Monday, October 16, 2017

Will History Repeat Itself?

http://www.citylab.com; September 13, 2017

Hello Everyone:

Welcome to a fresh week on the blog.  Barring anything else, we are back to the usual schedule. Blogger had a restful few days off, recovering from allergies.  That aside, let us dive into today's subject: displacement.

Hurricane Harvey resulted in massive flooding in the low lying areas in Houston, Texas, as well as Louisiana, parts of Florida and Puerto Rico.  Although the water has subsided, the people have yet to return to what is left of their homes.  To add insult to grievous injury, some of the residents have gotten eviction notices.  Brentin Mock, in his CityLab article "Zoned for Displacement," recounts the Facebook Live posts of Hilton Kelley. Mr. Kelley has been posting accounts of "...families who evacuated their homes to escape Hurricane Harvey and are now getting evictions.  The families live in Port Arthur, Texas, the small Gulf Coast Coast city about 90 miles east of Houston, but are currently scattered across Louisiana and Texas." At the time of writing, Mr. Kelley had to evacuate, for the fourth time in last 15 years due to hurricane flooding, but was finally able to return to his home not long after the hurricane.  Mr. Kelley is on a mission, "trying to locate as many dispersed families as possible via social media to find out who hasn't come back and why."  This is when he discovered the eviction notices."

These kinds of blindsiding evictions are at the epicenter of shock that renter families in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans are all too familiar with.  Instead of getting eviction notices, New Orleanians found out on television that they were not able to return to their homes.  Mr. Mock observes, "This is certainly was true for tenants of the city's 'Big Four' housing projects which were closed [architecture.tulane.edu; Dec. 1, 2007; date accessed Oct. 16, 2017] for good during Kattrina even though many of them collected no floodwaters."

This is the type of displacement that Hilton Kelley is helping families to fight through his nonprofit Community In-Power and Development Association (CIDA; cidanic.org; date accessed Oct. 16, 2017), which "advocates on behalfs of families (desmogblog.com; date accessed Oct. 16, 2017) living under the constant threat of environmental disasters."

Environmental disasters is not limited to hurricanes and floods.  Port Arthur is filled with oil refineries and petrochemical plants (archive.onearth.org; Aug. 26, 2013; date accessed Oct. 16, 2017), many located mere yards from homes, schools, and playgrounds.  One example of this dangerously haphazard zoning is Carver Terrace public housing projects hitch is surrounded by these toxic and volatile until last year, when they were torn down (panews.com; date accessed Oct. 16, 2017), which Mr. Kelley had been petitioning the federal government to do for years.  All the Carver Terrace residents were relocated (housingmobility.org; April 10, 2014; date accessed Oct. 16, 2017) to finally rid them of noxious clouds filling their lungs and noses every day.

This type of displacement was necessary-at the request of the tenants themselvfes.  This kind of involuntary displacement is becoming more frequent in Port Arthur due to heavier and harsher weather, is becoming more unbearable for Mr. Kelley.  He considered not returning to his home and restaurant business after the Harvey evacuations.  He changed his mind after contemplating how much he stood lose and how difficult it would be to start over in another city.

Hilton Kelley told Brentin Mock,

There are sharks out there waiting for us to let loose what we have and swoop in as we migrate out...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."

No surprise that involuntary displacement is a more frequent occurrence in communities of color, not only because of climate change and extreme weather event, but due to discriminatory housing and zoning policies that place them in unloveable conditions.  This the reality that is barely acknowledged when it comes to mapping out where people can and cannot rebuild.  Ignoring the matter "...means that policies for rebuilding so will suffer from the same disparities that have predates recent storm recoveries by several decades."

The problem is even more pronounced for Latino communities.  Just as Harvey was making landfall, Mr. Donald Trump decided to rescind DACA, putting some 800,000 immigrant at even greater peril.  Mr. Mock reports, "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, then o 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 the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS; tejasbarrios.org; date accessed Oct. 16, 2017), is quite busy these days with Latino families recovering from Harvey and preparing for Mr. Trump's restrictive immigration policies.  Displacement is a perpetual threat lurking in the Latino communities.  Options for a safe haven are becoming more scarcer in the wake Hurricane Irma and other weather events in the Gulf Coast region.  

Mr. Parras told Mr. Mock,

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...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

How does equitable recovery look like?  Truth, equitable will be particularly difficult in Houston because it does not believe in zoning laws (theatlantic; Aug. 28, 2017; date accessed Oct. 16, 2017).  The absence of zoning ordinances is the reason why pollution hovers over the east side of the city, down the Shipping Channel (houstonpress.com; May 10, 2016; date accessed Oct. 16, 2017) to Port Arthur, precisely where the greatest concentration of Latino and African Americans families are located.  Coincidently, this is where the heaviest concentration of petrochemical plants, toxic Superfund sites (newrepublic.com; Sept. 8, 2017; date accessed Oct. 16, 2017), overflowing sewers (houstonchronicle.com; June 14, 2017; date accessed Oct. 16, 2017) garbage incinerators (drrobertbullard.com; date accessed Oct. 16, 2017), and landfills (houstonchronicle.com; May 18, 2017; Oct. 16, 2017) are found.

Environmental justice scholars Robert Bullard and Beverly Wright wrote in their 2012 book The Wrong Complexion for Protection: How the Government Response  to Disaster Endangers African AmericanCommunities (amazon.com),

This no-zoning policy has allowed for a somewhat erratic land-use pattern in the city...Houston's black neighborhoods were unofficially 'zoned' for garbage.

Thanks to Harvey, that melange of toxic chemicals and trash have leeched into the those same neighborhoods, where African American and Latino families do have equal access to recovery resources.  Stating the obvious, public health officials are asking people not to touch the fetid waters (nytimes.com; Sept. 11, 2017; date accessed Oct. 16, 2017), particularly in places where unstable, flammable, and poisonous chemicals have spilled.

The funny thing is (irony alert), all of these issues could have been avoided.  Brentin Mock writes, "Environmental justice advocates had been petitioning the federal government for years to update disaster rule in EPA's risk management program (pea.gov; date accessed Oct. 16, 2017) to better protect families living on the fence line of these refineries and chemical plants (earthjustice.org; Aug. 31, 2017date accessed Oct. 16, 2017)."  In 2013, then-President Barack Obama issued an executive order-Executive Order--Improving Chemical Facility Safety and Security (obamawhitehouse.archives.gov; Aug. 1, 2013; date accessed Oct. 16, 2016)-instructing the EPA to begin making these risk management program adjustments.  However, one of Mr. Trump's first order of business, upon taking office, was to delay those updates (cbsnews.come; Sept. 1, 2017; date accessed Oct. 16, 2017).

The result is the families' homes are encircled by toxic stew courtesy of the "discharges of oil refineries, overflowing sewers, and exploding chemical plants."  The toxicology report is not available yet to gauge what the short- and long-term effects and explosions will have on the residents' health.  Blogger can take an educated guess: detrimental.  Mr. Mock points, "Meanwhile, the [Texas] 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 [nbcnews.com; date accessed Oct. 16, 2017] in the state with the least number of uninsured people [dallasnews.com; March 2010; date accessed Oct. 16, 2017]."

If that was not enough, the families are also living in in cities where the storm water infrastructure and flood management is antiquated and neglected.  This only widens the racial schism when it comes to environmental risk exposure and the increased the possibility of displacement.  New Orleans is a perfect example of this: the catastrophic flooding caused by the collapsing levees during Katrina in 2005.  Right in time for the twelfth anniversary of Katrina, the city got a reminder of the politics of flooding when Hurricane Harvey spread its damaging reach to New Orleans (citylab.com; Aug. 28, 2017; date accessed Oct. 16, 2017), despite the billion dollars reconstruction of the levees (nola.com; Aug. 18, 2017; date accessed Oct. 16, 2017).  African Americans in the city have had the most difficult time recovering their homes and communities (thenation.com; Aug. 29, 2016; date accessed Oct. 16, 2017)

Richard Campanella, a New Orleans-based geographer (richardcampanella.com; date accessed Oct. 16, 2017) told Mr. Mock,

There is no true security-we can, at best, reduce risk, not eliminate it...engineering devices (such as levees and floodwalls) enabled this deltaic city to become 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

According to Mark Davis, the head of Tulane university's Institute on Water Resources Law (tulanewater.org; date accessed Oct.16, 2017), "New Orleans' recent flooding was the culprit of a faulty drainage system (citylab.com; Aug. 28, 2017)-one that was considered the best in the world a century ago."  However, that stellar drainage system failed to keep pace with the city's rapid growth and urbanization in the succeeding decades.  This was also the case in Houston in the wake of Harvey, "where flooding on the west side of the city was the consequence of an inadequate reservoir systems that engineers said was badly in need of updating decades ago [dallasnews.com; Sept. 5, 2017]."

Mark Davis continued,

What we're seeing in Texas is a reindeer that they could easily have had this much rain with no hurricane force winds whatsoever...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.

Invisible Houston

Robert Bullard, an eminent environmental justice activits and scholar, has been talking about the same issues since his first book, Invisible Houston (amazon.com), published 30 years ago.  The "invisible" that Mr. Bullard refers to are the African American and Latino communities, in the titular city, that are routinely overlooked or ignored during the new urban development decision making process.  These places, like the Texas 29th Congressional District, are not just where African American and Latino Houstonians chose to live, they live there because of the racist practice of redlining.  Mr. Bullard cautions, "that these communities could be rendered invisible again during the Harvey recovery phase."

Robert Bullard, presently a Houston-based professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University, said,

When you start talking about how you are going to rebuild and recover, that has to be watchedclosely because if not it's just going to be a rebuilding on top inequality...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 that Mr. Bullard refers is called "climate gentrification" (theroot.com; Aug. 4, 2017 date accessed Oct. 16, 2017) and a major concern for African American communities in south Florida in the wake of Hurricane Irma.  Brentin Mock observes, "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."

Susan Rogers explains in a post on her blog OffCite (offcite.org; Oct. 4, 2016; date accessed Oct. 16, 2017) about the Homeowners' Loan Corporation redling maps of the city from the thirties, the racism is clearly evident in areas chosen for disinvestment.  Areas in blue and green were designated by the HOLC as safe for lending.  Yellow and red were areas considered declining or hazardous, neighborhoods that lenders should avoid.  This was Houston's idea of workable zoning.

Coincidently, the predominantly African American neighborhoods were designated not safe for investment.  One of the documents responsible for that redlining process was the Federal Housing Administration's "Planning Profitable Neighborhoods" (archive.org; 1938; date accessed Oct. 16, 2017).  This was a guideline created for home builders operating primarily in the suburbs.  Ms. Rogers writes:

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 "bad."  In effect, the combined policies and practices such as "redlining" ensured that central cities, mixed-use areas, and neighborhoods of color would decline. (offcite.org; Oct. 4, 2016)

Mr. Mock reports, "That decline didn't only come from the denial of lending and investment in those neighborhoods.  It also happened because the models recognized as 'good' neighborhoods-those 'large lots,' for example-are what ended up making the city more prone to flooding."  Faulty storm water management aside, Houston endures regular urban flooding due to the abundance of parking lots and impervious surfaces covering the city.  Thus, "what was 'good' and profitable for sprawl and the suburbs is what also increased the vulnerability of these redlined neighborhoods, making the designation as 'hazardous' somewhat of a self-sealing premise."

Blaming displacement or gentrification on climate change partially absolves the "direct state and city actors" from their role in segregating African American and Latino families into "hazardous" living situations from the start.  History should not repeat itself.