Saturday, August 29th will mark ten years since Hurricane Katrina. Its devastation highlights painful histories and issues of racial injustice and inequity in this country—policies, planning and investment that are not entirely unique to New Orleans.
Katrina also shone a bright light on segregation, disparities in physical and economic mobility, as well as inequitable emergency response and climate policies. And, it showed us how a natural disaster can increase gentrification and displacement.
We know that climate change makes things worse for low-income communities of color, that it exacerbates existing inequities and reinforces systemic racism. In the case of New Orleans, not only were low-income communities of color the hardest hit, but inequitable planning and investment dramatically changed the demographics of the City. Both African Americans and Whites left New Orleans, but many fewer African Americans had the resources to return. There are nearly 100,000 fewer African Americans in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina—an exodus of 8%. The share of whites, on the other hand, increased from 26.6% to 31%. Not only has this exodus clearly contributed to family and community instability, but also has had impacts on the City’s cultural diversity, political representation, and economic opportunities.
Portland’s communities, too, experiencing clear disparities in economic wealth and public investment, are susceptible to impacts of climate change including droughts, floods, and forest fires. Slower but real emergencies—lack of affordable housing, poor access to healthy or culturally significant foods, or increased exposure to dangerous air quality and toxins—will only accelerate with climate inaction and business and planning as usual.
It is vital we push for change now, because of climate change, because more powerful storms are predicted, and because the painful effects of Katrina are still alive. We must act on climate, push for equitable investment, and design policies and planning around those most impacted—low-income communities of color.
 Shrinath, N., Mack V. & Plyer A. (2014). Who Lives in New Orleans and Metro Parishes Now? Data Center Research? Louisiana: The Data Center. http://www.datacenterresearch.org/data-resources/who-lives-in-new-orleans-now/