Why Every Hurricane Should Be Named “Jim”
By: Anthony Karefa Rogers-Wright
The physical devastation wrought by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma cannot be denied. It appears that Harvey brought more rainfall than any storm event in U.S. history, and an estimated $190 billion in total damages; Irma leveled 90 percent of the island of Barbuda and caused immense damage to the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and much of Florida.
But beyond these plainly visible facts, there is the heart of the problem. It’s no coincidence that the line of destruction connecting Houston to Miami traverses one of the world’s most vulnerable regions to climate change: the U.S. Gulf South, also home to some of the most profound cases of institutional racism, exploitation, and criminalization of poverty and immigration status.
From this bird’s eye view, the story of Harvey and Irma is barely about storms, and much more about systems of oppression—the ones that were in place long before even ExxonMobil knew about the impact of its products on the atmosphere.
It’s a story of extractive capitalism and unmitigated racism, highlighted by inadequate government programs that, like the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, have been allowed to atrophy still further over time. It’s about slow genocide, as lands are no longer just being snatched from Indigenous people, but destroyed and poisoned by perilous pipelines, drilling, and fracking—to the point where some areas are literally sinking, as we are witnessing in Louisiana.
Understanding this story can help us ensure that Harvey does not become Donald Trump’s Katrina. After all, as Naomi Klein demonstrated in The Shock Doctrine, rather than assisting those most impacted, the response to Katrina became an opportunity to expand disaster capitalism. One consequence was a massive decrease in the population of New Orleans, since many of the poor, Black, and Brown people displaced by the storm were priced out of returning to their homes. In a vicious irony, roughly 100,000 of them relocated to Houston.
If we are truly interested in a justice-based response to Harvey, Irma, and future disasters, we need to get to the bottom of where these storms came from; we need to study their genealogies.
JIM BEGAT HARVEY, JIM BEGAT IRMA
Study after study has shown that in a number of ways, low-wealth communities of color are disproportionately situated in the eye of the storm—they not only live near the industrial processes that create harmful emissions, but are also hit “first and worst” by the impacts of the resulting warming. Environmental justice groups that represent such “fenceline communities” have been fighting to bring this reality to the forefront of climate organizing, and historically white-led environmental groups have recently begun to talk about it in communications to their members.
Hurricanes, super storms, and other climate-exacerbated weather events are not in themselves racist. Last year, when Bill McKibben was fighting to inject a vision of radical climate action into the Democratic party platform, he reminded us that “physics does not care about red, blue or battleground states, it does not care about people.” He is of course spot-on. But we must also consider what environmental justice scholars Dr. Beverly Wright and Dr. Robert D. Bullard told us in their seminal work The Wrong Complexion for Protection: How the Government Response to Disaster Endangers African American Communities. “Environmental and public health threats from natural and human-made disasters are not randomly distributed,” they wrote. “Healthy places and healthy people are highly correlated. It should be no surprise that the poorest of the poor within the United States and around the world have the worst health and live in the most degraded and at-risk environments.”
The legacies of segregation, the redlining of neighborhoods, and the terrorism experienced by Black and Brown families when they attempted to move into “white” communities as far south as Texas and as far north as Long Island, New York are still felt today. “Although Blacks made up one-third of the city’s population,” Dr. Bullard recounts of his native Elba, Alabama, “whites governed the town as if its African American citizens were invisible. …Jim Crow translated into white neighborhoods receiving the ‘best of the best,’ including libraries, street lighting, paved roads, sewer and water lines, garbage pickup, swimming pools and flood control measures years before black neighborhoods received these tax-supported services. For decades, Elba’s segregated Black neighborhoods flooded, while white neighborhoods remained high and dry.”
To be clear, we don’t yet know the extent of damage from Harvey and Irma in Black, Brown, and poor neighborhoods as compared to predominantly white and wealthy ones. However, as Ayana Byrd pointed out in Colorlines, we can expect that “those hardest hit will be communities of color. There are a number of reasons why they are particularly vulnerable. One is because many residents of these areas were not able to evacuate. Another reason is because of where lower income communities of color are typically located within cities. They are often in low-lying areas that are vulnerable to flooding.”
Harvey and Irma weren’t created by white supremacy—but the disproportionate exposure of poor Black and Brown people to such disasters absolutely was, along with the hurdles that prevent them from rebuilding their lives and thriving in the aftermath.
WHEN JIM CROW BECOMES (EVEN MORE) TOXIC
When the United Church of Christ released Toxic Waste and Race in 1987, under the leadership of Dr. Benjamin Chavis, we learned among (other things) that race played an even larger role than income in the situating of Black and Brown people near polluting industries. By striking the city at the center of the U.S. fossil fuel economy, Harvey made this trend impossible to ignore.
During the bombardment of rain and wind that accompanied Hurricane Harvey, Houston residents of color were confronted with “strong gas- and chemical-like smells coming from the many refineries and chemical plants nearby,” the New Republic reported. They also experienced “headaches, sore throat, scratchy throat and itchy eyes,” as Bryan Parras of the venerable Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s.) told the magazine. And due to the systems that have all but forced Black and Brown folks to live in poverty in the city’s most toxic areas, without the ability to leave, Parras explained, “they are literally getting gassed by these chemicals.”
The circumstances that Parras describes have been in place for decades, and they exist at the intersection of all the other crises that contribute to and exacerbate climate change—including racial, ethnic, economic, and gender injustice. Parras’s group teamed up with the Union of Concerned Scientists to release the prescient 2016 report “Double Jeopardy in Houston: Acute and Chronic Chemical Exposure Pose Disproportionate Risks for Marginalized Communities,” which reveals that the conditions exposed in Toxic Waste and Race have only grown worse, and calls for “a broader look at the societal systems that allowed these situations to develop.”
Making matters worse, in what could easily be described as a Jim Crow séance, incoming EPA administrator Scott Pruitt moved to delay implementation of a rule that would have helped protect frontline communities, by requiring better safety warnings from facilities like those in Houston; and just before Irma made landfall in Florida, the EPA announced that it would scuttle its Office of Environmental Justice. Essentially, when the ghost of Jim was holding a flame to these communities, Harvey and Irma added gas to that flame—while Pruitt, bucket of water in hand, walked away.
It all plays out like the perilous “Compromise of 1877,” when President Rutherford Hayes removed the last federal soldiers from the South, allowing for the rise of one the worst and bloodiest terrorists in U.S. history: Jim Crow.
Also contributing to the difficulty of evacuation were draconian immigration laws, which forced many to choose between facing ICE checkpoints or riding out Harvey in pools of contaminated water, breathing contaminated air. In Florida, the Polk County Sheriff’s office reportedly sought mandatory checks on those seeking shelter to look for arrest warrants and determine their immigration status.
AFTER THE SHOCK, SHOCKTRIFICATION
There are reasons to take heart from the initial reaction of Houston communities to Harvey. Shelters were quickly mobilized, and civilians used their own boats and equipment to rescue their neighbors, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or place of birth. These efforts certainly vindicated Klein’s argument in The Shock Doctrine that “we do not always respond to shocks with regression. Sometimes, in the face of crisis, we grow up—fast.”
But this is just the immediate shock. It’s the aftershock that will determine if the silos that separate us will continue to be busted down, or if new ones will be erected and fortified faster than Trump’s fantastical border wall.
This is the part you won’t see in neatly-packed news clips, Red Cross commercials, or non-profit industrial complex emails. But the signs are all right in front of us: when Mike Pence proclaims that “we are going to build Houston bigger and better,” what he really means is, “we are going to make Houston whiter and more affluent.” We heard the same thing after Katrina — and the result is that New Orleans is no longer a “chocolate city,” but a vanilla milk shake with some drops of chocolate syrup that sink ever-faster to the bottom of the cup.
When Trump promises to help the people, while pushing a budget that would cut $667 million from FEMA, $62 million from the National Weather Service (in many cases the best disaster preparation program the U.S. has in its arsenal), and $190 million from the National Flood Insurance Program to update flood risk maps, it’s not very difficult to see what’s happening. He is rolling out the red carpet for massive privatization and high-dollar contracts for his friends and the companies they invest in. It all reads like some sadistic arranged marriage between Ayn Rand and Jim Crow, whose offspring might be called “shocktrification”: acute gentrification aided and abetted by a massive shock event, and a nice new Trump Tower in Houston or Jacksonville to accompany it.
It bears repeating: shock storms are not conjured by humans, but a system that profits from them at the expense of already-battered and marginalized people most certainly is. The good news is, the solution can also be a human construct. We can run Jim Crow out of town.
NAVIGATING A PEOPLE-POWERED AFTERSHOCK TO THE “YES”
One of the reasons why the instant shock reaction to Harvey was so heartening and inspiring is because, in many cases, it was led by the community, for the community. No volunteer rescue worker was requesting to see documentation, identification, or financial portfolios—they only saw people, and themselves in those people. And when the people take the lead in determining the solutions that work best for them, we are navigating towards the “YES” that must always accompany the “NO” of shock resistance.
The juxtaposition could not be more profound, or simple: it’s people power vs. disaster capitalism. The people want to re-build their homes, lives, and communities, while members of the regime in D.C. want to increase capital for themselves and their cronies. And when the people are empowered to elect representatives at all levels of government who are free from corporate influence, and who cut ties with the forces of shocktrification, deportation, and the exploitation of labor, we are navigating towards the YES.
Climate change exacerbates the power of storms, and the undead Jim Crow exacerbates their impacts on the marginalized. Until we keep Jim dead and buried via a people-led social exorcism, all major storms and other shock events will bear his legacy as well as his moniker, whether we are conscious of it or not. The ball is in our court to tell the full story of Harvey and Irma—not just of the wind, rain, and flooding, but of the communities who are suffering the worst effects, and of their vision for a different kind of system. If we hear them and join their struggle, we get to the people-powered YES.
Top image, depicting flooding in Houston after Hurricane Harvey, by Getty/Joe Raedle.