Sunday, September 3, 2017

Disaster might not discriminate, but recovery does

  There was nowhere to go from the kitchen counter.

  Trina Moore had already called the Coast Guard. The four children in her care were stretched out on top of the dishwasher, clutching pillows almost as big as they were while they slept. One little girl, hooked up to a ventilator, sat awake: She was watching the brown, murky water still rising towards her. It was 4:30 in the morning.

  Moore and her family are some of the countless Texans who had to fend for themselves this past week in the face of what the University of Wisconsin has determined was a one-in-1,000 year flood event that occurred when Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Houston.

  “All citizens in its path are suffering equally,” wrote Mel Young in The New York Post Thursday.

  That’s a common sentiment that we know to be false.

  “[D]isasters replicate our social cleavages and inequalities,” tweeted disaster historian Jacob Remes last week. A few days earlier he noted: “We will hear claims about how disasters don’t discriminate by race or class. This is a lie. Because disasters are social, they do.”

  Moore, for example, was forced to wade through her East Houston neighborhood pulling her two boys in a laundry basket and two girls in a trash can when the Coast Guard initially didn’t respond. She lives in one of three zip codes with the highest concentration of social media posts calling for help in the absence of first responders. All three neighborhoods are low-income and predominately black or Latino.

  Even more Houston residents didn’t get the help they needed because, in a city with the third-largest population of undocumented immigrants, they were afraid it would expose them to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

  Nor will Houston’s most vulnerable residents necessarily get help when the city begins its recovery from this deadly disaster. On Thursday, President Trump pledged $1 million in personal funds to Hurricane Harvey efforts, but earlier this spring, his 2018 budget proposed more than $1 billion in cuts to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

  Those cuts — which took aim at FEMA grants for both the preparation for and response to emergencies — ensure that an alarming proportion of the recovery will be under the purview of contractors.

  That’s what we saw after Hurricane Katrina, when some companies took advantage of the disaster to exploit migrant workers.

  There was the group of Indian guest workers who arrived in this country to repair oil rigs and other facilities damaged by the hurricane, only to be defrauded and exploited in a labor trafficking scheme engineered by a Gulf Coast marine services company and others. And there were the workers in New Orleans who accused a construction company of refusing to pay them as they were forced to live in squalid conditions.

  The Southern Poverty Law Center sued both companies, reaching settlements and winning verdicts that serve as a warning to employers that might exploit guest workers in the wake of this latest disaster.

  Our task now must be to rebuild a more equal and just Houston than the one that Hurricane Harvey devastated. “Good luck to everybody,” Trump told residents before the storm broke — but we know that vulnerable Texans need way more than luck.

  This article was published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based civil rights organization.

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