Climate Change and Sandy's Impact in the Age of Inequality

11/05/2012 10:50 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

One clear lesson in the wake of Hurricane Sandy is that extreme weather in the age of climate change and global warming knows no class, race and privilege boundaries. Many, many communities in the New York metropolitan area need help, but as David Rohde wrote this week in The Atlantic, "Sandy humbled every one of the 19 million people in the New York City metropolitan area. But it humbled some more than others in an increasingly economically divided city."

Ten years ago when I was working at the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, there was a hearty band of us fighting to protect community gardens and stop the unfair siting of power plants and other noxious infrastructure in predominantly black, brown and working class white neighborhoods of the city. Few listened to our message that climate change was coming and its impacts would not be evenly felt. Researchers like Cynthia Rosenzweig backed us up then, and this week her predictions proved correct: a major catastrophic event like a hurricane in the tri-state area would disproportionately hurt people in low-lying areas of the city (Mayor Bloomberg's oft-heard zone A dwellers). And in many of these low-lying areas, the most at risk are elderly living on fixed incomes, low-income people of color and immigrants. As our colleagues at the New York Immigration Coalition reminded us today, if you are undocumented, you cannot access federal disaster assistance. For those on the other side who always comment when I write from a progressive, welcoming stance on immigration reform, these folks do pay taxes.

In recent days, my colleagues and I at the North Star Fund have been systematically reaching out to the grassroots organizers and educators we support to hear how the communities and neighborhoods they serve are doing. What we learned echoed Cynthia Rosenzweig's prediction, and underscored the divide between the haves and have-nots that David Rohde highlights in his piece.

In areas of higher ground, or more protected coastal zones, like Harlem, Central Brooklyn, Bay Ridge, the South Bronx, Jackson Heights and Flushing, things are thankfully okay.

However, in lower Manhattan, especially Chinatown and the Lower East Side, people are hard hit and information and resources are not flowing past Wall Street. As reported by North Star Fund grantee Asian American Writer's Workshop, CAAAV -- Organizing Asian Communities, has been supporting those in Chinatown when FEMA or city officials were nowhere to be found.

CAAAV Executive Director Helena Wong and her colleagues have been making fliers with information about where to get help and what is happening to get the lights, power and water turned on -- translated in a variety of Chinese languages. Their constituents are low-wage Asian workers, elders, and youth and public housing residents in the neighborhood. Helena reports they are in urgent need of food, water and battery donations (email for more information).

I've heard from North Star Fund grantees that things are especially tough along the waterfront in Long Island City, Red Hook and parts of Staten Island. Power is out, and people are lacking food, water, batteries, matches, lighters and candles to make it through dark, chilly nights. Chemical fumes and raw sewage arrived along with the flood waters in several of these areas, and many blocks are still underwater. As people have been left homeless, the Red Cross and other agencies have been noticeably absent. In an email from New York Foundation, North Star Fund board member and Executive Director Gonzalo Mercado of El Centro del Inmigrante is quoted as saying:

"The situation on Staten Island is dire. I visited two shelters last night and spoke with some Latino families living in the areas of South and Midland Beach. They had to literally swim for their lives. They lost everything. The area is still flooded and there is almost no chance they will be able to return. We know that there are many more families in this situation, probably hundreds of people and are staying with friends or family. The main need right now is temporary or permanent housing for these people. We're trying to get real estate firms or other people with properties to come forward with places."

Finally, Jaron Benjamin, a lead organizer at Voices of Community Activists and Leaders (VOCAL-NY) and his colleagues have been heroically making their way between their home office in Brooklyn and shelters in Manhattan to ensure VOCAL's constituency (people living with HIV/AIDS, drug users and the formerly incarcerated) get needed relief supplies. Having been homeless before, some VOCAL constituents don't want to leave the public facilities where they live in lower Manhattan -- even if they are without power, water or other amenities -- for fear that they will once again be left facing the multiple challenges of being without a home in New York City.

As a lifelong resident of the tri-state area who took off for the '90s, I am really proud of how folks from all backgrounds have been helping each other in the region -- not the least of which has been the bromance between President Obama and Governor Christie in the week before a pivotal election. Hurricane Sandy's aftermath reminds us that when it comes to climate change, we are all in it together. All communities need a voice in how relief and recovery funds will be distributed, the future planning of infrastructure improvements, and plans for what will inevitably be another intense storm in the years ahead.

But what the superstorm also reveals is an undeniable social dimension to the impact of weather disasters - not all people have the resources to check into a comfortable hotel, or jump into their SUV to drive to the safety of friends or family upstate. Along with improvements in physical infrastructure, much needs to be done to change the underlying inequities in our social infrastructure before the next storm hits.