Learning From Disaster Response in the Trump Era

In 2017, the practice of environmental law reminds us, as Dr. King said, that we are “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny.” This truth is particularly evident in the context of the environmental justice movement.

Despite having made substantial progress in the development and enforcement of our environmental laws, we continue to witness injustice, as environmental threats disproportionately harm our nation’s low-income, minority communities.

In 2005, winds of over 120 miles per hour tore across Louisiana and the Gulf Coast as Hurricane Katrina devastated regions disproportionately represented by African American, poor, and unemployed residents. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy brought flood waters that ravaged many of New York City’s Significant Maritime Industrial areas — where more than 600,000 people, predominantly African American, live and work. Hurricane Harvey had similar consequences for Houston’s low-income and minority communities, spreading toxic chemicals from nearby industrial facilities with the rising waters. In the West, the expanding forest fire season has had a devastating impact on some rural and poor communities. Most recently, Hurricane Maria left Puerto Rico in shambles, leaving many without electricity or potable water.

These disasters brought destruction to large swathes of the country, leaving their worst marks on our nation’s most vulnerable communities lacking the infrastructure, advocates, and resources to defend themselves.

All is not lost, however. The harrowing impact and frequency of these disasters have demanded greater remedies in response, and each success or failure has revealed measures that federal, state, and local actors can meaningfully take to ensure better outcomes at each exercise of their discretion. Houston and Tampa learned from the mistakes of New Orleans in effectively preparing for Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. As we write, federal resources are being brought to bear in Puerto Rico — arguably insufficiently — to remedy the damage from Hurricane Maria. This process too will provide meaningful lessons, even in its shortcomings.

In preparation for Irma, perhaps the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic, federal and state agencies took sizeable, proactive efforts. These included collaborative work by the Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Emergency Management Agency, and relevant state agencies to address anticipated fuel shortages, monitor public water systems, secure Superfund sites, and assess conditions at major industrial facilities located in the storm’s path.

Though an encouraging change from past practice, these efforts must be expanded beyond the disaster relief context to better ensure that environmental justice considerations are made at every juncture in the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws.

Beyond the measures applied in preparation for Irma, underused mechanisms such as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 should be used to develop collaborative, stakeholder-driven solutions in circumstances where federal funding results in discriminatory outcomes. In shaping settlements, state and federal environmental agencies should provide higher incentives, such as greater penalty mitigation, for completing supplemental environmental programs that further environmental justice goals. These tools are underutilized and provide some of the only significant resources available to impacted communities.

To the extent that solutions cannot be found at the federal level — a likely result of the Trump administration’s proposed 2018 budget cuts and the president’s recent dismissive comments about federal assistance to Puerto Rico — state and local resources must be brought to bear. Urban planning and environmental zoning laws must take into account potentially disproportionate impacts of their application to vulnerable communities. Further, use of certain recovery programs which have historically failed to benefit minority communities, such as federal grants, small-business loans, and insurance payouts, can be encouraged — or better, mandated — in such ways as to counter discriminatory impacts.

Finally, the dedication of non-governmental actors — from corporations making siting decisions to non-profit organizations advocating on behalf of communities through environmental laws — is key to efficiently developing solutions. Businesses communications, early and often, with communities can help to identify potential risks and avoid costly adversarial proceedings. Though the environmental challenges facing low-income, minority communities cannot always be attributed to a single cause or actor, where negotiation and partnership can be used to repair these communities, improve public health, and provide infrastructure for resilience, all parties ultimately benefit.

The great civil rights issue of the 21st century is environmental justice. We cannot escape the insidious truth that our reliance upon clean air and clean water is not promised. These life-sustaining resources face greater threats from the increasingly devastating impacts of climate change.

Together, as public, private, and community stakeholders, we must learn from our past challenges, our shared successes, and develop effective solutions. As the poet Maya Angelou says, “Our mission . . . is not merely to survive, but to thrive.”

©2017. Published in The Environmental Forum, November/December 2017, by the Environmental Law Institute. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved.