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Race & Disaster Recovery

Updated: Feb 3, 2023

Not So Natural Disasters

We often speak of “natural disasters” as sort of this great equalizer in society. That no matter your income level, race, gender or sexual identity, disability, or even how often you go to church, hazards like tornadoes, floods, and fires do not discriminatorily pick and choose whose lives will be devastated.

Yet, as our nation celebrates Black History month, recognizing the legacy and achievements of Black Americans throughout our shared history, it is important that we also recognize the ways structural racism continues to impact the recovery of individuals and communities impacted by “natural” disasters.

I was 20 years old, a senior in college, when Hurricane Katrina made landfall across the Gulf Coast. As a young adult learning new perspectives of the world, Katrina was the history lesson I never received as a child growing up in New Orleans. It was only after Katrina did I start to understand the connections between racism and the demographics of neighborhoods and economic disparity across the city.

In New Orleans on November 14, 1960, six-year-old Ruby Bridges became the first African American student to attend an all-white elementary school in the Southern United States

When it comes to disaster recovery, here are some important facts to remember:

  • Restrictions on land ownership and redlining practices have forced many African American neighborhoods to live in areas with higher risks of flooding, heat waves, and lower quality housing and insurance.

  • Toxic industries are more likely to build near African American communities, who are then more likely to be adversely affected by chemical hazards, emissions, and spills.

  • Even with all other factors controlled, studies reveal African Americans and their communities receive less federal aid after a disaster, widening the nation’s income disparity between races and slowing the recovery rates of non-White neighborhoods.

    • The map below depicts the amount of cumulative damage caused by natural hazards from 1999 to 2013.

    • And the graph beneath the map provides visual representation of the wealth accumulation by White Americans and Black Americans attributable to natural hazards.

What Do We Do Now?

Now that we understand how these root causes are inextricably linked to our present day, let’s turn to some practices we can take to better support African American communities, especially in times of disasters.

1. Get to know trusted community leaders.

At best, build these relationships before a disaster happens. But even if it is after a disaster, it’s never too late to learn who these trusted community leaders are and to support their efforts in caring for their communities.

When Hurricane Laura and Hurricane Delta pummeled southwest Louisiana, members of St. Andrew Presbyterian Church (a predominately White church) had trouble connecting with residents on the northside of Lake Charles (the Black side of town). It took the help of First Presbyterian Church of Scotlandville (a historically Black church) to facilitate a connection between these two different communities in Lake Charles, which led to the development of a multi-faith long-term disaster recovery effort serving residents of the northside of Lake Charles that is still ongoing today.

Nanette Cagney is the pastor of St. Andrew Presbyterian Church, and Faye Cooper is the coordinator of the Pauline Hurst Mercy Center and member of the Greater St. Mary Missionary Baptist Church.

2. Listen deeply to their stories.

Who is the human you are getting to know? How are their perspectives, experiences, and narratives true and integral to your shared worlds?

Be careful asking someone to speak about traumatic events and experiences. Build your own capacity to hold space for someone to share openly, without judgment, correction, tone-policing, or inserting your own opinion.

It’s okay to be silent, to feel uncomfortable, and to not have any “answers.”

3. Support their visions and plans for disaster preparedness and recovery.

Often the solution to many issues lie within the community members themselves, and your role is to be an equal partner and advocate for their visions and plans. Because of the mistreatment of marginalized communities, there may be distrust in governmental agencies or outside organizations. How might you or your congregation be a witness to these exchanges and offers for support in disaster preparedness and recovery? How might your positions of power and privilege be shared to create equitable access to resources and a seat at the table? How might the community’s expertise and leadership be the primary decision makers in regards to the issues impacting their lives?

4. Reduce barriers to immediate cash assistance.

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed to us the power of cash assistance and the ability of people to make the best decisions for themselves and their families. Lengthy application processes, requirements for documentation, and strict restrictions on eligible disaster expenses are often burdensome and creates barriers to much needed resources.

The collaborative effort in southeast Louisiana has led to the training of members already within existing communities to become trained in Disaster Case Management to assist Hurricane Ida survivors in submitting their claims to FEMA. One of these trained case managers shared with me that she worked with a family whose application was denied six times without any explanation. When she looked into the case, she learned it was simply because the resolutions of their scanned documents were low for the application processor to accept. (Also, the for-profit company awarded with the state contract to conduct disaster case management has yet to submit any case to FEMA.)

A pilot initiative coordinated by the Lowlander Center provided training in disaster case management in September 2022. Since then, Chief Shirell Parfait-Dardar [center] of the Grand Caillou/Dula Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indian tribe in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, has assisted over 60 cases in their applications with FEMA. Photo credit: Rev. Dr. Kristina Peterson

5. Continue to examine your ministry, attitudes, and ways-we’ve-always-done-it through the lens of structural racism.

Here are some resources to help you along this important journey:

May this month inspire you and your congregation to commit to the calling we hear from the prophet Micah: To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God (6:8).

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