Environment

A Just Rebuilding After Climate Catastrophes Means Investing in Low-Income Communities

For Florida, Texas and Puerto Rico, two paths lie ahead.

Rebuilding begins in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, in Breezy Point, New York, 2012.
Photo Credit: Leonard Zhukovsky/Shutterstock

The latest scientific evidence tells us that climate change will make major storms and hurricanes not only more frequent, but more destructive. Yet not everyone will experience these events in the same way.

In the United States, low-income coastal communities already living on the front lines of inequality with a lack of economic opportunities, affordable housing and infrastructure will continue to be hit the hardest. As we have seen in recent weeks with hurricane Irma, Harvey, and Maria, vulnerable populations are especially endangered by climate catastrophes. 

Immigrants, the working poor and communities of color often cannot afford flood insurance. At the same time, they usually don't have the resources or transportation to evacuate, so they are left in precarious housing conditions as storms and hurricanes cut off their electricity and access to services.

For Florida, Texas and Puerto Rico, two paths lie ahead. 

One path involves a business-as-usual approach. Major corporations, real-estate investors, and other powerful financial interests will push to maximize profits from government-backed rebuilding and recovery efforts, increasing the inequality in coastal communities and leaving residents just as vulnerable—if not more vulnerable—to the ravages of climate change. 

This is what Naomi Klein has called "disaster capitalism."

The other path would focus on investing rebuilding and recovery dollars into thousands of career-oriented jobs for low-income residents, more affordable housing, and major infrastructure upgrades. All of those investments will dramatically reduce inequality over time, boosting environmental protection, and strengthening waterfront areas.

New York can offer important lessons for how to pursue a just rebuilding and recovery process, instead of an exploitative and unfair one. 

After the devastation of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, community organizations, labor unions, environmental justice groups, and faith leaders came together to create the Alliance for a Just Rebuilding

This diverse coalition successfully fought for and won the Build it Back local hiring program, which set a new precedent for how to boost climate resiliency while creating career-oriented jobs for struggling residents. 

In the past, disaster recovery programs typically relied on a low-wage labor force with few health and safety protections. In New Orleans, for example, during the rebuilding after Katrina, many day laborers were mistreated on the job. And low-income residents from the hardest-hit communities did not see a real expansion of local jobs or careers. Many are still mired in poverty today.

Build it Back was designed to reverse this trend and offer apprenticeship training, good jobs and a permanent career pipeline so that local residents can access economic opportunities while rebuilding their communities. 

The program is a model for how to produce more equitable and resilient communities while empowering workers and improving their economic conditions. Providing good quality, career-track jobs to low-income residents in Sandy-impacted areas has increased the ability of these communities to fight climate change and become less vulnerable. 

Another important victory for those involved in The Alliance for a Just Rebuilding was the implementation of the “Sandy Tracker”—a local law that monitors where and how recovery funds are spent to ensure state and federal resources actually help impacted communities, and don't simply boost the profits of corporations, developers and other financial interests. 

It includes important public disclosure requirements such as listing the funds allocated to each program, the number of jobs created and where workers who get those jobs actually live.

Along with rebuilding equitably, cities and states also need to take more proactive steps to mitigate the worst effects of climate change over the long term, and increase resiliency against future storms, heat-waves and floods. 

That’s why in post-Sandy New York, Climate Works for All was formed. A broad coalition of labor, environmental justice, faith and community organizations, the group works to ensure that efforts to address climate change also create good, career-track jobs that prioritize low-income, climate-vulnerable communities. 

This coalition has been advocating for a comprehensive energy retrofit mandate in big private buildings that addresses all types of energy use (electricity, natural gas and oil), as well as solar installations on public buildings—initiatives that have the potential to create thousands of new good-paying jobs for electricians, plumbers, laborers, carpenters, painters and operating engineers, as well as building service workers.

These jobs can and should be the climate careers of the future.

New York’s approach to rebuilding and recovery after Sandy shows that equity and justice must be guiding principles—not afterthoughts. 

The most ethical and effective way forward is to give low-income communities the tools and resources to become stronger, and more equipped to respond when the next climate disasters strike.

Maritza Silva Farrell is executive director of ALIGN, an alliance of community and labor united for a just and sustainable New York.

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