Disaster Porn: On Capitalism, Neocolonialism and Climate Change

La Perla, Viejo San Juan by Carlos Giusti

In the United States, authoritarian state policies are not difficult to understand in the context of restructuring global and local geographies. Restructuring and privatizing goods and services in urban areas reflect neoliberal urbanism, which encompasses a wide range of social, economic and geographical shifts.

Hurricane Katrina established that natural disasters are a way to literally wash out communities of color and make them ripe for reconstruction, which includes re-branding neighborhoods, redlining, and gentrifying them - developers and the governments that support them white wash long-standing community by using their culture as a hot commodity for newer, richer, whiter residents to stake their claim.

Hurricane Maria

Because this piece is an attempt to tie in Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and Hurricanes Irma and Maria in Puerto Rico, I want to start with using the former city as a case study for what may come to the latter archipelago.

New Orleans began to see the silent but quickly transitioning process of privatization and gentrification in the neighborhood of St. Thomas, a sub-district of Central City. In his book Driven from New Orleans: How Nonprofits Betray Public Housing and Promote Privatization, John Arena writes:

“By late 1988, intense opposition by St. Thomas and other public housing residents forced Mayor Barthelemy and his real estate allies to shelve their downsizing plan for New Orleans’s public housing. The city’s political and economic elite had presented the Rochon Plan, which would have literally removed the obstacle of public housing — and its ten complexes, 14,000 apartments and around 60,000 low income black residents — as a way to revitalize the city. Barthelemy’s plan places particular attention on the St. Thomas housing development, situated, as a city-commissioned study emphasized, “in the center of the city’s politically supported growth area.” Public housing advocates opposed the Rochon Plan and through grassroots organizing efforts “forced the Barthelemy administration to withdraw its plan. Opponents identified the initiative as simply a new form of the old policy of “Negro removal,” only now it was being promoted by the new post-civil rights of African American political class.”

In the 1990s, followed suit and the Clinton administration proposed a plan at the federal level that could potentially downsize and ultimately dismantle public housing. Titled HOPE VI, it was rife with cutbacks and devolution of both authority and funds from the federal government to localities.

HOPE VI dates back to 1989, when the U.S. government established the National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing to address “severely distressed” public housing. At the time, 6% (86,000) of the nation’s 1.4 million public housing units could be defined as such. It goes without saying that HOPE VI had obvious racial implications. A program meant to demolish public housing will place a heavy burden on African Americans; while only making up 15% of the total population, they make up 48% of all residents in public housing nationwide, and represent 66% of the population in large cities where the HOPE VI initiative was targeted.

From Floodlines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six by Jordan Flaherty

Between 1996 and 2007, 394 public housing developments were demolished. Of the 394, 110,227 units of the 163,000 apartments were occupied. Approximately 350,000 people were displaced, and in the St. Thomas projects, African-Americans made up 95% of those who were forced to leave their homes. HOPE VI also had a hand in displacing residents in surrounding neighborhoods and forced out even more low-income residents of color.

And what happened to those who were displaced as a result of the dismantling of the St. Thomas projects? The newly developed mixed-income developments did not provide enough affordable housing, and strict readmission criteria made it nearly impossible for residents to return to their neighborhood.

Biloxi, Mississippi by Win McNamee

Of course, this attack on public housing was 30 years in the making. Hurricane Katrina just made it that much easier for city government to drown public housing in what Arena refers to as a “neoliberal deluge” and rid the city of concentrations of poverty. While displacing primarily poor, black-working class people was not explicitly mentioned in HOPE VI, they were on the post-Katrina hit list.

This classist, racist, neoliberal restructuring plan has been referred to by think tanks, academics and newspaper columnists as “Katrina’s silver lining”.

With initiatives like HOPE VI, which in essence allows for urban renewal to occur by targeting vulnerable populations, it makes you wonder if we really don’t stand a chance against the ever present change in globalization trends and the extermination of communities of color through gentrification.

Whether it was HOPE VI or post-Katrina recovery efforts, this revanchist reconstruction left New Orleans almost completely devoid of its culture; its inhabitants that have made homes in the city for generations were scattered in FEMA camps and temporary hotel lodging all over the United States with little to no options to return to their city.

by Jason Reed

The United States has this down to a formula now — create a culture of neglect in communities of color, allow for natural disasters to devastate the community, abdicate themselves of all responsibility, horrific negligence during relief efforts (if you can even call it that) and then, “reconstruction.”

This formula will likely be implemented in Puerto Rico.

Toa Baja, by Ricardo Arduengo

Yarimar Bonilla, associate professor of anthropology and Caribbean studies at Rutgers University states:

“Vulnerability is not simply a product of natural conditions; it is a political state and a colonial condition. … With a poverty rate nearly double that of Mississippi, failing infrastructure that has been neglected for more than a decade and a public sector that has been increasingly dismantled in response to the debt crisis, the island was already in a state of emergency long before the storm hit.”

The Jones Act of 1920, an unelected fiscal control board (PROMESA), draconian budget cuts and austerity measures, free market exploitation, and almost 200 years as a colony of the United States, man-made disasters like climate change shine a light on how badly Puerto Rico has been tossed to-and-fro as a result of neocolonialism and extreme neglect.

And just as we saw in New Orleans as a result of Hurricane Katrina, Hurricanes Irma and Maria have commenced the mainstream narrative of a mass exodus of Puerto Ricans out of Puerto Rico.

It’s only a matter of time before developers begin to pillage the land and auction it off to the highest bidder.

Follow Defend Puerto Rico and Nuestra Patria PR for on-the-ground updates. To contribute funds, donate to Ojos Nebulosos and DJ Bembona’s GoFundMe campaign, BK pa Boriken or purchase tickets to their fundraiser at Mad Tropical this Thursday, October 5th in Brooklyn.