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With Environmental Racism and Injustice at the Heart of 2020’s Global Pandemic and the Disparate Impact of an Unprecedented Hurricane Season, Understanding the Face of Enviroment Enquity Has Never Been More Important

What do a global pandemic and the most active Atlantic Hurricane Season on record have in common?

Well, there is the obvious. Both events occurred in 2020—a year that is destined for the history books. An entire nation and Louisiana, in particular, have been hit by a series of blows that occurred over a matter of months with ripple effects in nearly every aspect of life—the illness or death of friends and family who contracted COVID, healthcare emergencies, financial upheaval, the loss of homes and physical dislocation as a result of storms. To top it all off, there has been the dramatic shift in the most basic and natural ways in which people interact.  At a time when a warm hug could lift a broken spirit, folks are cautioned to socially distance, limit gatherings, and stay home—if they still have a home to stay in. And all of this has occurred over the span of about seven months, with the state now entering the third COVID-19 surge and new daily case counts rising dramatically again.

But that coincidence in timing is only the beginning. Look deeper, and there is one thing that simply cannot be ignored: The fallouts of both the pandemic and the active hurricane season—with five named storms making landfall in Louisiana to date—have had a disproportionate impact on disenfranchised, largely poor and mostly Black communities.

Now consider that at the heart of it all is—environmental racism and injustice. 

A Pivotal Moment

This reality has prompted the Foundation for Louisiana to pivot its focus to address environmental racism and injustice and climate change. It’s a move the group has been making now for the past several years, its leaders say, but one that is not far from its original intent. The Foundation was founded as the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation (LDRF) just six days after Hurricane Katrina.

Flozell Daniels, who worked with a fledgling Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation and serves now as the president and CEO of the Foundation for Louisiana, says the organization’s work in the wake of Hurricane Katrina led to an “awakening” that tackling systemic oppression embedded in policies and practices would be a necessary measure and that addressing the environmental racism had to be a part of that equation.

One of the lessons learned as the Foundation began its early work in the weeks following Katrina was “that the storms of racism and oppression—everything that we know was happening a century before Katrina hit were as important as the storm itself,” Daniels recently told The New Orleans Tribune.  “So, when we formed the organization, one of the things we said is that we are not only going to have an effective recovery, but we are also going to have an equitable recovery. We we are going to look very intentionally at a racial equity justice perspective. We are going to look at gender equity. We are going to look at so-called marginalized communities, and we are going to invest in them. We are going to invest in Black initiatives and organizations. We are going to invest in understanding climate science and supporting people who are working on those things. We are going to invest in so-called fence line communities, where lots of Black and indigenous people live proximally near these chemical refineries where they are being poisoned. A lot of that was in our DNA from the beginning.”

The Reality 

As righteous as the goals were, the on-the-ground reality of post-Katrina recovery looked and felt as inequitable as ever. For instance, the Road Home Program, a program powered by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and administered by the Louisiana Recovery Authority ripped its playbook directly from the 1940s-era redlining policy by systematically undervaluing homes owned in largely Black neighborhoods, resulting in much smaller repair and rebuilding grants for Black homeowners in comparison to the White counterparts and making it more difficult for Black residents to return and rebuild. The Lower Ninth Ward was one of the city’s hardest hit communities and it remains the slowest to recover; homeowners there received Road Home grants that were on average about $75,000 short of the actual cost to rebuild. 

Yet inequitable housing policy was not the worst of it. 

Examples of continued injustice abound. In the years following Hurricane Katrina, the Louisiana Legislature refused to then state Sen. Joe Bouie’s bill to make it illegal to build a school—a place where teachers work and children are sent to learn—on a former toxic waste site. Bouie proposed the legislation during his first term in the state House of Representatives. Meanwhile, residents of New Orleans’ Gordon Plaza neighborhood are still fighting to receive the funding they say is needed to adequately relocate their toxic homes while their neighbors further up the Mississippi River along what is called Death Alley are still fighting to stop chains of chemical plants from operating practically in their backyards.

The fact that these and similar battles are ongoing comes as no surprise. But it has strengthened the Foundation of Louisiana’s resolve and commitment to do something to address the underlying issues, Daniels says. The work is hard, and successes are even harder to come by. 

“As you know, Louisiana is world renowned for oppressive policy regime,” Daniels says straightforwardly. “ ‘Are there some Black and Brown folk, are there some women? Are there some children to be oppressed?’ Louisiana is going to find the expertise to do so. So, we spend a lot of time working with communities . . . to connect communities to power and understand how we can change policy.”

Liz Williams Russell, the Foundation’s Climate Change Director echoes this sentiment.

“There is a set of things that is apparent across our work throughout the Foundation’s history,” says Russell. “There is the recognition that Black communities, indigenous communities, communities of colors and low-income communities are more likely to live and work near toxic facilities, like petrol-chemical facilities that emit pollutants. They are more likely to reside in areas where there is more flooding. They are more likely to receive inadequate infrastructure investment to prevent risk when there is disaster; and they also experience delayed and insufficient response and recovery investment during and after emergencies.”

To be sure, Daniels’ statement about oppression is not hyperbole. Louisianans, especially Black Louisianans, are oppressed. A report recently released by Loyola University ranks the state at the bottom of a social justice index for the fourth straight year. The index considers the poverty rate, access to health insurance, the race-wage gap, the segregated condition of public schools, the race-unemployment gap and a number of immigration issues to ultimately place Louisiana second to last when it comes to tackling the social issues that shape quality of life for its residents. 

Now, consider that environmental injustice impacts everything from health and wellbeing to child development, from economic development to housing—such as whether or not a neighborhood for Black residents gets built on a old toxic landfill; and it becomes imperative for Black people, poor people and other marginalized communities to fight against it. 

The Movement

In 2015, Daniel’s launched the Coastal Resilience Leverage Fund as part of the Foundation’s program “to address “to understand the extent to which we are losing land across coastal Louisiana, how that increases flood risk, how that relates to sea level rise and what changes we are seeing in communities.”  That work has expanded in the last five years to explicitly understand the systems of oppression that are built into policies and practices and how activists and advocates can  build the power to dismantle the harmful influences of these destructive practices and influence and promote policies that are beneficial to the impacted communities, Russell says.

Daniels explains that the Foundation has launched what has evolved into a three-pronged effort to address these challenges. First, there is the grant making. To that end, the Foundation for Louisiana has invested over $5.4 million and leveraged over $54 million towards climate justice initiatives over the last five years.

“We don’t always get it perfect, but we really have seen some success in grant making to organizations that are specifically designed to support a network of activists, organizers and policy (leaders) to (achieve equity in environmental policy).”

The Foundation for Louisiana’s grant recipients include diverse organizations, speaking to issues of racial justice, environmental equity, and environmental resilience in several ways. Among them: The Vera Institute of Justice, CourtWatch NOLA, the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice, the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, the Gulf Restoration Network, Zion Travelers Cooperative Center and the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, among others. 

Another part of their work has been bringing leaders, activists, and organizations together to build power, share ideas and experiences, and to align their efforts. 

Since 2015 as a part of the Coastal Resilience Leverage Fund, the Foundation has supported hundreds of community meetings and community leaders in understanding how land loss, climate change, and environmental risk and harm effects communities, culture, sustainability, health and well-being, economy and jobs in Louisiana.

And as the third prong of their effort, Daniels says the Foundation has shown up and stood with the community groups, organizations, and activists to impact policy surrounding racial inequity, environmental injustice, environmental resilience, or climate change.

“We are a small funder, but we have some privilege,” says Daniels. “So what we have heard from people is ‘yes we need the grants and we need to work together, but we also need (the Foundation for Louisiana) to show up with us and use your influence and your privilege to help us push in the doors.’ ”

Their goal is two-fold.

“In an over-arching way, we are investing to build people power to advance just climate policies that create equitable outcomes through advocacies that can strengthen the work of resident leaders and communities,” Russell says.

But in the broader sense, the Foundation hopes to impact change and policy in three key areas—economic opportunities, environmental justice and equitable development because they are the areas “that have the greatest potential for change,” Russell says.

The goals for economic opportunity are clear.

“We recognize that the state of Louisiana is moving hundreds of millions of dollars annually towards coastal restoration and water management, especially, along with clean energy manufacturing,” she says. “We want to see a future where we have a representative workforce, and we can actually work toward racial and gender equity through supporting inclusive economic opportunities. So we are supporting procurement practices at the state level that (focus on) Black-owned businesses and disadvantaged business enterprises, workforce development training that really works to engage the unemployed and underemployed Black male population in New Orleans and across the state and that there are small business opportunities.”

Russell adds that efforts to diversify the state’s economy and promote small business development are also critical so that Louisiana is not “reliant on a petrol-chemical economy that over and over again has failed our communities by destroying natural resources, emitting toxins and greenhouse gases and (hurting) local revenue streams, which is what we saw trying to be attempted with amendment 5.”

On Nov. 3, Louisiana voters overwhelmingly rejected a constitutional amendment that would that have allowed big manufactures to pay even less in taxes over the long term by increasing the upfront sum of money paid to local governments. While deals like these might appear to benefit municipalities in the short-term, they ultimately cost hundreds of million in lost tax revenue over time. More than 1.2 million Louisiana voters said no to the Constitutional Amendment 5.  

And as the Foundation for Louisiana continues to push for progress in the three key areas it hopes to advance, Russell explains what is meant by equitable development. 

“Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ike, Isaac, the 2016 floods and the seven storms of this years—we have seen residents move to safer, higher ground, movement that has had ripple effects. There have been changes to the tax bases, increases in poverty rates in those areas that are losing populations, and an adverse impact on the ability to maintain social services in those communities,” she says. “In the areas where people are moving, we have seen overpopulated schools, infrastructure that can’t keep up and predatory land acquisition. So, we are working to ensure inclusionary and affordable house and land use in low to moderate flood-risk areas across the state so that we can support our residents.”

Why It Matters

At the start of the COVID-19 crisis in Louisiana, the disparate impact the disease was having on Black Louisianans could not go unnoticed. At open point, Black Louisianans represented 70 percent of cases statewide though they only comprise 32 percent of the state’s population. And while poor diet and lifestyle choices made easy targets—scapegoats used in clumsy attempts to explain why Black people were feeling a disparate impact—few were bold or honest enough to point to environmental racism as a principle co-morbidity. Chemical industry pollution has historically been permitted to function in African-American communities, resulting in health issues such as asthma and respiratory problems. Asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes are aggravated or caused by pollution and serve as pre-existing conditions of COVID-19 that have contributed to deaths across Louisiana.  Just 30 miles west of New Orleans, the Black communities in St. John and St. James Parishes known as Death Alley, pollutants of chemical, plastic and aluminum plants have resulted in some of the highest cancer rates in the world.  These same communities have seen some of the highest morbidity rates due to COVID-19. St John the Baptist and St. James parishes had some of the highest death rates per capita of any county in the United States. They also have some of the highest air pollution rates in the nation, according to national assessments.

The Foundation for Louisiana is working to recast and accurately frame the narrative around health, environment, and Black populations, its leaders say by highlighting experiences and wisdom of local leaders in Black communities and by making and leveraging investments that are designed to bring about equitable public health strategies and policies. It wants to ensure that COVID-19’s impact on poor and Black communities is not wasted example of the impacts of institutional racism—but is used as a teachable lesson to empower communities now and in the future. 

“In the environmental justice piece, how do we really recognize that the corridor that is Death Alley, as it has been reclaimed by our frontline leaders, that 80 percent of those communities are Black communities. One hundred percent are low-income communities. How do we acknowledge that we have to fight for a future towards justice, health, and safety for the people of Louisiana? This work is really centered around understanding where there are policies in place that continue to allow environmental racism and continue the construction and permitting of new industrial facilities adjacent to Black communities especially. How do we reduce these emissions at the same time as we reduce our reliance or perceived reliance on those harmful industries, while supporting those frontline leaders such as Rise St. James, Concerned Citizens of St. John, Zion Travelers Cooperative Center and the Coalition against Death Alley?”

When it comes to climate change, leaders with the Foundation of Louisiana believe the increasing intensity of storms and other natural disasters impacting Louisiana have been directly impacted by climate science, noting that when Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana in 2005, it had been 40 years since New Orleans had seen a major hurricane. However, in the 15 years since, Louisiana has been beset with three major hurricanes and countless unnamed disasters. In fact, every one of Louisiana’s 64 parishes has been under a federal flood declaration at one point or another in recent times, according to a regional strategy published by the state’s Office of Community Development and the Foundation for Louisiana in April 2019. And as one writer notes in his blog, “Hurricane Laura is yet another reminder of how low-income communities and communities of color are most vulnerable to climate-fueled disasters. The parishes in southwest Louisiana have an 18 percent poverty rate and 20 percent of residents are Black or Hispanic.”

And it is those communities that are more likely to reside in the most vulnerable areas because of redlining and historically discriminatory housing policies.

According to a Buzz Feed report, residents of the area have also raised concerns about the disasters colliding, questioning whether toxic chemicals unleashed from the petrol-chemical plants that line several largely Black communities in and around Lake Charles were swept through the air by Hurricane Laura’s 150 mile per hour winds and are now causing residents of those communities to suffer from unexplained sicknesses. 

What’s Next?

When it comes to climate change, both Daniels and Russell say they have waited a long time for, but are buoyed by Gov. John Bel Edwards executive order JBE 2020-18, which formally establishes Louisiana’s first-ever Climate Change Initiatives Task Force, a committee that will examine ways and make recommendations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Louisiana. Gov. Edwards coupled this order with another JBE 2020-19, which provides measures to enhance the coordination of efforts across state agencies by creating the state’s first chief resilience officer.

In a statement released at the time these orders were signed in August, Gov. Edwards said, “By coupling these new efforts to build resilience and address greenhouse gas emissions with our new world class coastal protection and restoration program, we believe we can even more successfully confront the difficulties in store in the future and seize new opportunities to transform ourselves on a more equitable, prosperous and sustainable state.”

Daniels and Russell are encouraging individuals, organizations and business interests to pay attention to work of this task force and others like it, such as the health disparities task force the Governor created in response to COVID-19’s disparate impact on Black communities. 

Without question, whether it is the COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force or the new Climate Change Initiatives Task Force, to the efforts of the Foundation of Louisiana or any other organization that asserts it is working to address issues of inequity in the systems and institutions that impact the lives of Louisiana residents, Black communities must pay attention, recognize the implications, demand accountability and require substantive change. And that must include issues related to environmental injustice.

Maybe then, we can avoid the mistakes made following Hurricane Katrina as Louisiana faces its latest disasters. 

“Following Katrina, we spent billions on recovery and rebuilding. While we did many things right and informed globally relevant lessons, we missed the mark at the macro level,” Foundation leaders say. “As Governor Edwards and his team continue to align recovery dollars amid this COVID-19 pandemic, we must ensure that we do a better job of investing in a more just and vibrant future for our coastal communities. We need to have a consistent strategy to address those systems that create inequities.”