Slow Puerto Rican recovery is evidence of environmental racism

It has been 11 months, 15 days and counting since the U.S. territory known as Puerto Rico was ravaged by Hurricane Maria. With a death toll of 4,000 and growing according to the Denver Post, the island is far from making a full recovery.

With the electrical system weakened, buildings still dilapidated and thousands of residents displaced, the question of how a U.S. territory could possibly be so slow to recover remains in the mind of the American public.

Tiana Watts | Views Layout Editor

The answer, unfortunately, runs deeper than the general lack of competence exhibited by our 45th president. In fact, the lack of federal aid and attention to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria is not the first time the U.S. has borne witness to such a tragedy by human design.

Though President George W. Bush did not throw paper towels at the residents of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina or tweet about Mayor Ray Nagin being incompetent in the face of the disaster, the fact stands that New Orleans as a whole was gravely neglected before, during and after the storm.

Although the disasters differ in many ways, they share a common characteristic: both New Orleans and Puerto Rico have been historically disenfranchised by the U.S. federal government as a direct consequence of racism.

Environmental racism, as defined by Green Action for Environmental Justice, is “the disproportionate impact of environmental pollution, global climate change and environmental disasters on communities of color.”

This form of systemic oppression is insidious in the way it operates. Though it can manifest more directly, like Donald Trump showing disrespect on Twitter and in press conferences to the residents of Puerto Rico, it commonly appears in subtle ways, like in a lack of federal funding for infrastructure development or poorly provided medical care in response to environmental disasters.

Because the Gulf South and Puerto Rico are both plagued by tropical storms and are home to millions of people of color, it is no surprise that we see environmental racism directly influence these disasters; both in the amount of devastation and in the slow-moving recovery following the storm’s end.

As members of the Tulane community, many of us do not hail from states or regions impacted by the intersection of environmental racism. For some of us, it can be easy to think of these natural disasters and sluggish recovery efforts as separate events rather than a pattern of injustice.

We, however, have an obligation to not only recognize these trends impacting the communities around us, but also to act on these injustices and actively combat them. Some organizations have taken steps in the right direction, including on-campus clubs like Divest! Tulane and organizations in the city like Gulf Restoration Network which both try to dismantle the effects of global climate change from an intersectional perspective.

Even if you do not have the time to actively join groups like these, we all have an obligation to understand environmental racism and inform others through campus resources, like Community Engagement Advocate sessions put on by the Center for Public Service.

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