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Preparing for Disaster from New Orleans to New York

As blizzards follow on the heels of Hurricane Sandy on the US East Coast, and NY public housing agencies leave tenants stranded in hellish blackout conditions, we’re reminded of MacArthur Genius awardee Junot Díaz’s emphasis on reinterpreting so-called “natural disasters” as social disasters.  On this topic, the following is a meditation on climate change and social transformation, from scholar, facilitator, and spiritual activist Lydia Pelot-Hobbs.  We thank Lydia for sharing it with us.

Originally published on The Oyster Knife.

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The last week I’ve had lots and lots of thoughts running through my head about Hurricane Sandy and what it means to leave New Orleans for New York and find myself in the midst of another storm. I decided to put down some of what I was thinking on paper. Any and all thoughts are always appreciated.

About two weeks ago I was biking and thinking to myself how it was almost November 1st.  For the past six years, this day has been built into my internal yearly calendar as when hurricane season officially ends. I happily thought to myself that despite the big scare Hurricane Isaac gave us on the 7th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, my chosen[1] home of New Orleans had survived another year of her precarious life. Three months ago I left New Orleans to go off to go graduate school in New York City, and I felt secure knowing that I’d definitely be able to go home for Mardi Gras 2013.

The main thought I had upon hearing there was a “frankenstorm” named Sandy headed towards New York was how funny it was there was a storm named after my goofy landlady. Because despite how often I’ve been told (and told others) that disasters were going to become an increasing part of life due to climate change, I didn’t really believe that it was possible for a storm to do that much damage this far north, especially this late in hurricane season.

But then, there I was getting ready for a storm. Getting ready for power to go out and to be stuck inside for several days. I looked the National Hurricane Center’s charts and graphs. Learned that Brooklyn was never suppose to get hit straight on, but that a storm surge was likely for low lying areas. I called my parents, told them not to worry and hunkered[2] down with snacks and books.

Honestly, more than nervousness or fear, I found myself in super snark mode, partially as my defense mechanism, but also because what I was thinking about all this time was about New Orleans. How with this storm approaching I didn’t have the fear I’m use to—the fear that the city you live in won’t exist next week. Because I knew that they wouldn’t let a city so vital to global capitalism disappear off the map, but this doesn’t mean they wouldn’t let poor communities of color be devastated or washed away.

So as my power stayed on, and my neighborhood remained mostly unscathed with the exception of some fallen trees, I felt the same sense of luck as I had after Hurricane Gustav in 2008, Tropical Storm Lee in 2011, and from afar with Hurricane Isaac. Yet, very quickly my snark shifted to anger. Anger when my facebook newsfeed started showing me pictures of the devastated Jersey coastline, flooded out Red Hook, powerless Manhattan, and burnt down Breezy Point. Anger at hearing the all too familiar story of folks in public housing being left without water, electricity, or any semblance of relief from FEMA or the city government.

But my anger grew broader. It grew from watching smart political people I know post on facebook about donating to the Red Cross. It grew from watching articles get posted about how disasters magnify pre-existing inequities. It grew from reading about how “We are all New Orleans Now.” It grew from the silence surrounding what was happening in Haiti. I was angry at myself. Angry that it seemed like we hadn’t learned the lessons we needed to from Hurricane Katrina—that the Red Cross shows up too little and too late, that inequity is always there and it shouldn’t take a storm to expose it, that New Orleans had been telling the nation for seven years it isn’t exceptional in the ways it was made out to be, and that the Caribbean faces disasters all the time and they are rarely more than a blip in U.S. news media.

I felt angry when I saw folks (intentionally or not) flattening out the very real differences that the East Coast is now facing and the Gulf Coast has been facing for the last seven years. That I so deeply want us to be able to see the patterns, which emerge in moments of “natural” disaster while also recognizing the particularities of specific contexts and experiences. Because at the end of the day, New York and the East Coast is not New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, and it shouldn’t have to be to get the attention and resources it needs for a just recovery. [3]

And mostly I was angry because the disasters I had been predicating would become an everyday part of life seem to have finally arrived. I know this might seem like an exaggeration, but there’s something about this one that’s altered my perspective. Climate change’s shifts in tropical storms and hurricanes are no longer happening soon, they are happening now and not just for the Gulf South.

But then my emotions got even more complex. Because before I knew it my trusty facebook newsfeed (along with a few emails) was telling me all about how I could volunteer here or there, that at some places there’d even be community meetings to begin or close out the day. That the city/state/FEMA weren’t showing up and grassroots volunteer and support was (is) needed for folks to help out those who have born the brunt of Sandy.

On one had I was glad to hear about work being done—especially the work that was rooted in pre-existing community based organizations, for if I had learned anything from Katrina, it is the importance of institutions led by folks from the areas most affected for accountability and the ability to do the long haul work necessary for recovery.

On the other hand I knew quickly that my own personal background volunteering and organizing in the months following Katrina meant there would be too many potential triggers for me to do any type of work beyond lending out my car, donating money, and pointing others from afar where they could donate. Even though I know it’s the smart thing to stick to my own boundaries, I can’t help but have moments of guilt that I’m not doing enough, that I could share the lessons I’ve learned. But even yesterday when I thought I could do some work today, I found myself in swirls of memories, already making assumptions based in fear that I would encounter replays of the savior complexes, disaster masculinities, and false senses of urgency I know so well. I feel worried that as the world is increasingly struck by such disasters, I am already burnt out and unsure if I’ll ever actually be healed from the secondary trauma I still carry with me.

Even though I am still harboring feelings of guilt, I also remember why I’m enforcing these boundaries. It’s because I need to be present long term. It’s because the political work needed to confront disasters in many ways isn’t about disasters at all. I’m reminded of my favorite political sign that was present for years at protests, rallies, and political secondlines in New Orleans: “Katrina was a problem. HUD is a disaster.” Our systems and institutions are disasters for people and communities everyday whether a storm is coming or not.

What we need is real social transformation. Transformation that takes on the challenge of dismantling white supremacy, capitalism, and heteropatriarchy; that shifts political power in meaningful ways. We need to be centering climate justice in our political work whatever that may be. We need movements that build people power so that when FEMA doesn’t come we are ready to respond to our communities ourselves and also to organize and make demands[4] for what is needed. We rarely frame movement building as disaster preparedness, but that’s exactly what it is, and we need to start naming it as such. The work of recovery is long and slow, and it takes the experience and knowledge gained through messy, complicated, and contradictory grassroots organizing to keep going. It’s ok I can’t do work right now. There’s still going to be a lot of work to be done.

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[1] Whether I chose New Orleans, or was called to her is up for debate.

[2] Also I was fascinated that New Yorkers apparently don’t use the phrase “hunker down” as frequently as New Orleanians when a storm is approaching.

[3] Not that New Orleans or the Gulf Coast ever got what was needed.

[4] I think it’s always worth reminding ourselves of New Orleans health activist Barbara Major’s statement, “When you go to power without a base, your demand becomes a request.”

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Radicalized through the Unitarian Universalist youth movement as a teenager, Lydia’s politics are grounded in the revolutionary possibilities of transformative love and compassion. Currently splitting her time between Brooklyn and New Orleans, Lydia has organized in various movements for social and economic justice including supporting community-based struggles for affordable housing and prison reform/abolition.
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Top Photo: Jose Reyes, without power at Red Hook Houses for more than a week, hugs sister Emily Mieles. Photo by Aaron Showalter for New York Daily News.

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