Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Hurricanes Harvey and Irma may have hit white and non-white families alike, but it will be people of color who will have the toughest time getting their homes back, which is by design.
Hilton Kelley has been sounding off on Facebook Live the past few days about families who evacuated their homes to escape Hurricane Harvey and are now getting eviction notices. The families live in Port Arthur, Texas, the small Gulf Coast city about 90 miles east of Houston, but are currently scattered across Louisiana and Texas. Kelley himself had to evacuate—his fourth time doing so in the last 15 years due to hurricane flooding—but was able to make it back to his home last week. He’s now trying to locate as many dispersed families as possible via social media to find out who hasn’t come back and why. That’s when he found out about the eviction notices.
Those kinds of blindsiding evictions are a rootshock that many renter families in New Orleans know too well, as the same happened for Hurricane Katrina. Plenty of New Orleanians didn’t even get a notice—instead they found out via TV that they would not be able to return to their homes. This certainly was true for tenants of the city’s “Big Four” public housing projects, which were closed for good during Katrina even though many of them collected no floodwaters.
This is the kind of displacement that Kelley fights to help families avoid, through his nonprofit Community In-Power and Development Association (CIDA), which advocates on behalf of families living under the constant threat of environmental disasters.
That doesn’t just mean flooding and hurricanes. Port Arthur is saturated with oil refineries and petrochemical plants, many of them located within yards of homes, schools, and playgrounds. The Carver Terrace public housing projects in Port Arthur were completely surrounded by these poisonous industries before they were torn down just last year, which Kelley had been petitioning the federal government to do for years. All of Carver Terrace’s tenants were relocated, to finally remove them from the clouds of air pollution molesting their lungs and nostrils every day.
That kind of displacement was necessary—requested, even, from the tenants themselves. The involuntary kind of displacement, however, that’s becoming a more frequent event in Port Arthur due to heavier and harsher storms, is getting harder for Kelley to weather. He contemplated for a moment not returning to his home and restaurant that he runs after his most recent evacuation from Harvey. He changed his mind only after considering what he’d lose and how difficult it would be starting over in another city.
“There are sharks out there waiting for us to let loose what we have here and swoop in as we migrate out,” says Kelley. “Industries will just engulf this land and then we've lost what we've owned. I own property here. When I leave here, I don't own anything in Dallas, or Colorado, or New York. And I can't imagine trying to buy a restaurant or a home there in this present situation.”
Displacement like this is increasingly becoming inevitable for people of color, not just because of climate change and extreme weather events, but because of discriminatory policies that push them into unlivable conditions. It’s a reality that is rarely confronted when it comes time to map out where people can and can’t rebuild. But ignoring it likely means that policies for rebuilding will suffer from the same disparities that have predated recent storm recoveries by several decades.
The problem of displacement is even more pronounced for Latinos. At the same time that Harvey was devastating the land, Trump decided to recall DACA, which put thousands of immigrant children at even greater risk. If Congress approves Trump’s request, then those children will face the kind of relocation that doesn’t just send them to another city, but rather, to a detention center, and then to another country that they, in many cases, have no real connection to, if they grew up in the U.S.
Bryan Parras, an organizer with Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s), is working a lot these days with Latino families who are bracing for recovery from both Harvey and Trump’s restrictive immigration policies. Displacement is a threat that always lurks around Latino communities, and their options for sanctuary are growing more limited, especially as new storms keep gathering in the Gulf.
“That's what disaster does—it really destroys the fabric of a community and that's even deeper destruction, because it's psychological, it's spiritual, it's cultural,” says Parras. “Even if they stay, that place is different. It's been traumatized, so staying doesn't guarantee that you'll be able to maintain those cultural ties to your neighbors.”
“There is no true security”
An equitable recovery will be especially difficult in Houston given that the city doesn’t believe in zoning. It’s because of that absence of zoning restrictions that pollution is concentrated in the east side of the city, all the way down the Shipping Channel to Port Arthur, along which lives the heaviest concentration of Latino and African-American families. This is also where the heaviest concentration of petrochemical facilities, toxic Superfund sites,overflowing sewers, garbage incinerators, and landfills are located.
“This no-zoning policy has allowed for a somewhat erratic land-use pattern in the city,” wrote environmental justice scholars Robert Bullard and Beverly Wright in their 2012 book, The Wrong Complexion for Protection: How the Government Response to Disaster Endangers African American Communities. “Houston’s black neighborhoods were unofficially ‘zoned’ for garbage.”
And now that hash of toxic chemicals and trash are spilled across those same neighborhoods in Houston, where black and Latino families have fewer resources for recovery. Public health officials are telling people not to touch the floodwaters, particularly in those places where volatile, flammable, and poisonous chemicals have spilled.
These problems were avoidable. Environmental justice advocates had been petitioning the federal government for years to update the chemical disaster rule in EPA’s risk management program, to better protect families living on the fenceline of these refineries and chemical plants. Obama issued an executive order in 2016 requesting the EPA to begin making these risk management program adjustments. However, one of the first orders of business for Trump when he took the White House this year was to delay those updates.
Nine months later, families’ homes are surrounded by a toxic stew created from the discharges of oil refineries, overflowing sewers, and exploding chemical plants. We’ve not yet seen the toxicology report to see what kind of short- and long-term effects these spills and explosions will have on people’s health. Meanwhile, the 29th congressional district that includes these communities has been known for a long time as the district with the least number of people with health insurance in the state with the least number of uninsured people.
Not only that, but these families are also living in cities where the infrastructure for stormwater and flood management is aged and in disrepair. This only deepens the racial disparities at play when it comes to exposure to environmental risks and the increased likelihood of displacement. New Orleans is a prime example of this—flooding was caused by the levees that burst during Katrina twelve years ago, and the city suffered massive flooding again just last month despite the multi-billion dollar reconstruction of those levees. African Americans in the city have the hardest time recovering their homes and communities.
“There is no true security—we can, at best, reduce risk, not eliminate it,” says the New Orleans-based geographer Richard Campanella. “Engineering devices (such as levees and floodwalls) enabled this deltaic city to become a modern metropolis. But they also tended to produce a false sense of security. People took for granted that those engineering devices would always work as designed. At least twice in the past twelve years, they didn’t.”
New Orleans’ recent flooding was the culprit of a faulty drainage system—one that was considered the “best in the world” a century ago, according to Mark Davis, director of Tulane University’s Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy. But it was a system that did not keep up with the rapid growth and urbanization of New Orleans in the decades following. Similar was true in Houston for Harvey, where flooding on the west side of the city was the consequence of an inadequate reservoir system that engineers said was badly in need of updating decades ago.
“What we're seeing in Texas is a reminder that they could easily have had this much rain with no hurricane force winds whatsoever,” says Davis. “It was a slow moving storm with enough low pressure that essentially [water] rises and it makes it hard for the place to drain. We're really going to have to start thinking in terms of what natural risks we're running and what reasons we're running them for and whether we're being honest with ourselves about what that really means from an investment and justice standpoint.”
Bullard, a noted environmental justice activist and scholar, has been talking about these problems since his first book, Invisible Houston, published 30 years ago this month. The “invisible” parts of the city are those black and Latino neighborhoods overlooked or ignored when making decisions about new urban development. These are places where people of color live not because they chose to, but because of racist policies like redlining. Bullard warns that these communities could be rendered invisible again during the Harvey recovery phase.
“When you start talking about how you are going to rebuild and recover, that has to be watched closely because if not it's just going to be a rebuilding on top of inequity,” says Bullard, who today is based in Houston as a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University. “If we're not careful, those areas might be rebuilt with all kinds of protections, greening them up with more resiliency, but it will push out people who lived in those neighborhoods for a long time—so you get that rebuilding gentrification going on.”
The phenomenon Bullard references is called “climate gentrification” in some corners—and this is a major concern for black communities in south Florida, as Irma takes its destructive path. It seems wrong to give climate change that kind of credit, though. The people of these heaviest-hit communities are vulnerable to displacement because of the injustices they lived with long before any floods and storms. They live in flood-prone communities because of racist policies like redlining that piloted the segregation still seen today.
As Susan Rogers explained in the blog OffCite last year about the Homeowners’ Loan Corporation redlining maps of Houston from the 1930s, “the racism is clearly evident” in the areas designated for disinvestment. The maps with the cooler colors (blue, green) were assigned to neighborhoods that the HOLC determined were safe for lending. The warmer colors (yellow, red) were labeled as “declining” or “hazardous” neighborhoods that lenders should avoid. This was one kind of zoning that apparently Houston was willing to live with.
As it happens, neighborhoods with high concentrations of African Americans were painted as not cool for investment. One of the documents culpable in that redlining process was the Federal Housing Administration’s “Planning Profitable Neighborhoods,” guidance created for homebuilders, primarily for the suburbs. Writes Rogers:
The “Planning Profitable Neighborhoods” bulletin describes and illustrates in a series of drawings “good” and “bad” development practices. Without fail, these drawings define the now-typical suburban models of discontinuous streets, large lots, and strip malls as “good” and traditional urban typologies as “bad.” In effect, the combined policies and practices such as “redlining” ensured that central cities, mixed-use areas, and neighborhoods of color would decline.
That decline didn’t only come from the denial of lending and investment in those neighborhoods. It also happened because the models recognized in “good” neighborhoods—those “large lots,” for example—are what ended up making the city even more prone to flooding. Besides the city’s faulty storm water management, Houston also suffers regularly from urban flooding due to the copious levels of parking lots and impervious surfaces paved over the city. So, what was “good” and profitable for sprawl and the suburbs is what also increased the vulnerability of these redlined neighborhoods, making their designation as “hazardous” somewhat of a self-sealing premise.
Pinning displacement or gentrification on climate change only absolves the direct state and city actors who pushed black and Latino families into “hazardous” living conditions to begin with. That history should not be simply paved over in the recovery.