The Awful Environmental Injustices Exposed By Hurricane Sandy

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When Hurricane Sandy tore through the New York City Metropolitan Area on October 29th, 2012, it immediately became one of the costliest natural disasters in American history. The image that the country saw of Hurricane Sandy was mainly images of Manhattan streets being flooded in multiple feet of water, subway stations filled up past the stairs and to street level. One of the most recognizable and prosperous cities worldwide, crippled into a dystopian landscape where it’s citizens are fending for themselves.

Lower Manhatten, below 14th street, had no power for an entire four days after the initial impact of the storm. 53 people died in New York City, 250,000 vehicles were destroyed, the New York Stock Exchange closed for two days and the economic losses were an estimated $19 billion. The viral video of the Manhattan Con Edison power plant exploding due to storm surge cemented this image of dystopian mayhem to the American people intently watching. Manhattan is one of the wealthiest places to live not just in America, but in the world. After about a week of recovery and tireless work hours to get the city up and running again, everything was more or less back to normal. People returned to their jobs (albeit maybe without a car), shops and restaurants that had not suffered too extensive damage were back for business, and the largely unharmed apartment buildings in Manhattan were still the same homes they were before the storm.

But this was in Manhattan. East of Manhattan lies Long Island, whose westernmost points are occupied by the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. The 538-mile southern coastline of these boroughs should be prime real estate for wealthy New Yorkers looking for an ocean view and a beach, right? So before we delve into the undemocratic environmental injustice that struck these communities specifically from the effects of Hurricane Sandy, we need to explore how these communities came to be comprised of lower-class citizens in the first place.

New York City began to build housing projects on this coastline because that is where the poorest people happened to live. The neighborhood of Queens the Rockaways, a narrow, low-lying piece of land that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean was one of the areas most emblematic of the environmental injustice that occurred in the aftermath of Sandy. Low-income housing projects began in the Rockaways in 1950. At the time, there was huge demand for cheaper housing in New York City due to returning veterans and black people migrating from the south to the urban north. Due to the Housing Act of 1949, there was enormous federal funding to build affordable housing.

All of this development comes back to Robert Moses, who was the master architect of the current urban-suburban dynamic in the New York Metropolitan area that we see today. Moses was head of the committee on slum-clearing and created thousands of high rise public housing near the shoreline. The Rockaways were once the weekend getaway spot for the wealthy of New York City, but with the advent of railroads and cars the further beaches of eastern Long Island became much more appealing to the upper class. It was “encouraged”, if not coerced, that more middle class residents to leave and make room for the poor to move in. Thus created a string of extremely vulnerable towns on barrier islands, filled with low-income residents in less than stellar housing such as Far Rockaway, Long Beach, Atlantic Beach, Brighton Beach, Coney Island, the list goes on. From the start of Robert Moses’ policies to shuffle the poor into the same shoreline area, these towns were doomed to be vulnerable to massive storms.

After Sandy hit, there was obviously a rush to get everything up and running as quickly as possible, as it is a huge economic burden for everything in the city to be shut down for any amount of time. Almost everywhere in Manhattan recieved power back in the immediate days following the initial impact of the storm. More than 400,000 live in the New York City Housing Authority’s (NYCHA’s) 334 residential developments. While the rest of the city recieved power within four days at the most, the majority of New Yorkers living in public housing were without electricity, heat or hot water until November 14th, or 16 days after the intial impact of the storm. With the already enormous mold problem in public housing, it remains to be seen whether the large water damage suffered by the impact of Sandy could cause significant health problems down the road.

To focus on the Far Rockaway’s as a case study, the response from the locals was certainly reminiscent of the response of the locals from the Ninth Ward of New Orleans after Katrina. One lifelong resident of the area, Howard Schwach, 79, did an interview with the publication The American Prospect. Schwach provides incredible insights into the mindsets of the tightly knit community that is Far Rockaway. He stated “I must’ve weathered 30-40 hurricanes here since I was a kid, and that’s why I stayed for Sandy.” when describing the extent of the damage in the area, Schwach said he had woken up to see his car had been replaced by a 10-foot chunk of the boardwalk. His water and gas had both been turned off, which was not the case everywhere (leading to more than 120 housefires and many lawsuits). Although Schwach was able to leave the Rockaways for a few months following the storm, which he emphasizes was rare in the community, many had to stay because they had no other options.

All of the cities resources were being put into the affluent, money-making areas for recovery, while poorer areas like the Rockaways were being forgotten. The Rockaway boardwalk was not even completely rebuilt until 5 years after the storm, in 2017. Although the Rockaways are a glaring example of how economic inequality can lead to environmental injustice. In a study conducted by Stony Brook University, it exposes the

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fact that lower-income residents of New York are just in far more vulnerable areas to disaster than the wealthier areas. Southern barrier islands of Brooklyn and Queens are populated by residents in bottom percentile of median income throughout the entirety of New York City. The southern coast of Long Island is far more vulnerable to flooding and other natural hazards in comparison to the north shore, sometimes referred to as the “gold coast”, which historically has been populated by white, upper-middle class residents. But economics are not the only factor.

The same Stony Brook University study goes on to analyze the racial dimension of the impacts of Hurricane Sandy. Going back to Robert Moses in the post-WWII era, shoreline communities such as Coney Island, the Rockaways, and Long Beach fell into hard economic times. Moses used this opportunity to build subsidized public housing along the shore to attempt to usher in the black and latino population as part of a “cleansing” initiative of the wealthier areas of the city. It was in these areas where Sandy’s largest storm surge hit – 17 feet high in Long Beach and 14 feet high in the Rockaways. As stated in the study, “One report three years after the storm recounted the experience of Melissa Miller in Long Beach, whose apartment in the Channel Park Homes development was inundated with five inches of sewage-infested water.

Nearly every home in Long Beach was flooded, and two-thirds suffered “heavy or strong damage,” as did 20 percent of those in nearby Far Rockaways, according to state statistics. Our investigation showed her experience was shared by others in publicly subsidized homes, many of them with African-American residents.” In addition to residents homes being inundated, the schools that served these majority-minority communities also experienced heavy flooding and sometimes complete inundation. In stark contrast to this, upper middle class, white communities on the north shore experienced no flooding to their schools, despite the fact that in affluent communities in that area such as Bayville experienced storm surges up to 11 feet. In fact, the study goes on to show that across the entirety of Long Island, wealthier, predominantly white communities fared exponentially better than communities that were a majority black or latino.

In the town of Bayville on the north shore, 86% of homes had flood insurance, compared to the 30% in the Coney Island and Brighton Beach areas. FEMA data shows that in predominantly black areas of Brooklyn, only 14% of homes were insured, meaning that the homeowners had to wait for government grants, which could often take years. The New York Rising government initiative was put in place to rehabilitate homes and homeowners in these adversely affected areas, but as of 2017, only two-thirds of these homes had been rehabilitated. This may seem promising on the surface, but the inverse of this is that one-third of homes have not been rehabilitated, which is exceptionally high in a place with as many resources as the New York City and State governments.

The Atlantic writer David Rohde wrote an extensive piece on the inequality of New York City that was exposed due to the disaster of Hurricane Sandy. Rohde was in New York City the night the storm hit, but stayed in a midtown hotel when he was told to evacuate his apartment. Rohde writes about his interaction with a Manhattan garage attendant in the immediate aftermath of Sandy, “A garage attendant said he hadn’t been able to contact his only relative – a sister in New Jersey – since the storm hit. Asked where he weathered the hurricane, his answer was simple.’I slept in my car,’.

Growing inequality is a hot button issue at the forefront of our national politics, but nothing really brings it to light more than a disastrous event. Low-income citizens can’t skip work to flee the incoming storm, meaning that they often have to weather the storm on their own, away from their family and loved ones. In my hometown, an affluent suburb north of New York City, it was not uncommon to see families take a vacation to a tropical island in anticipation of the destructive storm. Lower-income citizens don’t have access to the same resources as those of the upper class so when a disaster occurs, it puts poorer people at an immediate disadvantage. This, coupled with the fact that lower-income citizens in the New York City area tend to live in more vulnerable areas to flooding to begin with create a huge amount of environmental injustice. The lack of affordability for insurance, and the slowness with which government support comes to these areas due to their percieved lower importance level compounds this issue further.

Since the devastating events of Hurricane Sandy just over seven years ago, areas of Long Beach and Rockaway are still not completely rebuilt. Government support has been too slow and minimal at that. But these issues are not isolated to just this disaster. Before Sandy, Hurricane Katrina was, and still is, the benchmark for how pronounced environmental injustice can be. Even since Sandy, with all of its publicity of the struggling victims in poorer communities, environmental injustice is still a major issue in the United States.

In 2017, the year of three of the costliest hurricanes in American history – Irma, Maria, and Harvey – the same injustice existed once again. In the case of Hurricane Harvey, which mainly crippled Houston, Texas, the rebuild effort was robust and quick, as Houston is one of the major metropolis’s in the United States. This is in huge contrast to Maria, in which the American territory of Puerto Rico took the brunt of the damage. Puerto Rico, generally being of lower-income, had it’s infrastructure destroyed with no resources to rehabilitate itself. Once again, just like Sandy and Katrina, the federal government was extremely slow to respond and hundreds of thousands were left without power for months.

With Sandy, it exposed many things not just about New York City, but about the country as a whole. The growing economic divide does not just lower quality of life for the majority of Americans, but it results in environmental injustice that has devastating consequences on the very people who simply cannot afford it.

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