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Climate Change

Our Infrastructure Isn't Built To Handle The Climate Crisis

by Terrell J. Starr
August 24, 2021

In Detroit and New York City, flooding reveals that climate change disproportionately impacts Black and Brown communities.

Elizabeth Yeampierre knew the flooding of New York City’s subways was coming.

Several weeks before Tropical Storm Elsa hit the east coast and flooded the city’s streets, basements, and highways, Yeampierre said she warned transportation advocates that the subway system could not withstand an extreme weather event. New York City, a collection of islands surrounded by water, is susceptible to coastal flooding due to rising sea levels. Making its vulnerability worse are the tropical storms that are becoming more common because of climate change.

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In July, Yeampierre’s fears came to fruition after Elsa. Parts of New York City were hit hard with heavy rainfalls that flooded the streets and trains. The city’s underground train system was built more than a century ago and was never designed to withstand the gallons of water that rushed down its tunnels in July. Criticism was naturally directed at the city’s crumbling infrastructure, but Yeampierre says that is only part of the problem. As long as emissions-based global warming continues, we will see these types of rainfalls more often. The people who are most vulnerable to all of this are disenfranchised, particularly Black and Brown people.

“Our people have been struggling with unemployment, social services, education, health, immigration, policing, all these different issues. All of a sudden, here comes climate change,” she said. “Climate change is a multidimensional issue that is going to exacerbate all the -isms.”

Flood barriers are placed on a street as Tropical Storm Isaias approaches New York City on August 4, 2020.; Getty

Flood barriers are placed on a street as Tropical Storm Isaias approaches New York City on August 4, 2020.;

Getty

Activists and infrastructure advocates who spoke with Outrider said marginalized Black and Brown communities may struggle to replace what they lost in the flooding. Detroit, the nation’s biggest Black city, also experienced heavy rainfall over several days that left people without washers, dryers, and furnaces--big ticket items that range from hundreds to thousands of dollars. 

“Our house flooded twice between June and July,” Sarah Hayosh, the Director of Land Use and Sustainability for Detroit Future City, a non-profit think tank that focuses on sustainable development in the city. “So I've experienced it firsthand as have many of my neighbors. It's tiring, it's exhausting for people. It took three weeks to get a new water heater and furnace, but we were able to front that cost. So not everybody is in that place. I know there are certainly people out there who still haven't had the capacity to clean out their basements and get everything up to speed. So it's affecting the health of Detroiters. It's affecting the mental health, the physical health, and putting a lot of strain and stress on our community.” 

June was especially rough for Detroit. Six inches of rain fell on the city in only five hours. Three inches is the norm for June, according to Grist. Some 1,000 cars were abandoned on roads and massive power outages occurred. The last 500-year-flood Detroit experienced was in 2014, causing $1.8 billion in property damage. Preliminary results from a University of Michigan and Wayne State University study found that flooding, which is connected to climate change, disproportionately impacts Black Detroit residents. Gary Brown, the director of the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department, said the flooding was a direct result of global warming and that it was not a maintenance issue. 

"We are seeing infrastructure across the country not be able to meet the needs of climate change in 2021,” Brown said. “This is real. This is the confluence of under-investment and climate change.”

Jonathan Overpeck, Dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan, told a local NPR affiliate that the Motor City is challenged with several issues. 

For starters, the Great Lakes region has seen a more than 40 percent increase in intense precipitation, Overpeck told WDET 101.9 FM. The 2014 flooding was significant, he said. but other flooding around the Midwest has disrupted farmers’ planting schedules and destroyed huge dams up in parts of the state that have caused problems in other waterways. More critically, the city wasn’t built to handle these types of climate-based events. 

“There are two things going on here: One is certainly climate change making the problem worse,” Overpeck  said. “And the second thing is our infrastructure wasn’t designed for climate change and the scale of the climate extremes that we’re getting today. So we have to do two things: We have to work hard to stop climate change, or else the events will just get worse and worse. The rainfall, the flooding, will get bigger and bigger.”

In the 1950s, Detroit had a peak population of 1.8 million. White residents began moving to the suburbs around 1947 in large numbers in response to Black people demanding equality and fighting racism in the city. The 1967 race riots accelerated that white flight, leaving the remaining residents with a sewer infrastructure that was built in 1836. What also makes flooding more likely in Detroit is its combined sewer system that combines the waste and stormwater and sends it through one stream to a wastewater treatment plant. 

Planet Detroit has a comprehensive explanation of how climate change, regional racism and aging infrastructure is creating the flooding conditions the city is experiencing:

During dry weather, the plant has more than enough capacity to collect and treat the region’s sewage. But during extreme wet weather events, like the torrential rains in late June, the rapid surge of stormwater into Detroit’s combined sewers can overwhelm the local and regional infrastructure, leading to critical bottlenecks that then flood the city’s streets, residents’ basements and create overflows—known as Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs)—into the Detroit and Rouge rivers.

After the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, the federal EPA started to crack down on CSOs to clean up the nation’s waterways. In 1977, the federal government sued Detroit for not complying with the act. The lawsuit lasted nearly four decades, and for more than 30 years, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) operated under the oversight of Judge John Feikens who had the power to settle rate disagreements between the city and the growing suburban communities that were tied into the city-owned infrastructure. Feikens had a contentious relationship with longtime Mayor Coleman Young and was nearly removed from the case in 1985 for expressing doubt in Black people’s ability to “run city governments”.

Khadija Khokhar, 18, from Detroit, MI, riles up the thousands of youth protesting at the Global Climate Strike rally in front of the U.S. Capitol on September 20, 2019 in Washington, DC; Getty

Khadija Khokhar, 18, from Detroit, MI, speaks to the thousands of youth protesting at the Global Climate Strike rally in front of the U.S. Capitol on September 20, 2019 in Washington, DC;

Getty

Activists hope that President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which just passed in the U.S. Senate and will be sent to the House for final approval, will have a social justice component to it that will address the types of racism Black city leaders like Young experienced. 

Chalandra Jones, who works with Hayosh at Detroit Future City as the Land Use and Sustainability Coordinator, said that if the economic inequality issues aren’t addressed, she foresees climate gentrification pushing residents over the edge. 

“As people are starting to be pushed out of places like California and Florida due to the effects of climate change, they're going to move here. And if the city decides then to make the investment in infrastructure once those outside folks are moving here, I think it could easily cause resentment that's been bubbling under the surface for residents that feel their communities haven't been invested in,” Jones said.

Jones, Hayosh and Yeampierre all agree that massive economic investment and aggressively responding to climate change is needed to help prevent the kinds of flooding their respective cities have been enduring. Former president Donald Trump didn’t help by pulling out of the Paris Agreement, which calls for more than 200 state signatories to lower their greenhouse gas emissions in hopes of keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius; the Biden administration rejoined in February.  In New York City, outgoing mayor Bill de Blasio outlined an ambitious climate plan that his successor will have to see through; though Eric Adams, the Democratic nominee and likely general election winner in November, has not made the issue a top priority of his campaign. In Detroit, mayor Mike Duggan, who is expected to win a third term this fall, has not been seen as especially active in addressing climate change. 

But Yeampierre, the climate activist in New York City, isn’t waiting on elected officials to get their acts together. Sure, she and her comrades are pushing governments to act, but the most important work is to condition the community that marching and protesting inaction over climate change is just as vital as rising up over cops killing innocent Black people with impunity. 

“People develop consciousness right after the event and then move on to something else until it becomes normalized,” she said. “So when there was a tornado in Brooklyn, we were able to organize, because we were able to connect the fact that there was a tornado in Brooklyn to climate change. By the time we had the third tornado, people moved on. It had become normal. We are right now living at a point where there are recovering extreme weather events happening all over the United States. People don't talk about Katrina anymore.” 

Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior reporter at The Root, where he writes about U.S. politics and interviews elected officials. He is also the founder of Black Diplomats, a weekly foreign affairs podcast that tells stories from a Black perspective. His Twitter handle is @russian_starr

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