the perfect storm: when class, age, race and environmental catastrophe converge

In an excoriating piece in Truthdigcolumnist Chris Hedge labels Hurricane Sandy “the Katrina of the North.” He begins and ends with 76-year-old Avgi Tzenis, whose house in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, was wrecked when three feet of water and sewage swept through it five weeks ago. She was widowed last year after nursing her husband through years of dementia, and has no idea how she’s going to pay for repairs. “I was going to hang myself in the closet,” Tzenis says, motioning down the dank hallway. “I’ve been through a lot in my life. Every little thing scares me.  I’m on different pills. I’ve come to the age where I ask why doesn’t God take me.”

Clearly this is a sad chapter, perhaps the final one, in the story of an impoverished, demoralized widow. But maybe she’d been doing fine until Sandy blew through; we don’t know. We do know that it’s a larger story, one about infrastructure collapse, because Tzenis’s home is cold and dark. We also know it’s a story about poverty, because the $6,000 she’s gotten from FEMA and Allstate combined won’t make a dent in her bills. Hedges ramps up, saying “it illustrates the depraved mentality of an oligarchic and corporate elite that, as conditions worsen, retreats into self-contained gated communities, guts basic services and abandons the wider population.” (Skyrocketing home generator sales attest to that.) And it’s a story about fear: “They say [hurricanes like] this will happen again because the snow is melting off all the mountains,” says Tzenis. “If it does, I don’t want to be around.” That story, ecosystem collapse fueled by insatiable corporate greed, is of course the biggest one of all.  

During disasters, poor people, people of color, and the elderly die in disproportionate numbers, as political scientist Caroline Heisman describes in her essay “Hurricane Katrina and the Demographics of Death.” She cites Eric Klinenberg, author of Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago. Also a product of climate change, that 1995 heat wave claimed 729 lives. Most of the victims were olders living in the heart of the city, isolated by urban decay, afraid to open doors and windows, and unable to afford air conditioning. Blacks were more likely to die than whites, who were more likely to die than Latinos, who tend to live in densely populated neighborhoods. Distinguishing between between a natural disaster and a social one, Klinenberg said: “Hundreds of Chicago residents died alone, behind locked doors and sealed windows, out of contact with friends, family, and neighbors, unassisted by public agencies or community groups.”

On to Katrina, which hit in the Gulf Coast at the end of August, 2005. Of the nearly 1,000 who died, almost half were 75 or older, and more than half of those were black. New Orleans is both a poor city and a segregated one. Hardest hit were the immobile and impoverished. There was no city evacuation plan for the 112,000 poor, mostly black New Orleanians without cars, and federal assistance was slow and inept. The deaths of many more older people can be attributed to the stress of being evacuated and losing their homes. 

When Superstorm Sandy blew into the mid-Atlantic coast in October, 2012, nearly a dozen New Yorkers over the age of 65 perished. As with Katrina, most died on the day of the storm and most drowned alone. Some were homebound; others chose to stay put. Those in institutions also suffered too. Evacuating more than 40 nursing homes and adult homes in low-lying areas for Tropical Storm Irene a year earlier had cost millions of dollars. As Sandy approached, officials recommended against evacuation. The hurricane severely flooded at least 29 facilities in Queens and Brooklyn. Over 4,000 nursing home and 1,500 adult home residents sat in the cold and dark for at least three days before being transported through debris-filled floodwaters to crowded, ill-equipped shelters and homes as far away as Albany. Many poor olders were trapped for days without power in housing projects as well. 

The message is clear: people marginalized by age, race, disability, or poverty no longer deserve fundamental social protections. Membership in any one of those categories puts someone at risk. In a landscape of growing wealth inequality and increasing climate instability, membership in all four is becoming fatal. 

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