Sandy, Katrina, and the World Trade Center: Are There Social Justice Issues?
It may seem churlish to raise an issue of social justice at a time when heroic efforts are still on-going to deal with the great losses from Sandy, and what follows is not intended in any way to criticize those efforts at this time. But long-term issues are also involved, and I am bothered by some questions for future consideration that I hope will be addressed at the same time as the obvious issues of how to avoid a recurrence, relationship to climate change, and best administrative responses are beginning to be addressed.
The comparison to Katrina and to the attack on the World Trade Center, it seems to me, highlights the social justice aspect.
To put it baldly: Katrina was a disproportionately low-income disaster, the World Trade Center attack a disproportionately high income disaster, and the nature and magnitude of the response to the two varied in direct proportion to the income level of those affected.
After the World Trade Center attack, “each claim [for compensation from the Federal government] received a uniform non‐economic award [that is, independent of earnings or need] of $250,000 for the death of the victim and an additional non‐economic award of $100,000 for the spouse and each dependent of the victim.” No such fund was established for the victims of Katrina, and the maximum payment to the families of the victims was the coverage of funeral expenses, and complaints about the inadequacy of relief efforts were legion.1
For those who lost their lives in the World Trade Center attack, “lifetime earnings may be deduced to average about $2 million dollars.”
For Katrina, “The data for the total region show that in several respects the neighborhoods of social groups with least resources were the ones most affected by Katrina.”1a
The social justice implications are obvious. How will Sandy be handled, by contrast?
If comparisons between Sandy and the World Trade Center loss are being considered, the might include the following questions:
1. What does the allocation of resources to the Sandy disaster reflect, as compared to that to the two earlier disasters, Katrina and the World Trade Center? The division between local, state, and national responsibilities?
2. What does the allocation of resources among the difrent neighborhoods of New York City reflect?
3. What does the allocation of resources to compensate for damage to office bu8ldings in the financial sector of lower Manhattan reflect, as compared to the allocation of resources to residential buildings in the other boroughs? Are public housing and neighborhoods like Chinatown treated differently from commercial buildings in the financial district?
4. Where and by whom will planning for preventive action and for reconstruction take place? Will there be community input in residential neighborhoods? Commercial clusters? Will Community Boards be involved.
5. Massive investments in infrastructure, such as huge sea gates across the harbor, are at least being talked about to protect specific neighborhoods from a recurrence of disasters such as Sandy. Assuming they pass at least an engineering feasibility test, how will the cost/benefit ratio of such investments be measured? By whom? When and where?
6. How will the distribution of the cost of repairs and prevention be distributed between the public sector and the private sector, and the role of insurance? Will it be different for different neighborhoods, different uses, different groups affected?
7. Will changes in land use patterns be seriously considered to avoid future disasters, or will existing patterns be taken as permanent and attention devoted to protection of their future? How will decisions be made, and by whom?
8. Will any political conclusions be drawn from Sandy as to the appropriate role of government? Mitt Romney asks supporters to donate to the Red Cross to help those harmed by Sandy. Will there be a similar move to “donate” tax increases to help government pay for such help?
9. Will there be a difference in the racial impact of the answers to the foregoing questions?
10. There were apparently some warnings available about the likelihood of a Sandy. What can be learned from the way those warnings were handled, and by whom, and why? Could the damage from Sandy have been avoided? If so, how? And why wasn’t it?
A somewhat tangential question:
11. The Occupy movement, in the form of OccupySandy, has played an active and well-organized role in marshaling volunteers and resources to help those affected by Sandy.2 What does that suggest as to the nature of Occupy, its future, and the charitable and political role of non-profits and voluntary organizations in dealing with disasters?
A major research agenda, with important consequences, needs to be marshaled to deal with the lessons of Sandy and its preceding natural disasters, and undoubtedly will be. It is important that these open questions and others like them, dealing with social justice implications of the answers, not be neglected.3
1. Details, with sources, are at Marcuse, Peter. 2011. “Ignoring Justice In Disaster Planning: An Agenda For Research On 9/11, Katrina, And Social Policy,” in Merlin Chowkwanyun and Randa Serhan, eds., American Democracy and the Pursuit of Equality: Essays in Honor of Herbert J. Gans (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2011), pp. 132-161. A Slightly different version is available at http://www.urbanreinventors.net/paper.php?issue=3&author=marcuse
1a.John Logan, The Impact of Katrina: Race and Class in Storm-Damaged Neighborhoods, available at http://www.s4.brown.edu/katrina/report.pdf, p. 7.
2. An interesting interactive map is at https://maps.google.com/maps/ms?msid=206492888572549024713.0004cdadcaea40cfa4c9d&msa=0.
3. See Chester Hartman and Gregory Squires, eds. There’s No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster: Race, Class, and Hurricane Katrina, Routledge, New York