Crucial Context: The Floods in Louisiana

August 17, 2016
Sunyata Altenor

Crucial Context: The Floods in Louisiana

When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast 11 years ago, the entire world bore witness as the homes of the primarily poor and black residents of the region washed away. In the aftermath of the storm, I worked alongside displaced people in response to their overwhelming political and material needs. We fought against the callous response of the Bush administration and inaction at the state and local levels, which was decried throughout the U.S. and internationally.

How is it then possible that more than a decade later our elected officials and their agencies were completely unprepared for the catastrophic flood that has hit Louisiana and has once again left thousands of families homeless and in the dark?

In the last three days at least 40,000 homes have been ruined and 30,000 people or more have been rescued, but there is no temporary housing plan in effect; there is no count of how many people are still missing; more than 40,000 people have already applied for federal assistance and few have updates on the status of their homes and those of their families. Much of Louisiana is in disarray, yet the lessons that we should have learned from Katrina seem to have been forgotten.

Equally appalling is that the media is providing relatively little coverage of the floods amidst the barrage of election and Olympics news. It’s almost as if these people don’t exist. 

While no single factor can explain the ineffectiveness of disaster-preparedness in places like Louisiana, three things are blatantly obvious:

  • Natural disasters disproportionately affect low-income communities and people of color.
  • People of color and low-income communities bear the brunt of environmental risks that negatively affect their health--because of the proximity of toxic facilities near residential areas, runoff from waste, poor air quality, a lack of green spaces and a host of factors that stack the deck against them.
  • The effects of climate change affect us all; if we don’t make curbing it a priority now, these communities will continue to suffer.

Eleven years ago it was clear to me that the destruction following Hurricane Katrina was not simply a natural disaster: Improper project design, poor planning, a lack of humanitarian priorities and a historic culture of racism exacerbated the trauma of those affected. And today, little has changed. 

I said it then and I’ll say it again today: Just as they did in 2005, the flood victims in Louisiana deserve real justice that addresses the full spectrum of human rights, not just a few public-relations bones thrown their way as an afterthought. Equal access to assistance with basic needs, fairness in the distribution of aid, and a comprehensive return or resettlement plan must be addressed in order to ensure that Louisiana residents displaced by the flooding have what they require to live securely and with dignity, now and in the future. It is clear that we cannot rely on the good graces of the Democrats or Republicans to take the fundamental human rights of all people into account; rather, it is entirely up to us to demand it.

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