Brooklyn Boro

Low-income neighborhoods are most vulnerable to climate change, activists say

Legacy pollution and economic burdens exacerbate effects of extreme weather events

May 15, 2019 Scott Enman
Low-income communities, like some in Sunset Park, are most vulnerable to climate change, according to activists. Eagle file photo by Paul Frangipane
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Six-and-a-half years after Superstorm Sandy devastated New York City’s coastal communities, the city may be better prepared. But some neighborhoods, and low-income ones in particular, are most vulnerable to the increasing risks of climate change, according to climate justice advocates.

Within the five boroughs, each neighborhood faces unique challenges, but impoverished areas are affected “first and worst” by extreme weather events due to decades of legacy pollution, said Peggy Shepard, co-founder and executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice and a Waterfront Alliance board of trustee.

“We can look at so many communities around the country, around New York City, and see that there have been years and decades of disinvestment and benign neglect that has led to environmental degradation,” Shepard told the Brooklyn Eagle.

“If you’re already starting out with a degraded environment, and then it’s exacerbated by sea-level rise and flooding or extreme weather events, then it really exacerbates the underlying problem that are in some of those communities.”

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Stagnant trash in Newtown Creek. Photo by Cody Brooks
Stagnant trash in Newtown Creek. Photo by Cody Brooks

Legacy pollution

A closer look at some of Brooklyn’s low-income neighborhoods reveals decades of legacy pollution (chemicals that remain in an environment long after they are first released) and environmental burdens that become even more hazardous during extreme weather events.

There are several toxic waste sites around the borough, like Greenpoint’s Newtown Creek — a federal Superfund site — that get exacerbated with flooding. Shepard said that her organization, along with the nonprofit El Puente, have been working for 30 years to help residents affected by these contaminants.

“What we forget is there is legacy pollution that has not gone away where regulation is not making a difference, where enforcement is not happening, and those communities are already underwater so to speak,” Shepard said.

“You’ve already got a community that has waste sites, brownfield sites, Superfund sites, landfills, and what does flooding do to that? How does that further spread the contamination that is already there?” she added.

The Red Hook waterfront. Photo by Paul Frangipane
The Red Hook waterfront. Photo by Paul Frangipane

Economic burdens

In addition to struggling with legacy pollution, low-income residents simply do not have the resources to buy climate mitigation equipment, the funds needed to rebuild after disasters or the means to travel elsewhere prior to a storm.

“Privileged communities have access to resources that we don’t have,” said Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of Sunset Park nonprofit UPROSE and co-chair of the Climate Justice Alliance. “They have other homes. They are able to move faster and more nimbly, and they don’t often live in the midst of the environmental burdens.”

Yeampierre also said that low-income residents have less time to be civically engaged to try to amend their issues because they’re working several jobs to feed their families — all while grappling with other socioeconomic pressures.

“They’re also dealing with other kinds of challenges, like ICE and deportation. They’re dealing with schools that are poor performing. They’re dealing with police misconduct. They’re dealing with the fact that rents are going up,” she said.

“So they’re in the intersection of all of that. Getting them involved and sustaining that engagement over time is hard when you’re working to support and build a base that has all those challenges.”

Yeampierre pointed to a series of disparities in the city where low-income areas were forced to take on the burdens of wealthier neighborhoods.

“When we pushed to change the Solid Waste Management Plan, we wanted every borough to be responsible for handling their own waste, and the communities that fought the hardest and the longest were the most privileged communities: the Upper East Side, parts of Chelsea — people who throw out garbage but didn’t want to accept their fair share,” she said.

“In the meantime, the majority of the garbage went to the South Bronx and Williamsburg, communities where kids have the highest level of asthma in the city and maybe even in the world.”

The Red Hook Houses. Photo by Paul Frangipane
The Red Hook Houses. Photo by Paul Frangipane

Public housing left in the dark

In addition to legacy pollution and economic burdens, climate justice advocates have long charged that public housing is disproportionately impacted during extreme weather events.

Tevina Willis of the nonprofit Red Hook Initiative said that the Red Hook Houses were slow to receive attention and resources from NYCHA and the city after Superstorm Sandy.

“[NYCHA] weren’t helpful as far as providing any supplies to help with the basic necessities for the tenants that had to stay, namely seniors or anyone disabled,” she told the Eagle. “Even though people were told to evacuate, there were not many places for people to evacuate to. … It took days, and even weeks before the city even responded.”

Shepard of WE ACT said that in addition to Red Hook, NYCHA complexes in Coney Island and the Rockaways were left in the dark, both literally and figuratively. The houses did not have electricity for at least a week and a half, the elevators didn’t work and the lines to receive food by means of food stamps reached a record high due to the closure of otherwise utilizable grocery and drug stores.

Those complexes are still reeling from Sandy, according to Willis, who said the damage of past storms hasn’t been fixed and will be compounded by future ones. Meanwhile, the city is making aesthetic repairs and preparing for future floods while neglecting underlying issues, she said.

“It’s going to look gorgeous around the complex, and we’re going to have the flood protection, but our pipes are still going to be corroded. We’re still going to have these issues,” Willis said.

The Coney Island waterfront. Photo by Paul Frangipane
The Coney Island waterfront. Photo by Paul Frangipane

A potential solution

In order to help people during extreme weather events, community involvement can be the difference between life and death, Shepard said.

A project conducted by WE ACT and the Columbia School of Public Health studied public housing in the aforementioned complexes to determine why some buildings fared better than others during and after Superstorm Sandy.

The report revealed that social cohesion — which the Canadian Journal of Sociology defines as “the willingness of members of a society to cooperate with each other in order to survive and prosper” — is a major factor that can lead to a more effective response to extreme weather events, and that the buildings that had residents who were more prepared and active coped better.

“They have to come together,” Shepard said. “They have to be socially cohesive and they’ve got to organize. Every neighborhood should have some small organization that is just thinking about its environmental quality, thinking about emergency management.”

Yeampierre, however, said that social cohesion in Sunset Park and other neighborhoods are currently being disturbed by threats of displacement and gentrification.

“When you disrupt social cohesion, families are unable to survive,” she said. “That’s not just economic. Studies show that people who survive extreme weather events are more likely to survive if they have social cohesion, if they’re living in a place where they all know and can support each other.

“That is being threatened by displacement pressures in Sunset Park.”

Follow reporter Scott Enman on Twitter.

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