On the eve of a march Saturday to call for action on climate change and mark the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, survivors of hurricanes Maria, Irma and Katrina from around the U.S. and the Caribbean gathered in a show of solidarity in New York City.
In a roundtable discussion convened by the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, they shared their stories of displacement and recovery, as well as their plans for adapting to the climate crisis and agitating for climate justice. In the wide-ranging talk they touched on actions both local and global, from mock council meetings and free community food pantries to federal regulations on oil refineries and the adoption of the Paris Agreement.
Panelists included moderator Mark Winston Griffith, executive director of Brooklyn Movement Center, Ricot Jean-Pierre, director of programs for the Haitian Platform to Advocate Alternative Development (PAPDA, a Grassroots International partner); Antoinette Martinez, a Puerto Rican-American climate justice activist; Juan Parras is the executive director and co-founder of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s.); Monique Manalang Ruiz is a climate justice youth organizer in Miami; working with the group Catalyst Miami and Brenda Dardar Robichaux, founder of the United Houma Nation Relief Fund.
The Progressive listened in on their conversation, and presents an edited version below.
Mark Winston Griffith, moderator: This year’s hurricane season is likely to be the costliest on record with a current total of over $188 billion in damages and devastation from just three hurricanes: Harvey, Irma and Maria. The link between severe weather and climate change is clear. Even more clear is that communities of color are the first to get hit and suffer the most devastation and damage.
Today we’re going to hear from activists from Puerto Rico, Houston, Haiti, Louisiana and Miami. They are coming together to call for action to prevent more severe disasters and to ensure that frontline communities can indeed [weather] future severe storms.
Antoinette Martinez: When my aunt suddenly passed away in Puerto Rico my family traveled to pay our final respects. We found ourselves in a situation where we didn’t know when or if we were going to come back.
While I was there [another] aunt was in tears one night because she thought her husband was missing. There is very little cell phone service on the island and it turns out that he was waiting on gas for an hour.
It’s a full-time job to stand in line to wait for gas that’s being rationed at $10 per person. You have children also in line waiting. [We saw] women in their seventies fainting in line from standing outside in the sun. Then you go to the supermarket and you’re overcharged for items that can be grown in your own backyard. The [delivery] trucks can’t get to [people] because of all the bureaucratic red tape.
In Sunset Park, Brooklyn, right now [I’m] working on anti-displacement campaigns as a result of the property values that dropped [after Hurricane Sandy] and industries moving in and taking advantage of that situation. My heart feels for Puerto Rico, and I hope that doesn’t happen there.
Brenda Dardar Roubichaux: It’s an honor to be here. Puerto Rico brings back such painful memories of what we went through with Katrina so many years ago. I served as Principal Chief of United Houma Nation for thirteen years. During that time we experienced Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ike, hurricanes prior to that and hurricanes since then. It’s not new to us, so we know how to prepare. But the severity of the storm and the frequency of the storms has made it a whole different situation for us.
Our tribe is 17,000 [people]. We live along the coastline of southeast Louisiana. We are a state-recognized tribe, we’ve been in the federal recognition process now for 40-plus years. And so everything we do, unfortunately, we have to do on our own, we don’t receive assistance from the federal government.
[After Katrina] when we reached out to organizations like FEMA they told us we weren’t federally recognized so they couldn’t help us. But yet they would help the neighboring federally recognized tribe that wasn’t impacted at all. Our people were left to suffer.
My husband’s grandfather had an old general store, he cleared it out, I don’t know what he did with all the stuff in it. We started receiving donations from wonderful people all across the United States, and opened up a relief center. People were able to come in and “shop” for things, it was free of course. We also helped them with Red Cross applications, with FEMA applications, and we’d ask ‘Have you received assistance?’ Every one of them had not.
Monique Manalang Ruiz: As a daughter of Filipino immigrants, the idea of embarking on a life of service emerged when I visited my mother’s village in 2013. I witnessed my relatives homes overcome by floods, provoked by unceasing monsoons. Government intervention remained absent. Locals unable to flee continued to battle the ominous waters, and had to resort to tarps or bamboo to replace or sustain old homes.
Locals unable to flee continued to battle the ominous waters, and had to resort to tarps or bamboo to replace or sustain old homes.
During [Irma], my parents and I slept in our family store, unsure if there would be a home to return to. We were lucky to find a house standing amid fallen trees and powerlines. The restaurant [my father] worked at was decimated during the hurricane, resulting in his sudden unemployment. Similar to my experience in the Philippines, government interventions were not perfect. Thousands of Miami-Dade residents lost wages and jobs. Over a month after the storm there are still community members living in mold-infested homes. I believe that to achieve globally equitable solutions we need to build empathy among each other. I’m already tired of seeing two of my homes, the Philippines and Miami, ravaged by natural disasters, and I don’t want this to amplify over the course of my life.
Juan Parras: I remember when Katrina hit New Orleans. Houston accepted 250,000 of their residents. And that’s basically what’s happening in Houston right now with Hurricane Harvey actually displacing many thousands of people. Houston Texas is considered the belly of the beast where all the refineries and petrochemical plants and headquarters are. Right before Hurricane Harvey hit they allowed all the industry to just release anything that has pressure in their facilities that may blow up. The industry’s self-reporting, so when they self-report, they reduce the amount of air toxins that they release. We recorded the releases made by the industry, [and found] that there’s thousands of releases of toxins and cancer causing chemicals. When the hurricane passed and the industry goes back into operation, they are now going back and saying “We didn’t release this amount of toxins.” Those discrepancies need to be checked but nobody’s checking on them.
Flooding displaced 40 to 60,000 people. We are still working on trying to find houses for people, who are even being denied FEMA assistance in our communities because we have huge immigrant population. In fact ICE was showing up and when people were applying for some kind of public assistance, and actually arresting and intimidating immigrants. We have a lot of people that need public assistance that are not seeking public assistance because of their legal status, which is unprecedented.
Ricot Jean-Pierre: When we look at the Caribbean region as well as marginalized communities in the United States, we realize we are fully living in disaster capitalism. Look at the case of Haiti and take into account Hurricane Matthew that happened about a year ago in 2016. Or take the case of Irma that just appeared in August of this year. Look at Haitian peasants, they have lost 80 percent of their production. Despite these disastrous consequences no policies have been put in place to [help]. When we look at the impact of climate change on food sovereignty as well as access to water and civil rights…There needs to be a systemic change or rather an orientation to a new model of production that favors what we’re calling an agro-economic model.
[W]e are fully living in disaster capitalism.
Moderator: Can you speak to now what you think that needs to be done? What does a just recovery look like? Let’s start there.
JP: At least in Houston, what we need [surrounds] the issue of the chemical security policy Risk Management Plan. The Arkema plant explosion [that happened during Hurricane Harvey] could have been prevented if we already had chemical security policy in place. Those are some policies that the current administration is delaying… Houston has a 52-mile stretch of nothing but chemical plants and refineries, and if we can prevent any accident from occurring, that’s very important to us at this point.
BDR: In the community where I live there was once acres and acres of land, and now when people look out their backyard, it’s just open water. It’s happening at such a rapid pace, there’ve been conversations and supposed resources to relocate the entire community. We’re working through that process, the officials that we’re working [are] quite insensitive to what it means for us to have to relocate as a community.
Where I live there was once acres and acres of land, and now when people look out their backyard, it’s just open water.
Where I live there was once acres and acres of land, and now when people look out their backyard, it’s just open water.
We’ve lived in our lands for generation after generation. It’s not just a piece of property we picked up and bought somewhere. Our fishermen fish off the waters there that provide food, our traditional medicines grow there which we’ve used to heal our people for years and generations, as well as the plants that we build our homes with and make our baskets with. It’s all there. And so when we’re up and leaving, it’s not just leaving our home, we’re leaving our history, we’re leaving our heritage behind. And so to have conversations that are meaningful and sensitive to the people in the community, unfortunately that doesn’t always happen.
I work with youth a lot to prepare them for what’s coming. And one of the things that we do is a mock-tribal council. We like to give them issues that are youth are facing, that our tribe is facing. Because oftentimes we don’t give our young people credit to be able to solve these issues. So one of the things that we’ll do is give them a scenario in which I play a tribal elder, not sure what to do. We’ll have a younger educated person who feels that they have an idea that could save the community. And then we’ll have someone play the role of someone from Washington with millions of dollars [for them to] relocate but they have to leave everything behind. Unfortunately, that’s the scenario we’re facing. We’ll present it to our youth, and it always makes me so proud to see how they speak with such heart and passion when they’re debating and discussing it.
RJP: Despite the weakness of the Paris Accord, I think we can still use this accord as a basis to think through what we need to do next and for governments to become engaged in this reducing the effects of climate change and to also involve social movements.
And the second point is to attack the causes of global climate change. Look at the post-2010 earthquake in Haiti. You have the ex-President of the United States Bill Clinton, who collaborated with the World Bank to encourage and launch mega projects such as mining, luxury tourist projects, and the construction of factories on actual land that’s been used for agriculture.
We need to prioritize an agro-economy within which peasants will be able to have access to land, water, and seeds
I want to highlight the point that other folks have already brought up — the state needs to be more present. The people are not asking for handouts, but they do need some support economically, socially, psycho-socially to get out the situation that they are presently in. We will not be able to get this to this vision that I’ve laid out unless actors like us around this table take on our responsibility and demand that the state do its job.
MMR: I really resonate with what Brenda mentioned. It is the responsibility of community organizers to emphasize youth involvement and on the ground work to really educate people my age and younger so we can carry on this work in future. And also really focusing on disaster preparation in low-income communities, because I can say from Miami—South Beach was restored within a few days, whereas communities like Liberty City, Overtown, Little Haiti, and Little Havana were the last ones to have power restored.
I can speak for Miami Dade College which graduates the most minorities in the United States. We don’t turn away students, regardless of their citizenship status. We’ve opened doors to students in the Caribbean who’ve been affected by the hurricane.
I think institutions could really endorse and advocate by allocating more resources for international students and families.
Moderator: You’ve all traveled to get here and to be with us, and I’m sure there are enough compelling things going on in your own homes and regions. I want to just ask you to say very briefly why you think it’s important to be here in solidarity with the rest of us.
AM: Nobody wants to be in this situation, it’s just not right. It’s very personal, it’s very real. We need the Jones Act to be lifted. We were able to get it lifted for 10 days but that’s not enough. Ten days to bring aid to a whole island that is in a situation where they don’t have access to water or to power? We can do so much better. By lifting that policy we’ll be able to have foreign ships bring aid to the island. It’s unbelievable that this is happening. But hearing everyone’s story, and bringing it together, it’s just unreal how real it is.
RJP: Our presence here it is to testify solidarity with all the people who’ve been victims of the poor economic and environmental policies. We are present here because we are never going to give up.
JP: A whole lot of people are denying climate change is real. And we are evidence that climate change is happening in our communities. It’s very real to us. The biggest issue facing us right now is that even at the very top of politics people are not treating people of color with the respect we deserve. If we don’t trust each other then we’re not going to make anything move forward. Right now I don’t know who’s got my back, and that’s not a good feeling.
A whole lot of people are denying climate change is real. And we are evidence that climate change is happening in our communities.
BDR: We’ve all been through so much over the years. And when I listen to the news and I hear all the stories that are being shared it’s like we’re living Katrina all over again. It was important for me to be here and stand with all of my brothers and sisters who’re going through this.
MMR: I came here to learn and to communicate the stories of Miami, the Keys and people who come from the Caribbean. People like me, Filipinos and women of color—there’s rarely a woman of color on a platform like this being able to communicate these narratives. Women of color are at the forefront of this issue and we should be given the platform, and be able to lead. Also, I want to learn how Sandy has continued to affect New York It happened five years ago, and Katrina happened 10 years ago, but much of the effects are still occurring. There should be always be continuous advocacy around that, reminding the public we should stay active so that we can prepare better in the future, and work on assisting and aiding the communities that have been left behind and forgotten.
The above article is reprinted with permission from the Progressive.