Justice-Driven Disaster Recovery
Baseline Data to Support Safe Communities, Healthy Ecosystems, and a Rejuvenated Future
Publication Date: 2021
On August 27, 2020, Hurricane Laura hit southwestern Louisiana as a Category 4 hurricane—one of the most powerful storms to strike the Gulf Coast in decades. Subsequent storms also hit the region—Hurricane Delta on October 10 in the same area as Hurricane Laura and Hurricane Zeta on October 20, which cut across southeastern Louisiana. These storms were part of the most active Atlantic hurricane season on record, with 30 named storms, including 13 hurricanes. Louisiana sat in the hurricane cone of uncertainty for eight of those storms. Hurricanes Laura, Delta, and Zeta are the latest in a complex history of layered disasters and co-occurring injustices in the region. The communities most affected were already enduring high levels of pollution, COVID cases, poverty, substandard housing, failing infrastructure, extreme land loss, subsidence, climate change, and other weather impacts. Some communities on the brink of receivership were already at risk of bankruptcy (Hillburn, 20131), and then were hit by a severe winter storm after the hurricanes. While each of these alone can be dire, the compounded effects of co-occurring disasters amount to a sum greater than their individual parts. Decisions about hurricane disaster recovery—based on insufficient master plans and regional economic models—most often affect Latinx, Vietnamese, Indigenous, African American, Creole, and other communities of color. Our intent was to gather data that could support the informed decision-making of communities, families, and individuals about their future well-being. This ongoing process is aimed at fostering visions of a rejuvenated future based on human and environmental rights with the full participation local residents about their own well-being and that of their communities.
Disasters uncover multiple layers and generations of systemic social and environmental injustices and violence inflicted on populations, workers, and especially children. Yet, it is never one disaster alone that causes such harm. By understanding the historical context and complexities of co-occurring disasters and violence across space and time, we can begin to address the root causes of harm; with and for the people who bear the burden and carry the risks—the risk-bearers.
Coastal territories are becoming unviable. People’s lives and entire ecological systems depend greatly on who develops plans to address the anticipated large-scale impacts of sea level rise and how they develop them. These impacts are particularly critical for individuals in frontline communities that endure disproportionate hardships from climate and environmental risks and have historically suffered from the decisions made by people outside their communities (Maldonado et al., 20202), as well as on the ecological systems already degraded by unsustainable development and extractive practices.
In the face of climate impacts, frontline communities face key human rights concerns and implications, such as access to and loss of food, water, sanitation, life, property, health, housing, work, self-determination, education, and sovereignty (Moulton et al., 20173). Proactive planning to meet resident priorities and needs must be done at the level of these concepts. A rights-based approach works to change the current view of climate impacts as a burden, shifting toward the pursuit of positive opportunities that support community and ecosystem health and well-being. This positive perspective elicits power, self-respect, and pride in the face of uncertainty; helps communities thrive during times of great change; and allows them to choose dignity over victimization (Maldonado et al., 20214). Data-driven tools developed in line with community priorities and needs will support those who face decisions about how to mitigate and adapt to increasing climate, weather, environmental, and toxic threats.
This image from the NASA Scientific Visualization Studio shows a multitude of storms threatening the Louisiana coast during the 2020 hurricane season. The storms strained aid resources for preparedness, response, and recovery.
Within this context, Hurricanes Laura, Delta, and Zeta—which pummeled Louisiana in August and October 2020—are the latest in a complex history of co-occurring disasters and injustices to hit communities and ecosystems in Louisiana. The area was also already reeling from the tourism downturn due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic slowdown in the oil fields.
Environmental and technological disasters, extractive industries, river mismanagement, and climate change are drastically transforming Louisiana’s near-shore and coastal landscape (Maldonado & Peterson, 20185). Hurricanes and storms have become more severe in recent years, accelerating rates of coastal land loss (Couvillion et al., 20116). Climate change-induced sea level rise and intensified hurricanes compound the effects of subsidence, erosion, and the saltwater intrusion resulting from oil and gas extraction (Burkett & Davidson, 20127). The processes create sediment subsidence which combines with sea level rise to produce one of the world’s highest rates of relative sea level rise—more than eight inches in the past 50 years or slightly twice the global rate (Karl et al., 20098; Melillo et al., 20149; NOAA, 201210). The 2016 floods confirmed that most of Louisiana is at risk from extreme rain events and riverine and coastal flooding (Peterson, 202011).
During the past century, Louisiana has changed from a place of refuge and sanctuary for displaced people into an energy sacrifice zone, "a place where human lives are valued less than the natural resources that can be extracted from the region" (Buckley & Allen, 201112, p. 171; see also Colten, 201213). The region is among “the new geographies of domination” (Reid & Taylor, 201014, p. 11), in which increasingly at-risk populations become even further marginalized (Peterson, 200515; Maldonado, 201916).
In 1901, one of the largest oil geysers known burst forth in Beaumont, Texas—just 30 miles from the southwest corner of Louisiana. This marked the beginning of the modern petroleum industry in the United States. Immediately after, oil exploration began in Louisiana and the state’s first oil field was discovered in southwestern Louisiana that same year. In 1916, a large natural gas field was discovered near Monroe in northern Louisiana. With the first coastal zone oil lease in 1921, oil and gas companies began dredging passageways through Louisiana’s wetlands (Austin, 200617; Turner, 199718), resulting in approximately 25,000 miles of pipelines and 3,500 offshore production facilities in federal waters in the central and western Gulf of Mexico—three-quarters of which are off the Louisiana coast (Freudenburg & Gramling, 201119). The dredged passageways allow more water to rush in from the Gulf of Mexico during storms and high tide, leaving the once-fertile lands barren from saltwater intrusion (Maldonado, 2019). Between 1932 and 2016, Louisiana’s coastal parishes lost 2,006 square miles of land (Couvillion et al., 201720), altering the biological and ecosystem characteristics of the region and precipitating social and cultural consequences, many of which are likely irreversible, such as the fracturing of tightly knit, historied communities with lifeways attached to place (Peterson & Maldonado, 201621).
The inland communities that border an 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, often referred to as Cancer Alley (Bullard, 199422; Blackwell et al., 201723), are surrounded by 25 percent of the nation’s petrochemical production (Jackson & Chapple, 201824). United Nations human rights experts recently declared that environmental racism in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley must end (UN News, 202125).
Frontline communities who suffer the most from contamination that causes abnormally high cancer rates, asthma, miscarriages, and other health-related issues (Bullard, 1994) are often people of lesser means and communities of color. Residents often experience “toxic uncertainty” (Auyero & Swistun, 200926) that arise from a multitude of contamination events such as spills of unknown toxic chemicals and pollutants in the past 80 years. The Louisiana Bucket Brigade has recorded an increase in reported spills and gas released in the region in past years, which have serious impacts on human and environmental health (Lasley, 201027). Many residents are concerned about potential future health effects as the consequences of toxic chemicals and contamination become more prevalent (Maldonado, 2019; Peterson, 2020; Taylor, 202128).
Physical health indicators place Louisiana in near the bottom of state rankings in many areas critical for a vital population (Horney et al., 201729). The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s 2020 health report gives Louisiana a low score on overall wellness and well-being (Disaster Justice Network [DJN], 2020a30). Inadequate housing, weatherization, and the challenges of residents to maintain and repair housing contribute to a social construct of community vulnerability and structural violence (Tierney, 201431). A lack of rural funding impedes home improvement and storm mitigation (Horney et al., 2017). Poor water quality threatens the health of the most vulnerable residents—older adults, children, and those with pre-existing conditions. Infrastructure that is vital for water delivery in the central part of the state is nearing collapse (Ballard, 201732). In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave Louisiana’s infrastructure a grade of C after finding 62% of the state’s roads were in “mediocre to poor condition;” 3,815 bridges were structurally deficient or functionally obsolete; 33 dams were considered “high hazard;” and drinking water and wastewater systems will need $10.9 billion in improvements in the next 20 years (American Society of Civil Engineers, 201333). Many of these drinking water and wastewater systems are located in rural areas (Schleifstein, 201334). Safe, clean water is clearly essential to basic health standards, yet water required for daily use may be one of the state’s biggest challenges (Adeniyi et al., 201635). An Environmental Working Group report on drinking water by zip codes showed that all potable water in every Louisiana parish contained either carcinogenic chemicals or metals. The combination of inadequate stormwater drainage, inferior potable water and sewage treatment, and nuisance flooding puts some coastal communities at risk of being uninhabitable (Peterson, 2020; Ruppert, 201936).
In the United States, voluntary buyouts offered through agencies such as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are mechanisms for promoting relocation away from hazards as an adaptive strategy. Voluntary buyouts most often occur after disasters in the form of payments for damaged property, but do not often include provisions for the resettlement concerns associated with the buyout. Accumulating research highlights the social inequities that exist in such buyouts, which most often benefit middle-income white families (Marino et al., 201937).
As Louisiana’s population works to adapt to the state’s changing geography and increased risks of extreme weather, there will be shifts in living patterns and adjustments in the understanding of dwelling place or home place (Brown, 201138). Some Louisiana coastal residents are already relocating (Dalbom et al., 201439). Published research helps to understand internal post-disaster displacement, but has focused mostly on urban areas. Little attention has been given to internally displaced rural communities or to the rural communities that receive those displaced (Hauer, 201740). As a society, we now face the task of attempting to rejuvenate rural communities that suffer from inadequate physical and social structures (Peterson, 2020).
Addressing immediate needs while understanding the long-term implications of current choices and decisions involves creative living, hope, and a massive scale of collaboration and cooperation (Peterson, 2020). To democratize the planning process, those most impacted by the decision-making—the vulnerability-bearers—must be included (Krajeski, 201841). By involving those who are most likely to bear the consequences of extreme events, visions of the future can be inclusive, and the quality of the planning will benefit from a variety of knowledge, backgrounds, and experiences. The inclusion of risk-bearers in problematization and problem-solving often leads to creative alternatives and healthier outcomes, as well as a broader support base for the project (Peterson, 2020).
Cross-boundary organizing that includes multiple disciplines, communities, and ideas can help link programs with projects that reduce natural hazards while emphasizing community benefits. Collaboration and work building on the assets of the communities is neither a top-down nor a bottom-up approach to planning, and is usually multidimensional in scope. The in-between entities, sometimes called boundary organizations, can act as facilitators, interpreters, and resource advocates (Peterson, 2020), working as a credible, salient, and legitimate collective across communities of research and practice, epistemologies, and generations to coordinate complementary expertise (Cash et al., 200242; Meadow et al., 201543; Maldonado et al., 201644). All forms of organizations, from the emergent to the formal, are critical in the discourse. They can foster collaborative work and serve as connectors of organizational resources between and within grassroots, “grasstops”, and formal organizations, be they academic, philanthropic, or government (Taylor et al., 201245 ; NASEM, 201846). When inter- and intra-organizational connections and relationships are developed and collaboration is established with a non-hierarchical structure, each organization increases in strength and effectiveness. All participating entities can co-own the work and learn from the process (Laska & Peterson, 201147; Peterson, 2020).
This research attempts to learn more about the following questions:
What is the baseline data to better understand the precarious hazardous risks (e.g., storm surge, land loss, petrochemicals, failing built infrastructure) in the locations hit by hurricanes Laura, Delta, and Zeta?
What can the data tell us about the informed choices and decision-making process of affected communities, families, and individuals that could impact their future well-being and recovery process—particularly considering the intersection of environmental and climate justice and potential displacement?
Study Site Description
The work initially focused on southwest Louisiana, and expanded to include community leaders and organizers from regions across the state as the 2020 hurricane season had devastating effects on communities statewide. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we were not able to enter the field as we normally would, so our work instead took place virtually, which we describe in detail in the results section below.
Data, Methods, and Procedures
We started this project by gathering baseline data for use by communities affected by Hurricanes Laura, Delta, and Zeta, as well as measurements to inform near- and long-term decision-making. Baseline data is needed to map precarious geographic areas with potential displacement of communities and hazardous risks (e.g., storm surge, land loss, petrochemical contamination). This leads to better understanding of the exact chemical and environmental risks, where they are located, and how this information can help inform communities, families, and individual decision-making about how to adapt in place or, if relocating, where to go.
An interdisciplinary research approach is critical to inform decision-making that accounts for multiple complex, intersecting processes. The proposed research initially focused on creating critical baseline data needed to provide resources for informed decision-making among local communities by mapping the multitude of diverse factors and possibilities. These baseline layers of data reflect the intersection of displacement and environmental and climate justice. Information is needed to map the multitude of contamination, current and future land loss, climate projections, and planned infrastructure development so individuals can make informed choices.
We first focused on collecting existing data sets and literature about:
- Toxic and environmental hazards such as the locations of brown fields and Superfund sites and water, soil, and air conditions
- Conditions of the physical infrastructure (e.g., water, sanitation, bridges, roads)
- Conditions of modern technological infrastructure (e.g., broadband access)
- Future climate projections for the region
- Impacts of proposed state- and agency-led restoration projects, such as sediment diversion in at-risk inland and coastal communities, to understand broader regional impacts
- Consideration of toxic chemicals and impacts on health
- Critical knowledge about the intersections between environmental conditions and COVID-19 in the near-term, as well as the possibility for additional pandemics in the long-term
- Lessons learned the impacts, experiences, and responses to toxic soils in New Orleans following flooding associated with Hurricane Katrina.
Sample Size and Participants
We started by leveraging our existing relationships and network partners in the region and through the hazards and disaster field. We formed interdisciplinary co-learning teams that included risk-bearers, community scientists, and organizers from both coastal and inland communities, as well as collaborators from problem-solving research networks. These teams then participated in intentional conversations and storytelling—held remotely for safety considerations during the COVID-19 pandemic—to inform what they see as (a) critical public health and social service indicators to be considered, (b) necessary understandings of the hurricanes and ongoing environmental impacts of on farming and fishing, (c) the legal options, choices, and resources available after disaster, and (d) to share their experiences of the relief and recovery process during COVID-19.
Our core network grew to approximately 75 partners from Louisiana, Texas, California, and several other states.
Altogether, the network above considered both the short- and long-term risks and possibilities, using what has to happen in the short-term to create a long-term vision. The work is aimed at a better understanding of safe living places and safe working conditions; what current circumstances and future projects mean for rebuilding, flood insurance, etc.; and how such informed decisions can provide alternatives that support safe, green, and healthy futures that are mindful of jobs, infrastructure, subsistence livelihoods, and small businesses. This approach of complex systems planning focuses on doing what is just and sustainable to support the rejuvenation of people and place.
It is critical to urgently mine the existing data because, as we’ve learned over the past four years, data related to polluting industries and climate change does not always remain publicly accessible. Further, learning from and understanding people’s experiences to inform the next steps is critical in the moment, while memories are fresh, and while the COVID-19 pandemic is ongoing.
Researcher Positionality, Reciprocity, and Other Ethical Considerations
This work was conducted remotely as a safety precaution during COVID-19. Further, with several overlapping and intersecting disasters of varying kinds, there is an immense emotional and physical demand on people. We therefore focused first on engaging with those in our extensive social network, with whom we already have long-standing and trusted relationships and established mutual respect, trust, and reciprocity. We focused on interdisciplinary bridge building and identifying connection points for intellectual research and resources that come from, work with, and flow to the communities. We were well positioned to work within established relationships, given our combined decades of living and/or working in the region and on the focus issues.
This work led to the development of the Disaster Justice Network (DJN), a volunteer network that shares critical information from the Laura, Delta, and Zeta hurricane recovery processes that is not easily accessible. The network includes community leaders, faith leaders, advocates, activists, practitioners, researchers, and students who weave together environmental justice and disaster expertise in order to develop strategies that address inequitable access to disaster response and recovery efforts and advocate for a justice-oriented recovery process.
Through the generosity of time and commitment, individuals and organizations share resources and expertise that can be used to avoid common pitfalls in disaster recovery and help find healthy, safe alternatives. Using baseline public, social, and environmental health information from organizations such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we knew where families and communities faced the greatest pre-existing issues. By addressing pre-existing problems and ways to build back after the devastation of these storms, we can mold a community future that is safer and healthier for all—and we can do that through cooperation and mutual care.
In connection to this work, local community leaders and organizers assessed the hurricane damage to their community, including who was affected, where they were located, and their immediate and long-term needs. Partners acquired information about FEMA’s on-the-ground operations, talked with survivors, and gathered information for their recovery appeals. They also discerned gaps and barriers in the formal disaster relief and recovery services available, worked with faith-based organizations to find resources, developed maps of hurricane cones and the other issues and spatial concerns of the enduring multiple storms, and created and disseminated flyers with information about water filters to address concerns over water quality.
Although the 2020 hurricane season is over, we found that at least hundreds, if not thousands, of people still needed help in preparing for winter storms. Many residents of Lake Charles, Louisiana; Port Arthur, Texas; and surrounding towns and rural areas lost their homes in the storms and have no alternative housing. Emergency shelters closed at the end of hurricane season and are not scheduled to reopen.
A family lives outdoors in Lake Charles, Louisiana, after the 2020 hurricane season. ©Kelli Stawecki, 2020
As temperatures dropped, this situation became exponentially more dangerous. At the time of this writing, hundreds and likely thousands of people currently do not have roofs (the tarps provided by FEMA after Hurricane Laura were destroyed by Hurricane Delta), front doors, and clean water for their homes. Our network helped to procure and deliver tents, generators, blankets, medical supplies and personal protective equipment, sleeping bags, warm clothes, diapers, cleaning supplies, food, and other items needed for immediate survival. A massive need for temporary shelters and warm clothing remains. People are asking for wooden pallets to sleep on so they don’t get wet from sleeping on the ground or inside buildings that are damp, wet, and moldy. These conditions contribute to greater health risk in a time of COVID-19. This is a housing and health emergency.
Discussion of Preliminary Findings
Given the context of working during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the research was complicated by the multiple disasters and the inability to be in the field. The organic organizational process happened differently because the means in which it was conducted were distant, virtual, and technological, which is contrary to organic. Consistent local connections lagged at the beginning since the well-connected local organizers we worked with were dealing with the crisis on the ground, as well as with COVID-19 illnesses in their families. Organizing and connection were impossible for many people who had to evacuate quickly and didn’t have access to online—or even, at times, phone—connectivity. For those who did have access to electronic technology, grassroots organizing emerged more readily, primarily through the recruitment of peers, which led to the formation of the DJN. This process made clear that there is deep knowledge of disaster preparedness, response, and recovery at the local level. Slow recovery process was not due to the lack of local capacity, but rather the undermining of it.
Volunteers offload a van of supplies for hurricane victims. The network organized arranged for the equipment necessary to deliver resources to communities in their distribution channels within 12 hours of receiving them. ©Disaster Justice Network, 2020.
Much of the initial organizing happened through peer-based, academic, and faith community ties. The connective tissue among these groups and spaces enabled the network to convene and guide organization until, nearly six months after Hurricane Laura, the process began to emerge organically. Initial network support included people working within their disciplines or abilities, as well as finding ways to lend support remotely. Working groups formed around issues (housing, health, water and sanitation, environmental hazards, and communication) and addressed immediate emergency response needs, such as facilitating deliveries of material assistance; writing grants for direct services, support, and advocacy; problem-solving issues, such as makeshift case management for recovery assistance; and working on policy considerations.
Recruiting undergraduate and graduate students from around the country using social networks was key to providing critical organizational and research capacities and labor. This was a very different kind of volunteerism than usually occurs following disasters since COVID-19 prevented typical on-the-ground volunteer support from happening on the scale necessary. Virtual options, however, did allow students to work from wherever they were, allowing those who might not have been able to participate and contribute in person to support the efforts.
Tension and angst has existed in the organizing and recovery process from the very beginning in that it has been a much more top-down approach because of the protracted crisis mode. In a non-COVID-19 community response, resources of people and organizations would normally be on the ground assisting the community response. Yet, support from the DJN, coming into existence through this organizing process, was galvanized and welcomed. Inaccurate information has come from official response systems, and the onus was on survivors to navigate the system and know whom to call, what to say, and what paperwork to fill out; all while weathering subsequent storms and living in cars—or worse. The question is whether the tension is reconcilable. With the lack of FEMA personnel in the field, many home inspections were virtual, making it very difficult for those who had been physically displaced to other regions, hours away from their homes.
There is now a growing capacity for building organizational structure within the communities. The organic development of networks, organizations, and response is rising from the community (e.g., local organizers connecting with local hardware stores to secure building materials for network-identified long-term recovery projects).
Part of the void resulted from minimal media coverage of the storms and the disaster after the disaster, that can, in part, be attributed to lessened interest due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, numerous other disasters, and the prevalence of U.S. political news at the time. Furthermore, the economic downturn in the local tourism and seafood industries caused by COVID-19-related shutdowns exacerbated the situation. Some issues predictably follow a disaster in isolated and overlooked areas and populations, as unfortunately happened in western Louisiana, articulated in the article, No Man’s Land (Coen, 202148). Following the hurricane season, the region disappeared again, rendered invisible in a time of crisis (Hillburn, 2013).
Nearly eight months after Hurricane Laura made landfall, the level of recovery could be expected to be more advanced, but the process has been stifled. Insufficient formal recovery support in the region highlighted the state of the dysfunctional and underfunded federal response system, which is indicative of widespread societal brokenness and structural violence.
For a second year in a row, U.S. News & World Report’s 2021 annual ranking of the best states to live in placed Louisiana last, based on elements such as health care and education (Davis, 202149). The previously mentioned Robert Wood Johnson Foundation health report also gave Louisiana a low score on overall wellness and well-being. These low rankings were one of the main drivers for developing the DJN.
Given the multitude of increasingly extreme weather and climate impacts, aging and collapsing infrastructure, social inequalities and limited access to resources, and the failure of agencies to effectively respond, the country is not adequately equipped or prepared to address compound, multiple disasters. If the hurricanes had affected a larger population area, the results may have been different. But media attention and vital streams of resources did not make it to this recovery.
This work illustrates that our governing systems have degraded to a point where prevailing governance is ineffectual and structural violence continues to render long-oppressed and overlooked communities invisible. We have come across dysfunctional systems and entities that haven’t been able to respond because the agency or organization does not have historical memory or experience of an emergency timeframe that is so prolonged. The time frame of the disaster cycle and what is occurring on the ground is not reflected in the literature, in lived experiences, or the people with whom we’ve worked. Yet, local voices continue to rise. The network has served as a support system for the organic responses and organizing to emerge from the local level, and we are now witnessing that emergence.
Currently, a transdisciplinary team is gathering resources and information. As communities, congregations, and families make recovery plans, the resource teams stand by to interact with them and collaborate with people interested in the region. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Some things can be solved quickly, while others, especially those that have had long-term underlying problems, take longer to address. Our goal is to support the local communities impacted so they can have healthy people, clean water, safe homes, secure jobs, and the kinds of neighborhoods, schools, and futures that include all the people who choose to be there.
Many students are volunteering their time and expertise to respond to the multiple disasters. They are committed first through their heart and passion for justice in disaster recovery, as well as the desire to learn and enhance their knowledge of the hazards and disasters professions they plan to enter. Their work is helping to find solutions and/or resources that will give people on the ground access to safe water, housing, legal assistance, clean air, emergency resources, and long-term recovery strategies.
We commend the work of this next generation of leaders and give heartfelt gratitude for the gift of their time to this effort as they pursue full-time higher education programs or nonprofit careers. We are all learning together as we address this situation. Through mutual dedication, imagination, and hard work, may we find new ways forward for a healthy, resiliency-building just recovery. We are committed to a justice-focused recovery process together! (DJN, 2020b50).
This work is designed to build a foundation for much bigger and complex integration and multi- and interdisciplinary work that will leverage our vast community of professional, academic, and environmental justice networks. It is working to establish initial baseline data to then expand into a process that is inclusive of all people and positions them to tell their stories and inform their own futures.
Acknowledgements. Thank you to all of our partners who have come together within the DJN. The work shared in this report is the result of their compassion, love for, and dedication to a justice-focused recovery process. This work will continue to be dedicated to and in partnership with all of the people continually living through disaster.
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