Race, Class, Ethnicity, and Disaster Vulnerability

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Abstract

Hurricane Katrina and the disaster that unfolded in its wake provided a stark example of the pervasiveness and perniciousness of race and class inequalities in the United States. The media images constructed an unambiguous story: tens of thousands of mostly low-income African Americans were left to fend for themselves as the city of New Orleans flooded from breached levees on Lake Pontchartrain. Their only refuge was a large sports arena unequipped to serve as an “evacuee center” and devoid of any resources to support the thousands of people who gathered, many arriving only after wading through the toxic flood waters gathering in the city. In a city with a poverty rate of more than 30%, where one in three persons does not own a car, no significant effort was made by government at any level to assist the most vulnerable people to escape the disaster (Alterman, 2005). While Hurricane Katrina momentarily and unavoidably called attention to issues of race and class vulnerabilities, hazards and disaster research has clearly shown that social inequalities are core conditions that shape both disasters and environmental inequalities on a global scale. My goal in this chapter is to discuss what five decades of hazards and disaster research have revealed about race, class, and ethnic inequalities.