Residents of Red Hook, Brooklyn — a peninsula surrounded by water that was devastated by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 — are sounding a warning just weeks into the U.S. hurricane season that the impact of climate disasters on primarily minority communities can last nearly a decade.
Climate challenges tend to disproportionately impact minority and lower-income populations, and members of those communities often don't have anywhere to relocate after they're hit by such disasters.
Karen Blondel, who spoke Tuesday at a conference organized by The Earth Institute at Columbia University’s Climate School, represents residents who don't want to give up on their homes despite catastrophe.
Red Hook was built as an isolated community due to 1930s “redlining” policies — through which the federal government demarcated “risky” or “undesirable” areas in which residents could not qualify for federal mortgage loans based on their race.
At the time, Red Hook was deemed an undesirable area in almost its entirety, a place of decaying infrastructure and substandard housing.
Blondel has been a resident of public housing in Red Hook since 1982. She didn’t choose to live in Red Hook, an isolated, peninsular Brooklyn enclave known for its warehouses, brownfields and flood risks and walled in by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. But when Hurricane Sandy engulfed her adopted community in 2012, she understood the need to fight for the neighborhood’s survival — and the looming possibility that fighting might not be enough to save it.
“Blacks have been pushed around the country from a bungalow to a tenement with rats to public housing, but never to anything new,” said Blondel, who founded the local Public Housing Civic Association following Hurricane Sandy. “We’ve been bull-penned by policies and redlining.”
“I didn’t really make the choice to live where I live,” she continued. “I was mandated here, but now that I’m here and I’ve matured, I’m ready to fight and take a stand for Red Hook.”
Blondel is opposed to "managed retreat," a larger strategy responding to climate change that involves the purposeful and coordinated relocation of people and infrastructure away from hazards, often in response to climate disasters.
“Managed retreat may be both logically and fiscally responsible for changing landscapes,” said Deborah Morris, an urban planner and former official at the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development.
There is significant overlap between areas with flood risk and those that were deemed dangerous by the federal government’s redlining policies, according to Morris. In nearby Queens, she explained, housing that could not be financed through traditional banks was built in the most flood-prone areas of the borough.
But such communities often don't want to retreat, and Red Hook provides a good case study of that resistance.
When residents came together in Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath, Blondel said, they created the Ready Red Hook Community Emergency Readiness Plan in collaboration with local leaders. Together, she explained, they have devised solutions such as elevating parts of streets and connecting spaces that are already elevated to reduce tidal flooding. In total, the city has invested $100 million in strengthening the neighborhood against future flooding.
“For probably 20-30 years, being a neighborhood by itself was a deficit,” she continued. “And here came Hurricane Sandy, and it became a plus. Because we were such a small-town type of neighborhood, we were able to quickly organize around each other.”
It’s not lost on residents like Blondel that the inequities of the recent past are the reason she and her neighbors have to consider leaving in the near future.
“We don’t want to talk about managed retreat, but we know we have to,” Blondel said.
Although improvements have bolstered neighborhood infrastructure, Blondel stressed that resilience has come at a price. To implement the necessary construction, she said that the city has cut down between 600 and 1,000 trees, creating “a huge graveyard” where each tree could be sold for up to $5,000.
Because she and her neighbors are residents of public housing, Blondel stressed that they neither had any say in the fate of the trees nor did they benefit from the sales.
At the same time, Blondel continued, residents fear that rezoning plans in the adjacent Gowanus neighborhood may result in sewage outflow being directed to them. As coastal flooding expert D.J. Rasmussen told New York’s City Limits, “The water has to go somewhere.”
And Red Hook, Blondel notes, is right next door — as well as what she describes as “the lowlands” to Gowanus. “We can’t look at trees and sewage like it’s just [affecting] my community. It’s not. It all goes downhill.”
About a thousand miles southwest of Red Hook is another community that did not survive a climate disaster — a town whose occupants had no choice but to retreat not just within their municipal bounds, but elsewhere entirely. During the Mississippi River flood of 2011, the U.S. Army Corps breached a levee, submerging the southeastern Missouri village of Pinhook.
“This was a town that was erased from the map — people who were making decisions acted like it didn’t exist,” said Todd Lawrence, an associate professor at the University of St. Thomas, who co-authored an ethnographic project on Pinhook residents.
While the Mennonite Disaster Services in 2018 built new houses for the displaced households in Sikeston, about 30 miles away, Lawrence stressed that residents never received federal aid in response to the disaster.
And though critics might say — as for Red Hook — that the original five Black men who had moved to Pinhook in the 1940s knew they were settling in a floodway, this was the only type of land in the region available to them at the time, according to Lawrence.
“Where they ended up living was not a function of a choice they made,” Lawrence said. “They were not acknowledged or listened to. They were treated with indifference and victimized.”
Back in Red Hook, where vulnerable residents are struggling to avoid such displacement, Blondel maintained that she and her neighbors are “standing strong” in protecting what was once — and in many ways still is — an alienated community.
“I am a band orchestrater, and the community plays different parts, and sometimes you can’t put the bass right next to the clarinet,” she said. “But if you put in a trumpet and a drummer too, then we can all play in the same band together.”
“We are organized, and our model is spreading,” Blondel added.