By Sam Rosenthal

Hurricane Ida’s rampage through the eastern United States has reminded us of the urgent, existential threat posed by climate change. As with many other aspects of life in the United States, we have seen this week that the effects of climate change are likely to disproportionately impact the poorest Americans. 

Americans have not seen such a vivid display of climate injustice since Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005. Katrina established the archetype for this pernicious new vector of American inequality: mostly poor, majority-minority neighborhoods and cities, chronically neglected by state services and in infrastructural disrepair, were tragically ill-equipped to deal with climate disaster. When disaster struck these neighborhoods, they were the last to receive aid and assistance. In the ensuing decade and a half, this theme has played out repeatedly. From forest fires, to ice storms, to floods and hurricanes, the poor suffer disproportionately.

Ida first made landfall in southern Louisiana where it was responsible for numerous deaths, left millions without power and, early indications are, decimated entire towns. Ida carved a path through some of Louisiana’s poorest parishes, where an estimated 20 to 30% of residents live below the poverty line. While wealthier residents fled to higher ground, the poor, unable to afford gas, transportation, or alternate housing, were forced to stay and ride out the storm. 

Hurricane Ida’s path of destruction exposed and compounded longer term trends that have plagued southern Louisiana for years, especially coastal erosion and rising sea levels. While the Louisiana coastline has been disappearing at an estimated rate of 16 square miles per year, the state has made few infrastructure upgrades outside of the New Orleans metropolitan area. Indeed, a new series of levees and flooding mitigation measures constructed after Katrina seems to have spared New Orleaneans from the worst of Ida; meanwhile, those living in poorer areas outside of the city were left with little protection against the storm. 

As Ida churned northward, it made dramatic headlines again on Wednesday night as it brought drenching rains to the mid-Atlantic, and especially, to New York City. New Yorkers posted videos of horrific flooding throughout the night, with public transit and city streets inundated by floodwaters. A clearer picture emerged on Thursday morning, and the disproportionate impacts of the storm were apparent again. As the death count began to tick up, a common story emerged: people living in poorer neighborhoods, many in more affordable, but often illegally constructed and sometimes dangerous basement apartments, had drowned in their homes. Nearly all of the city’s documented deaths thus far involved residents living in basement apartments. Many more millions of working New Yorkers, dependent on the city’s aging infrastructure, were trapped on roadways or stuck underground, in flooded subway stations, for hours. 

With hurricane season only halfway over, we are likely to see more catastrophic weather befall the same parts of the US. This, of course, will be broken up by coverage of the conflagrations raging across the West Coast. As we come to terms with the immediacy of our climate crisis, we would do well to remember that the poorest Americans will suffer first. 

When Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, the climate movement was not nearly as developed or entrenched in national politics as it is now. This time, however, viable options for ameliorating, and maybe even combating, climate change are already on the table. Legislation that would start the process of significantly overhauling our nation’s infrastructure, creating millions of jobs while taking major steps away from fossil fuel dependence, is on the docket in Congress. Measures like these enjoy significant support from the American public. What hasn’t changed is the fossil fuel industry’s stranglehold on our political system. If we want to tackle the climate crisis head on, and increase the chances that we’ll survive into the next century, we need to fight like our lives depend on it. They do. We need to exert the kind of political pressure that will combat the influence of capital and the fossil fuel lobby.