Environmental disasters—whether they are natural, like Hurricane Katrina, or man-made, like the Flint water crisis—can be devastating to any affected community, but are often disproportionately damaging to the poor. Low-income Americans lack the social and economic capital to absorb the significant shock that can come from a disaster (e.g. not having the money to move if their apartment is uninhabitable), and thus face challenges that wealthy and even middle class Americans do not experience.
One of the least discussed, but most unjust, of these challenges is the how disasters can let elites displace poor communities for personal gain, while arguing that they are simply acting out of concern for poor disaster victims.
This is a pervasive type of disaster capitalism that we have seen implemented after numerous past natural disasters (e.g. Hurricane Katrina) and one that we must be aware of as current manmade disasters are addressed (e.g. lead contamination in Flint and East Chicago). In particular, the government’s response to the ongoing lead crisis in East Chicago, Indiana, appears to be a perfect example of anti-poor disaster capitalism that promises to compound injustice on top of injustice.
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Before talking about specific examples of this problem, it is important to understand what is going on. There are two primary types of post-disaster displacement scheme that are run against the poor:
Type 1: Post-Disaster Gentrification
The first process by which poor communities are displaced after a disaster is post-disaster gentrification. This process involves wealthy developers using a disaster to clear out poor residents so that they can rebuild the neighborhood in their own image and start moving wealthy people into it.
Gentrifying a neighborhood typically involves investors putting money into the community, developing it, and eventually pushing the lower income residents out through increasing property values—people are simply priced out of their own neighborhoods.
Post-disaster gentrification is similar to traditional gentrification in its results, but it occurs through a different set of processes. After a disaster devastates a poor community and forces residents to leave, developers can swoop in and buy property at bargain basement prices, then apply for disaster redevelopment funds to help “rebuild.” However, rather than building properties to house the poor people who were displaced in the disaster, they create upscale housing and living areas for a more wealthy clientele.
After wealthy people populate the rebuilt neighborhood and create the appearance that it has recovered net profits for the developers. Additionally, politicians gain the ability to claim that they helped rebuild after the disaster and even made the community better than it was. Sadly, the only losers are the poor people who were displaced, marginalized and often forced to move significant distances from their home.
Type 2: Purging the Poor
In some cases, the elite can use a disaster to depopulate a community of poor people rather than prepare it for gentrification. Put simply, they use the disaster as an excuse to eliminate a poor community by moving its residents somewhere else or simply not helping them rebuild and reducing its population by attrition.
The perfect example of this is the 9th ward in New Orleans, which was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and neglected in the aftermath. Residents were not given help rebuilding for years after the storm, forcing families to choose between living in temporary housing out of hope that they may get some money, or simply cutting their losses and moving away. As of 2015, the population of the lower 9th Ward is less than half what it was in 2005.
Purging the poor can benefit the elite in two ways: first, it lets them free up land that the poor are living on for a non-residential purpose (e.g. building a factory); and second, it can allow the elite to concentrate the poor away from their neighborhoods so that they don’t have to help fund their social services (e.g. schools) or share their infrastructure.
East Chicago: An Ongoing Purge?
The West Calumet housing projects were built on top of a lead production facility, rendering the entire area absolutely toxic. Now labeled a super-fund site, the EPA has found lead levels as high as 91,100,000 parts-per-million, which is a grave threat to human health. In addition to lead, West Calumet is contaminated with hazardous levels of arsenic.
Sadly, government officials knew about the high levels of toxic chemical in East Chicago in the 1960s, yet didn’t warn the poor, and predominantly minority residents living in the area of the real health threats.
To see a number of interviews with West Calumet residents, you can follow this link to the TYTPolitics playlist with all of Jordan Chariton’s videos on this subject—his is the most in-depth and comprehensive coverage that is available on this issue (most other media coverage has been cursory, at best).
Once people became aware of the lead crisis in East Chicago, the state decided to completely evacuate the West Calumet complex and demolish it. While this is necessary to prevent future harm from lead exposure, the way that this evacuation and demolition has been carried out is reminiscent of the “purging the poor” tactic outlined above. Very little care has been taken to ensure that the residents’ wishes are taken into consideration during the forced move, and it appears that the government is just trying to move everybody out as fast as possible, with no regard to their needs.
In fact, there is a hard deadline for all residents to be out by April 3rd, under threat of being forcibly removed by police. Needless to say, this has angered many residents and forced them to implore officials for more time.
The displaced residents of West Calumet are facing a multitude of problems: 1) they are being kicked out of their homes without being provided adequate assistance finding a new home (housing vouchers are useless if nobody will rent to you); 2) many are being moved to Chicago IL, but are not being given wraparound healthcare, housing, and welfare services; 3) there are no efforts to compensate displaced residents for most of their lost property that they simply cannot take with them for fear of bringing lead into their new homes (e.g. clothing, furniture, etc.) and 4) children are being forced to move schools during the last two months of classes, disrupting not only learning but also state-mandated testing.
Given these issues with the move, it is pretty clear that the officials involved are prioritizing the expediency in removing the residents over their wellbeing during and after the process. Those in power spent decades doing nothing to address this crisis (if not actively hiding it) and suddenly there is a massive push to remove residents even when many would prefer to wait a couple months to ensure a smooth transition. There are numerous explanations for this, almost all of which fit into the rubric for purging the poor using a disaster.
First, it is possible that this avoidable disaster has simply become an embarrassment to those in power and they want to sweep it out of the public eye as quickly as possible. They want to expediently get residents out of the complex so they can destroy it and declare victory.
Second, it is possible that this rush to empty the complex is a function of state officials’ desire to remove an expensive problem from their plate. Poor and sick people are a drain on social services (in the eyes of many public officials) and extremely expensive to care for properly—they require Medicaid (Indiana absorbs 31.2% of Medicaid expenditures), state disability services, housing assistance (West Calumet residents are currently living rent-free), special education programs and a variety of other types of public assistance. By moving many of these residents out of state, Indiana can wash its hands of their care and save a significant amount of money.
Third, it is possible that Mayor Copeland of East Chicago is planning to push a redevelopment deal to clean up and rebuild the area into a commercial district. As reported by Lakeshore Public Radio, a developer named Taghi Arshami had previously drafted plans to redevelop the land into a commercial and industrial zone (they anticipate that Housing and Urban Development would bar it from being zoned for housing), but he was forced to scrap these plans due to the lead levels. If the West Calumet complex is rapidly demolished and cleaned using public dollars, this would give Arshami a second chance to implement his vision, without him having to worry about paying residents to leave their housing. In effect, public policy would clear the land of current residents and public dollars would pay for its demolition and environmental rehabilitation, leaving an opening for him (or any other developer) to buy the empty land at a low price.
If accurate, the first two scenarios would represent post-disaster purging of a poor community, while the third scenario would exemplify post-disaster gentrification. Neither are acceptable and more must be done to protect the poor residents who were unknowingly dropped into an ongoing disaster.
Unfortunately, the East Chicago situation is by no means unique. There are numerous manmade disasters currently ongoing in the United States (e.g lead contamination, fracking, oil spills, etc.) and natural disasters impact the nation on a regular basis. Each of these disasters can be capitalized upon by unscrupulous elites to take advantage of the poor and we must be on guard to prevent this from happening.
If you are interested in hearing more about one such ongoing disaster, please tune in to the live coverage of Flint on our Facebook page. While the Flint situation has some differences from the East Chicago crisis, many of the same dynamics exist in both situations.
Edited by Lydia McMullen-Laird