The next disaster for Black communities

The next disaster for Black communities
© Getty Images

Black Americans are reeling from the last few months — and the last 400 years.

We are heartbroken and enraged by the killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade and Rayshard Brooks — the latest manifestations of racist violence we’ve endured for centuries. At the same time, the coronavirus is decimating our communities, with Black people three and a half times more likely to die from COVID-19 than whites. We are among those hardest hit by wage and job losses during the pandemic.

Next up is a potentially devastating hurricane season. A warmer planet has made hurricanes more intense and destructive. This year is predicted to bring more storms than usual; we’ve already seen three

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Black communities are in the crosshairs of these supercharged storms. Because of racist housing policies and planning regimes, we often live in low-lying areas that are more likely to flood. As Gulf Coast natives, we’ve both experienced these impacts firsthand. We lost longtime friends and suffered our own property damage from the floodwaters, and worked on response and recovery when the government failed. Those same communities are still recovering from Katrina, while facing ongoing police violence and, now, the coronavirus pandemic.

Our nation is not prepared for the unprecedented challenge of a major hurricane during a pandemic and its outsized impact on Black communities. The complexity of this challenge calls for more resources, not less. However, a recent FEMA document says, “many aspects of disaster response may be conducted remotely this year,” and the agency plans to use smaller staging teams, signaling that it will leave the hands-on work to the states. But the states, gutted by pandemic and recession, are ill-prepared to take the lead.

For Black communities, who are already overlooked and under-resourced, an inadequate response could prove disastrous. We can’t stop hurricanes from coming (though addressing the climate crisis would keep them from becoming even more destructive), but we can make sure that disaster response is effective and fair.

First, we need to up our game on preparedness, especially in vulnerable communities. This makes fiscal sense: every dollar invested in disaster prevention — elevating homes at risk of flooding, managing stormwater with “green infrastructure” — saves $6 for every $1 spent on hazard mitigation. FEMA’s Building Resilient Communities and Infrastructure (BRIC) program is a good start, but to have more impact it must prioritize low-income and Black communities.

Next, we need to rethink disaster assistance. The process of applying for assistance is absurdly complex. It’s also riddled with discriminatory clauses that shut out renters and people who don’t have a clear title to their homes. As a result, affluent whites receive more federal dollars after disasters than do people of color and poor people. We need to make the application process simpler and more transparent. If FEMA “calls it in” with virtual disaster response, it must provide targeted assistance to poor and rural communities on the other side of the digital divide

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We need more local involvement in disaster planning and response, especially in Black neighborhoods where fear and distrust of government is the norm. Today, cities are reimagining public safety by diverting funds from policing to investing directly in communities. Similarly, we could invest in prevention and recovery at the local level. Trusted community groups are in the best position to get resources where they are needed most. Also, by enforcing the requirement to hire local firms for cleanup and repair, we can jumpstart the economic recovery in hard-hit areas.

Instead of FEMA, we need “PEMA,” a People’s Emergency Management Agency.

Finally, we need to build back better, not just back to “normal.” In a country torn by racial and economic inequity, facing a global pandemic and climate calamity, normal is not good enough. When disasters strike, we must rebuild in ways that eradicate systemic segregation and strive for educational and economic parity for people of color. We must ditch our deadly dependence on fossil fuels and rebuild communities that are greener, healthier, climate-resilient and sustainable.

In the last few months, we’ve seen what happens when decision makers fail to heed the warnings of scientists and health experts, and when they fail to hear their own people calling for change. Today, a new danger looms: climate change-driven hurricanes — on top of pandemic — threatening to devastate Black communities reeling from centuries of racist policies and practices. This is a predictable, preventable crisis, and we must mobilize to stop it now.

Katherine T. “Kathy” Egland chairs the Environmental and Climate Justice Committee for the National Board of Directors of NAACP. Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr. is the president & founder of Hip Hop Caucus.