As climate change makes weather patterns increasingly unpredictable, disasters will no longer be contained to specific parts of the year, or specific parts of the country. From Winter Storm Uri in Texas to this summer’s deadly heatwaves in Oregon, climate disasters are now a national and year-round concern. So even as Nov. 1 marked the end of this year’s hurricane season and the UN climate summit COP26 proceeds, communities working on disaster recovery, resilience and preparation understand there is no time to rest.
Now more than ever, it is critical that the recovery process be leveraged toward justice. This requires breaking historical patterns of marginalization, disinvestment and discrimination. We also must shift the distribution of resources and decision-making capacity away from centers of power into our own communities and local organizations. We must also tackle climate mitigation and adaptation in one combined effort.
After each major disaster, billions of dollars of federal money are spent during the recovery process. Currently, these billions of dollars are being spent with the goal of returning to pre-disaster conditions, building back the same flawed infrastructure and housing stock that’s vulnerable to disaster. But this understanding of recovery is deeply inequitable, and recovery to an unjust status quo is unacceptable for marginalized communities who experience oppressive material and social conditions prior to any “natural” disaster.
This short-sighted understanding of recovery is evident in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) aid eligibility. To qualify for aid, FEMA requires applicants to “demonstrate damage was caused directly by the declared incident.” Damage from “deterioration or deferred maintenance” cannot be addressed by FEMA. Some may say this is only fair: why should FEMA buy someone a new roof if it was already damaged before the storm? But functionally, this rule is equivalent to punishing people for living in old houses or not having enough surplus money to keep up home repairs.
After Hurricane Harvey, the majority of residents living in the lowest income neighborhoods in Houston were denied aid based on “pre-existing conditions.” FEMA aid focused on efficiency and administrative calculations will inevitably exclude the very people who need help the most, and who were already struggling before the disaster even struck. Post-disaster aid should be understood on a holistic level rather than one that attempts to silo the violence of a hurricane from the violence of immense income inequality and systemic racism.
In Puerto Rico, FEMA is about to commit a mistake that will be much harder to correct. Earlier this year, the Biden administration finally released long-overdue emergency relief dollars for Hurricanes Irma and Maria. FEMA has designated $9.4 billion of those dollars toward rebuilding Puerto Rico’s electricity system, the largest allocation of funds in FEMA’s history.
Yet, the plans released so far indicate they intend to build back the island’s electricity grid largely the way it was pre-hurricane — an energy system that was extremely expensive, unreliable and vulnerable to climate disruptions. In the previous grid most of the island’s electricity generation was on the opposite coast of the island from population centers. This means that electricity must be delivered over and across a mountain range in between the power plants and the cities.
To restore the grid as it was is a waste of money and a denial of reality. Further, because Puerto Rico has no native fossil fuels, 97 percent of Puerto Rico’s electricity is generated from imported petroleum, natural gas and coal. There are currently no plans to make the grid more energy-efficient and less polluting.
In the four years since Maria, a strong movement of environmental justice groups in Puerto Rico have proposed plans to build back the energy system in more community-led, cost-effective and resilient ways. Puerto Ricans are demanding expanded wind and solar capacity to take advantage of the island’s natural climate, as well as rooftop solar, community solar, and microgrids to democratize and localize energy production. Instead, FEMA plans on building new natural gas power plants, which would also require further expansion of import facilities and pipelines.
If it’s passed, the Build Back Better Act will be the United States’ most ambitious federal proposal on climate spending ever. Yet, as the congressional battle to pass the infrastructure bills continues the administration is about to use $10 billion already in their pockets to build back an inefficient grid and further build out fossil fuel infrastructure.
Even if the U.S. achieves the political willpower to address climate change at the scale activists, scientists and the global community are demanding, the speed of transition to clean energy is limited by the high cost and consumer reluctance of replacing fossil fuel infrastructure that still works. That’s why even the most aggressive climate transition models happen on 10, 15 or 20-year timelines. But in the wake of disaster, there is a sudden need for new houses and energy infrastructure, at the same time as immense financial capital and political energy is generated.
Finally, there is an undeniable and visceral recognition among frontline communities of the failure of existing political and economic systems to keep them safe and help them recover. Disaster recovery is not yet being considered in the context of broader climate mitigation and adaptation strategies — but it should.
Alice Liu is a co-director of West Street Recovery, a horizontally organized grassroots group using rebuild and recovery after disasters to build community power that was formed as a result of Hurricane Harvey. She is also a public voices fellow with the OpEd Project and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.