Environmental Justice and Social Vulnerability

In a short article in Slate, Eric Klinenberg, an associate professor of sociology at New York University, who wrote a good book about social vulnerability to climate change – Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago.

In the Sept 2, 2005 article – When Chicago Baked: Unheeded lessons from another great urban catastrophe – Klinenberg compares the situation and social vulnerability in New Orleans to the Chicago Heat Wave.

From the article:

Sept. 11 was an epochal event in American culture, so it’s no surprise that it’s everyone’s favorite comparison to the destruction of New Orleans. But the more instructive analogy is another great urban catastrophe in recent American history: The 1995 Chicago heat wave, when a blend of extreme weather, political mismanagement, and abandonment of vulnerable city residents resulted in the loss of water, widespread power outages, thousands of hospitalizations, and 739 deaths in a devastating week.

Affluent and middle-class Chicagoans had little trouble getting out of harm’s way. They either turned on their air conditioners or fled for cooler destinations. Thousands of poor, old, isolated, and sick people, especially those concentrated in the city’s segregated African-American ghettos, on the other hand, were effectively trapped in lethal conditions. Neither federal nor local agencies did much to assist them. Instead, city patrols cracked down on young people who opened fire hydrants.

Images of the “water war” between the teens and the city workers featured prominently in the local media, as did long sound bites from political officials who insisted that no one had foreseen the danger of heat waves and that they had done everything they could to respond. The commissioner of human services said that people died because they neglected to take care of themselves. The mayor blamed families for refusing to protect their kin. Outraged representatives of Chicago’s African-American neighborhoods argued the obvious: Everyone knew which people and places were going to be most affected by the heat. The victims’ vulnerability was predictable, and so was the city’s neglect. Yet their complaints got little attention, and the story of what happened to their communities remains largely unknown.

Katrina is in some ways a different species of trouble. The hurricane has destroyed New Orleans and damaged smaller cities in addition to killing people. Yet the parallels are striking. Federal officials ignored several urgent pleas—from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, members of Congress, Gulf Coast politicians, and scores of disaster experts—for major infrastructure improvements to prevent catastrophic flooding on the Gulf Coast. Paul Krugman reports in the New York Times that FEMA rated this crisis one of the top three threats to American security. Yet the White House denied requests to shore up levees or build larger drainage systems for the lower Mississippi River.

Emergency preparations during the week before the storm were also weak. As in Chicago, top political officials—this time President Bush and his Cabinet members—refused to interrupt their vacation schedules until the death toll spiked. As in Chicago, city leaders neglected poor African-American neighborhoods where residents were certain to be vulnerable, failing to send evacuation buses there or to the hospitals and homes where the frail, elderly, and sick are clustered.

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