tuskegee syphilis "experiment,"
the failure to address childhood lead poisoning (a preventable disease),
the handling of the 2001 anthrax terrorist attack in Washington,
DC (different treatment of the mostly White U.S. Senates staffers
and the mostly Black Brentwood postal workers), and differential
treatment of Blacks in Superfund emergency clean-up, industrial
accidents and natural disasters, with the most recent being Hurricane
Katrina, are important reasons for a national agenda to rebuild
public trust in our local, state, and federal institutions.
Katrina has exposed shortcomings in emergency preparedness, command
and control, accountability, communication, and public trust. It
is clear that if those directly affected by natural and manmade
disasters don't have confidence in authorities, then it may be difficult
in the future to convince the public to take proper preventive steps.
In order for homeland security programs—and related emergency
preparedness programs for that matter—to be effective, they
must have the cooperation and trust of all Americans.
Exposing the Racial and Class Divide
Katrina exposed the racial and class divide that had been hidden
from sight for decades. Because of the enormous human suffering
and physical devastation, the response to Katrina (rescue, evacuation,
clean-up, rebuilding, and recovery) will test the nation's commitment
to address lingering social inequality and institutional barriers
that created and maintained the racial divide of "two Americas,"
one Black and poor and the other White and affluent.
Katrina struck a region that has a disproportionately large share
of African Americans and poor people. For example, though African
Americans make up only twelve percent of the United States population,
New Orleans is nearly 68 percent black. The African American population
in the coastal Mississippi counties where Katrina struck ranged
from 25 percent to 87 percent black. African Americans make up nearly
half (46.3 percent) of the population of Mobile, Ala., while, in
2000, 28 percent of New Orleans residents lived below the poverty
line. The poverty rate was 17.7 percent in Gulfport, Miss., 17.7
percent in Biloxi, Miss., and 21.2 percent in Mobile. Nationally,
11.3 percent of Americans and 22.1 percent of African Americans
fell below the poverty line in 2000.
Displacement – Survivors, Evacuees, Not "Refugees"
More than a million Louisiana residents fled Hurricane Katrina
of which an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 could end up permanently
displaced. The powerful storm ravaged an eight-parish labor market
that supported 617,300 jobs. Nearly 100,000 Katrina evacuees are
in 1,042 shelters scattered across 26 states and the District of
Columbia. Katrina has left environmental contamination in Gulf Coast
neighborhoods that will need to be cleaned up before residents can
return. An estimated 150,000 houses may be lost as a result of standing
water from the storm.
FEMA's plan calls for housing evacuees in 125,000 trailers and
mobile homes in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama until they find
permanent housing. However, the pace of getting evacuees out of
shelters has been slow because few sites have been found with the
necessary infrastructure—water, sewer, and electricity—to
accommodate trailers. Some Louisiana parishes near New Orleans have
adopted "emergency ordinances" and "NIMBY-ism"
(Not in My Back Yard) limiting density of mobile-home parks.
Katrina did not discriminate in its devastation but numerous studies
show that race and class factors play a role in disaster victims'
ability to obtain loans, locate temporary and permanent housing,
settle insurance claims, recoup losses and return and rebuild. If
social equity is not addressed in post-hurricane recovery planning
in the Gulf Coast, permanent displacement could become a major social,
economic, political, and human rights issue of the day. The groups
most vulnerable to permanent displacement include the poor, families
with children, elderly, disabled, renters, and African Americans.
Mental Health and Post-Traumatic Stress
Thousands of hurricane survivors along the Gulf Coast must now
cope with the loss of relatives and friends, homes, and businesses,
and "loss of community." Katrina displaced just under
350,000 school children in the Gulf Coast. An estimated 187,000
school children have been displaced in Louisiana, 160,000 in Mississippi,
and 3,118 in Alabama. Katrina closed the entire New Orleans school
system. More than 125,000 New Orleans children alone are attending
schools elsewhere. More than 93 percent of New Orleans schools are
African American. Evacuated children are being enrolled in school
districts from Arizona to Pennsylvania, including almost 19,000
who will be attending school in Texas.
For the survivors who lost everything, it involves coping with
the stress of starting all over. Two weeks after Katrina first struck,
more than 2,500 children were still separated from their families.
One can only imagine the mental anguish these children and families
Past studies show that Black disaster victims are more likely to
suffer from delayed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than Whites.
Black disaster victims often receive less support, information,
and emotional help than equally affected disaster victims who are
White. Studies also show that Blacks are also mistrustful of agencies
staffed largely by Whites and are less willing to turn for aid.
Just Transportation–Still Separate and Unequal
Transportation is a major component in any emergency preparedness
and evacuation plan. However, unequal access to transportation alternatives
in natural disasters heightens the vulnerability of the poor, elderly,
disabled, and people of color. Individuals with private automobiles
have a greater chance of "voting with their feet" and
escaping from hurricanes than individuals who are dependent on government
to provide emergency transportation. Too often buses (public transit
and school buses), vans (para-transit), and trains do not come to
the rescue of low-income, elderly, disabled, and sick people. As
in the case of Hurricane Katrina, buses were not used in emergency
evacuation. Many vulnerable people were left behind and many died.
Transportation apartheid is made clear in Just
Transportation: Dismantling Race and Class Barriers to Mobility
Robbery: Transportation Racism and New Routes to Equity,
which illustrate how chronic inequality in transportation is firmly
and nationally entrenched. American society is largely divided between
those with cars and those without cars. The nation has been so preoccupied
with building roads and highways, that we have neglected public
In urban areas, African Americans and Latinos comprise over 54
percent of transit users (62 percent of bus riders, 35 percent of
subway riders, and 29 percent of commuter rail riders). Nationally,
only about 5.3 percent of all Americans use public transit to get
to work. African Americans are almost six times as likely as Whites
to use transit to get around. Urban transit is especially important
to African Americans. More than 88 percent of Blacks live in metropolitan
areas and 53.1 percent live inside central cities. Nearly 60 percent
of transit riders are served by the ten largest urban transit systems
and the remaining 40 percent by the other 5,000 transit systems.
In areas with populations of one million and below, more than half
of all transit passengers have incomes of less than $15,000 per
The private automobile is still the most dominant travel mode of
every segment of the American population, including the poor and
people of color. Clearly, private automobiles provide enormous employment
access advantages to their owners. Car ownership is almost universal
in the United States with 91.7 percent of American households owning
at least one motor vehicle. According to the 2001 National Household
Travel Survey (NHTS) released in 2003, 87.6 percent of whites, 83.1
percent of Asians and Hispanics, and 78.9 percent of blacks rely
on the private car to get around.
Before Katrina, transit-dependent people and individuals who don't
own cars were "invisible" Americans. Lack of car ownership
and inadequate public transit service in many central cities and
metropolitan regions with a high proportion of "captive"
transit dependents exacerbate social, economic, and racial isolation—especially
for disabled, elderly, low-income, and people of color residents.
Nationally, only 7 percent of White households own no car, compared
with 24 percent of African American households, 17 percent of Latino
households, and 13 percent of Asian-American households. Two in
ten households in the Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama disaster
area had no car. People in the hardest hit areas were twice as likely
as most Americans to be poor and without a car. Over one-third of
New Orleans' African Americans do not own a car. More than 15 percent
of New Orleans residents rely on public transportation as their
primary mode of travel.
The bill for replacing and repairing the roads and bridges destroyed
by Hurricane Katrina could exceed $2.3 billion. Repairing damage
to interstate highways and major state roads, such as I-10, alone
cold cost $1.5 billion, to be paid with federal funds. An estimated
$77 million in repairs are needed on another 9,000 miles of "off
system roads" in the disaster area. These roads are not controlled
by local government and are not repaired or maintained with federal
dollars. The $2.3 billion price tag does not include damage to state
ports, airports, levees or mass transit systems, or funds to relieve
traffic-gridlock in Baton Rouge streets that are filled with vehicles
from New Orleans evacuees.
Katrina exposed a major weakness in urban evacuation plans. The
problem is not unique to New Orleans and Gulf Coast cities. The
recent evacuation of 2.7 million people from Houston fleeing from
Hurricane Rita shows that here is no way to evacuate a large U.S.
city quickly and smoothly. Many motorists ran out of gas after spending
more than fifteen hours stuck in traffic. The disastrous New Orleans
emergency transportation plan should alert other cities to the complexities
of mass evacuation. Emergency plans that do not provide alternative
transportation (buses, vans, trains, etc.) as an integral part of
disaster evacuation is destined to fail low-income, disabled, elderly,
sick, people of color and others who do not to own cars and drivers
Homeownership and Wealth Creation
Natural disasters often push poor people deeper into poverty, exacerbate
crowding conditions especially among families with children, and
deepen the wealth gap between Blacks and Whites. Katrina has intensified
the competition for affordable housing. The hurricane made Baton
Rouge the "fastest growing city in America,"with the East
Baton Rouge Parish population doubling from 425,000 to 850,000.
This unprecedented growth has strained the local apartment and home
market. Housing prices in the Baton Rouge metropolitan area have
risen by twenty percent since the hurricane. Before the storm, the
area had 3,626 homes listed for sale. A week later, fewer than 2,500
homes were officially listed for sale, but 75 percent of those homes
have been sold already.
Home ownership is still the cornerstone of the American Dream.
It is the largest investment most families will make in their lifetime.
Home ownership is a cushion against inflation, the cornerstone of
wealth creation, and a long-term asset that can secure advantages
and transfer across generations. Home ownership is a critical pathway
for "transformative" assets—inherited wealth that
lifts a family beyond their own achievement.
Ownership of property, land, and business is still a central part
of the American dream of success—a dream that has eluded millions
of Americans. The growing economic disparity between racial/ethnic
groups has a direct correlation to institutional barriers in housing,
lending, employment, education, health, and transportation. Housing
discrimination denies a substantial segment of people of color communities
a basic form of wealth accumulation and investment through home
ownership. The average Black family holds only 10 cents of wealth
for every dollar that Whites possess.
About 60 percent of America's middle-class families' wealth is
derived from their homes. Much of the increase in Black wealth is
due to rising home ownership, which increased from 42 percent in
1990 to 48 percent in 2003—still far behind the nationwide
home-ownership rate of 68 percent. Addressing "wealth disparity"
is one of the biggest issues facing urban, suburban, and rural areas
for the next 50 years.
Insurance "Tug of War" in the Aftermath
Insured losses from Hurricane
Katrina could reach to between $40
and $60 billion.
After the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, insurance adjusters
begin the arduous task of processing the mountain of insurance claims.
The storm has set the stage for a monumental "tug of war"
between insurers and the storm victims. The total economic losses
from Katrina will likely exceed $125 billion, with insurance companies
paying $40 to $60 billion.
Prices for home insurance in storm-ravaged Gulf Coast area of
Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama could easily jump an average
of 15 percent to 30 percent due to Katrina. After the four hurricanes
hit Florida in 2004, insurers began increasing the price for home
insurance there by as much as 30 percent, with some homeowners hit
with increases of more than 50 percent. For some homeowners in the
most vulnerable areas, Katrina would push the price increases along
the Gulf Coast even higher than in Florida.
A majority of households and businesses in the 12 counties most
affected by the storm in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana do
not have flood coverage. FEMA estimates that 12.7 percent of the
households in Alabama, 15 percent in Mississippi, and 46 percent
in Louisiana have flood insurance. Similarly, only 8 percent of
the businesses in hurricane-affected counties in Alabama, 15 percent
in Mississippi, and 30 percent in Louisiana have flood coverage.
Generally, people of color have higher levels of physical damage
but lower estimated losses, than Whites largely due to segregated
housing in older, poorly built homes. Black households are less
likely to have insurance to cover storm losses and temporary living
expenses. Because of racism and racial redlining, Blacks are more
likely than whites to receive insufficient insurance settlement
amounts. Blacks are less likely than Whites to have insurance with
major companies as a result of decades of insurance redlining.
Because of the legacy of "Jim Crow" segregation, many
African American consumers in the Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama
Gulf Coast region may be concentrated in the secondary insurance
market—smaller and less well-known insurance firms. This could
prove problematic for Katrina victims. For example, nearly a dozen
small insurance companies collapsed after Hurricane Andrew, which
cost the industry about $23 billion in today's dollars. Andrew was
the most expensive single hurricane until Katrina. The same thing
could happen after Katrina. Many, if not most, of Katrina’s
low and moderate-income victims may not have resources to hire lawyers
to fight the insurance companies.
Insurance "Looting" and Redlining
The insurance industry, like its housing industry counterpart, has
long used race as a factor in appraising and underwriting property.
Insurance redlining is not isolated to an individual insurance agent.
The practice is widespread among big and small companies. The premium
differentials between Black and White neighborhoods cannot be explained
solely by loss data, i.e., theft, vandalism, fire, and larceny crimes.
Studies over the past three decades clearly document the relationship
between redlining and disinvestment decisions and neighborhood decline.
Redlining accelerates the flight of full-service banks, food stores,
restaurants, and other shopping centers from black neighborhoods.
It is not uncommon to find African Americans who live in majority
black zip codes paying twice the insurance premium that whites pay
for comparable housing in mostly White suburban zip codes.
Katrina no doubt will expose the unequal treatment of African Americans
and intensify the long-running disputes between insurance companies
and consumers after hurricane and floods—disputes that revolve
around where standard homeowner's insurance coverage end and flood
insurance begin. For decades, consumers, Black and White, have complained
about insurance companies denying their claims on the basis that
damage was not wind-related but flood-related. Flood damage or rising
water is covered only by government-backed flood insurance. Because
of the enormity of the damage in the wake of Katrina, insurance
companies may try to categorize a lot of legitimate wind claims
as flood-related. This problem of insurance "looting"
will likely hit low-income, elderly, disabled, and people of color
Fair Housing, Fair Lending, and the Color of Credit
Disasters place a special burden on Black renters and homebuyers
seeking replacement housing. Many real estate and insurance agents
respond to the fears and biases of Whites. The result is a "discrimination
tax" that ends up costing Black renters and homebuyers more
than Whites for comparable housing. Predatory lending also hits
Blacks especially hard. Predatory lending creates separate and unequal
housing opportunities for Black and white homebuyers.
Existing fair housing and fair lending laws need to be enforced
to prevent discrimination against Hurricane Katrina victims. Because
of the national implications of the problem along the hurricane-impacted
counties in the Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana Gulf Coast region,
immediate federal intervention is needed by the U.S. Department
of Justice and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) investigates
cases of discrimination in housing.
Under the Fair Housing Act, the Department of Justice may start
a lawsuit where it has reason to believe that a person or entity
is engaged in a "pattern
or practice" of discrimination or where a denial of rights
to a group of persons raises an issue of general public importance.
In cases involving discrimination in home mortgage loans or home
improvement loans, the Department of Justice may file suit under
both the Fair
Housing Act and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act.
Small and Minority Businesses–Getting a Piece
of the Pie
Small businesses provide the backbone of the U.S. economy. Most
minority-owned firms are small businesses. The number of minority-owned
businesses increased 31 percent to more than four million from 1997
to 2002, according to the Census Bureau. The survey is conducted
every seven years. Overall, the number of U.S. businesses grew 10
percent in the period, to 23 million. Minorities owned 18 percent
of those 23 million, up from 15 percent in 1997. The survey is conducted
every seven years.
Disasters hit small and minority-owned businesses hardest because
they are often undercapitalized, vulnerable, and sensitive to even
small market shifts. The annual payroll alone in the metropolitan
area hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina—New Orleans, La., Biloxi,
Miss. and Mobile, Ala.— exceeded $11.7 billion in 2002. Small
businesses employed 273,651 workers in New Orleans, 54,029 in Biloxi,
and 107,586 in Mobile.
African Americans comprise the largest share of minority-owned
businesses in the hurricane-affected area in the Gulf Coast. The
U.S. Census Bureau reported in 1997 that New Orleans had 9,747 black-owned
firms, 4,202 Hispanic-owned firms and 3,210 Asian-owned firms. Minority-owned
firms in the Biloxi-Gulfport area included 1,305 black-owned firms,
273 Hispanic-owned firms and 1,063 Asian-owned firms. Mobile, Ala.
had 2,770 black-owned businesses, 478 Hispanic-owned businesses
and 549 Asian-owned firms.
Black business entrepreneurs are still significantly more likely
to be denied bank credit and, even when their loan application successful,
they receive smaller loans relative to comparable non-minority businesses.
This is the case before and after disasters. Katrina devastated
New Orleans small and minority-owned businesses.
New Orleans African American business entrepreneurs date back to
before the civil war. Many survived "Jim Crow" segregation
and other barriers (social and physical) placed in their path. They
serve as a tangible reminder of how Black people throughout the
city’s history have adapted to forces that stymied Black community
economic development. Historically, Black-owned banks have provided
loans and other services to Black communities that were redlined
by White banks and mortgage companies.
Cleanup-up Standards and "Dumping Grounds"
Hurricane Katrina has left environmental contamination in Gulf
Coast communities that will have to be cleaned up. In the New Orleans
area alone, an estimated 22 million tons of debris must be cleaned
up and 145,000 cars ruined by hurricane floodwater will need to
be disposed of. How, when, and to what extent contaminated neighborhoods
are cleaned up is a major environmental justice concern for African
Where hurricane debris and waste ends up is another issue that
causes concern because of pre-existing power arrangements and the
historical legacy of differential treatment provided to communities
of color. It is important that government officials not repeat the
mistakes made in 1965 with debris from Hurricane Betsy that was
disposed in an African American area, which later became the Agricultural
Street Landfill Superfund site community. Black communities in the
South, as documented in “Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and
Environmental Quality,” are dotted with landfills, toxic waste
dumps and hazardous waste disposal sites.
Katrina has created a New Orleans "government in exile."
The city's elected officials, a majority of whom are African Americans,
including the mayor, city council, school board, and judges, are
scattered in Baton Rouge and surrounding parishes and its citizenry
who elected them are scattered from Maine to Utah with no idea when
they can return home. Clean-up contracts and rebuilding decisions
are being made without the input, advise, or vote from duly elected
New Orleans officials and citizens.
Hurricane Katrina has opened the floodgate of land speculation
and redevelopment scenarios that plan "for" rather than
plan "with" the storm victims. What gets built and redeveloped
(and for whom) and who participates in the re-building process are
major economic justice issues. A small group of private companies,
nongovernmental organizations and members of think tanks have divided
up "pre-completed" no-bid contracts. A predatory form
of "disaster capitalism" exploits the desperation and
fear created by catastrophe to engage in radical social and economic
The reconstruction industry works so quickly and efficiently that
the privatizations and land grabs are usually completed before the
local population knows what hit them. Katrina has also allowed government
to suspend the Davis-Bacon Act, passed in 1931 during the Great
Depression, which sets a minimum pay scale for workers on federal
contracts by requiring contractors to pay the prevailing or average
pay in the region.
The New Orleans case presents some important political and human
rights implications involving American citizens "right to govern,"
"right to rebuild," and "right to return" to
their homes after a disaster. It also poses voting challenges regarding
registration, redistricting, access to polls for the disabled, and
the homeless. Identification is required at the polls and returning
residents may not have access to traditional identification papers
(birth certificates, drivers licenses etc.) destroyed by the hurricane.
New Orleans' repopulation and redevelopment plans also have Voting
Rights Act implications, especially proposals that may decrease
the number of African American elected officials as well as decrease
the voting strength of African Americans.
Rebuilding New Orleans
Hurricane Katrina exposed the systematic weakness of the nation's
emergency preparedness and response. If Katrina is the best emergency
response that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) could muster,
then the United States is in trouble. There can be no homeland security
if people do not have homes to go to and if they lose trust in government
to respond to an emergency in an effective, fair, and just way.
No Americans, Black or White, rich or poor, young or old, sick or
healthy should have to endure needless suffering from a disaster.
Clearly, Hurricane Katrina exposed the limitation of local, state
and federal government operations to implement an effective emergency
preparedness and response plan. Lines of authority and responsibility
between the city of New Orleans (mayor), the state of Louisiana
(governor), and the federal government appear to have been blurred.
Clearly, the response that followed Katrina heightened the level
of mistrust African Americans have toward local, state, and federal
government—making it difficult for some displaced residents
to take proper preventive steps against environmental and health
threats left by the storm. For example, Black New Orleanians see
"Jump Start Jefferson" and other mostly White residents
in neighboring communities returning home, while they linger in
shelters or in places far from home. It appears that some Black
New Orleanians may be willing to return to the city and take unnecessary
health risks to fend off what they perceive as a "land-grab"
plot by government and developers.
Congress is debating proposed legislation to allow the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency to waive environmental regulations for 120 days
if it "is necessary to respond, in a timely and effective manner,
to a situation or damage related to Hurricane Katrina." Allowing
waivers of environmental standards could compound the harms already
caused by Katrina and undermine health protection.
There is a racial divide in the way the U.S. government cleans
up toxic waste sites in the country. White communities see faster
action and better results than communities where Blacks, Hispanics
and other minorities live. This unequal protection often occurs
whether the community is wealthy or poor. The U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency should use uniform clean-up standards to ensure
equal protection of public health and environmental justice. What
gets cleaned up and where the waste is disposed are key equity issues.
It is important that the government officials not repeat the mistakes
made in 1965 with debris from Hurricane Betsy disposed in an African
American area—later to become the Agricultural Street Landfill
Superfund site community.
Dozens of toxic "time bombs" are ticking away in the
Katrina-affect region and other communities around the country where
African Americans and other people of color are fighting against
environmental racism, and demanding protection of public health
and relocation from toxic "hot spots."
Pollution from chemical plants located in populated areas pose
a health threat to nearby residents. The plant themselves also pose
a threat as possible targets for terrorism. While the Department
of Homeland Security has spent billions of dollars shoring up plant
security, little attention has been given to reducing elevated health
threats to "fenceline" communities—communities that
are disproportionately poor and people of color. These "environmental
justice communities" also have a disproportionately large share
of sick people. Residents in environmental justice communities are
the most vulnerable populations in mass evacuations from natural
and manmade disasters.
The "Rebuild New Orleans" logo is beginning to show
up on ball caps, T-shirts, bumper stickers, and posters. Rebuilding
New Orleans will be one of the largest urban reconstruction programs
in the country. Reconstruction must include rebuilding and restoring
Black cultural and education institutions, including the historically
Black colleges and universities (Dillard University, Xavier University,
and Southern University in New Orleans) that have produced Black
leaders for more than a century.
Katrina survivors, who make up the large "African American
Diaspora," are dispersed across the nation. Physically and
emotionally battered (but not broken), with homes, jobs, and neighborhoods
destroyed, many evacuees in the Houston Astrodome have vowed not
to return. A recent survey by The Washington Post found
that 43 percent of these evacuees in Houston plan on returning to
New Orleans, 44 percent plan on settling somewhere else and thirteen
percent were not sure.
Houston and Atlanta were prime benefactors of the New Orleans'
"brain drain" before Katrina. Hurricane evacuees, whether
they are in private homes, hotels, or shelters need to know that
they have a place in the "new" New Orleans. Black teachers,
students, business entrepreneurs, postal workers, doctors, lawyers,
cooks, maids, musicians, and others need to know they have a role
in the rebuilding and governance of their city.
Since Katrina, the African American Leadership Project, though
scattered across the country, developed its own response to the
disaster. This plan, presented to the Congressional Black Caucus
2005 Annual Legislative Conference held in Washington, DC, recommends
that the hundreds of billions in federal resources be targeted to
improve human development and capacity, rebuild the physical infrastructure,
and rebuild the institutional systems. The group outlined some broad
principles, framework, value orientation, and "Citizen Bill
of Rights" that they would like to see used to guide the Rebuilding,
Reconstruction and Recovery process in New Orleans. Katrina survivors
are fighting for equal treatment and equal protection of their right
to clean air, clean land, and clean water.
Finally, Katrina survivors have a right to self-determination.
All displaced persons should be allowed to return to their home
and neighborhood and allowed to exercise their democratic rights
guaranteed under our constitution. It is imperative that evacuees
from hurricane-damaged areas, who are scattered across the United
Stated, be allowed to vote in elections and participate in decision-making
that affects their communities.
Robert D. Bullard directs the Environmental Justice Resource
Center at Clark Atlanta University. His most recent book is The
Quest for Environmental Justice: Human Rights and the Politics of
Pollution (Sierra Club Books, 2005). Beverly Wright directs
the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University.
She is a Hurricane Katrina survivor. For more information on environmental
racism visit www.ejrc.cau.edu,
where a version of this article first appeared.
— October 11, 2005
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