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Environmental Injustice & the Two-Sided Coin

September 23, 2013

Seventeen counties, 180,000 homes and two very different sides of the same coin. Today’s NY Times article, “Roaring Waters, Deep Scars” portrayed the Colorado flooding as a common thread, linking socio-economically disparate communities together by their shared fate. This flood is a far cry from being the great equalizer.

For some, living on the riverbanks is a choice; tucked away, surrounded by nature, enjoying the simple pleasures. For others, risk-prone areas are the only place they can afford to live.

Locations that have low land values, situated in floodplains, and shoulder additional environmental burdens, are often home to low-income communities of color. Even during blue skies, a population with low median household income, or semi-legal immigration status is living in a state of vulnerability. These vulnerabilities are exponentially exacerbated during crisis. When you lack social and economic stability, your margins are thin; there is very little room error. Catastrophic flooding is a big error.

During emergencies, strength of community and social unity are profound resources, but sometimes that is not enough.  Having your green card, immigration papers or passport washed away with your trailer home is very different from having a $250,000 flood insurance plan that does not quite cover the damage to your picturesque post-modern house.

Emotional damage cuts deep, regardless of the depths of your pockets.  But when a community is stripped to bare bones, those with access to resources and capital will rebound faster, more holistically, and be better adapted for next time.

They say that hard times bring out the best and worst in people, and it’s becoming clear that this applies on the national scale as well. The Colorado flooding is a test of human spirit, bringing forth the best, most selfless, and courageous among us. However, it is also shedding light on the gross inequalities that have been built into the system. Those that need the most help getting back to their feet, are often least able to reach out for assistance.   Events like these are a wake up call, not only to the necessity of needing more aptly planned communities and better water management, but also to the chronic inadequacies of our social and economic systems,  making it increasingly hard to pull yourself up from the bottom.

When people can’t accept much needed help for fear of risking deportation, gluing together the pieces, no matter how shattered, is hell of a lot harder.

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