In recent years, California has experienced extreme wildfires, heat waves, and the ever-present COVID-19 pandemic. What has become abundantly clear, particularly with the ravages of the pandemic in low-income communities of color, is that disaster risk is not an equal opportunity issue.
The latest evidence of this came last weekend when the Pajaro River levee broke and flooded a small town populated mainly by migrant workers and their families. In a strange coincidence, the levee failure occurred on March 12, 95 years to the day that San Francisco Dam it failed catastrophically due to a faulty foundation and other design flaws.
The dam collapse triggered massive flooding in Los Angeles and Venutra counties that killed nearly 500 people, many of them undocumented immigrant farmworkers. It represents the second greatest loss of life in California history, after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, and is still considered one of the worst civil engineering disasters in United States history.
As with the San Francisco dam, the Pajaro dam failure was not an entirely “natural” disaster. For decades, government officials knew the levee was vulnerable, but they never prioritized repairs largely because their cost-benefit analysis failed to value the losses for a low-income city. As Stu Townsley of the US Army Corps of Engineers told The Times over the weekend: “Basically, you get the construction costs of the Bay Area, but the value of the property is not as high”. A reassessment has been made, taking into account fairness, but obviously too late to avoid a catastrophe.
The task now is not just to hold officials accountable for poor planning decisions that allowed the levee to break, but to ensure relief and recovery are delivered equitably.
The relief effort in the aftermath of the Saint Francis dam failure provides an instructive lesson in how to get it wrong. The Red Cross, for example, largely refused to provide treatment to victims of the floods in Mexico; instead, local government officials requested the help of Blue Cross of San Fernando, a local charity that provided mutual aid to Latino victims in racially segregated shelters and offered services coordinated by translators. He Los Angeles citythe operator of the Saint Francis Dam, was later accused of providing Latino farmworkers with lower pay to cover property loss and funeral expenses.
This is not just a story from a long time ago. In our investigation of wildfires in Ventura, Santa Barbara and Sonoma counties Between 2017 and 2020, we found that undocumented immigrants were rendered invisible by cultural norms regarding who is considered a worthy victim of disaster. In interviews with victims and analysis of government data, a pattern emerged: Resources went to the wealthiest people, leaving local immigrant rights groups in charge of providing essential services, such as access access to emergency information in Spanish and indigenous dialects, labor protections for farmworkers threatened by heavy smoke, and establish a disaster relief fund for undocumented immigrants who are not eligible for federal aid.
Given their marginalized social status, undocumented immigrants are particularly vulnerable to disasters and require special consideration in disaster planning and response. They are negatively affected by racial discrimination, economic exploitation and hardship, fear of deportation, and communication difficulties. According to a 2019 State Auditor’s Reportemergency officials often overlook the state’s most vulnerable populations as they prepare for wildfires, floods, and other foreseeable disasters.
Stronger protections are needed. For example, improvement of linguistic access to emergency information; inclusive disaster planning and climate adaptation programs; disaster planning funding for migrant community organizations; better provisions on safety and health at work; a permanent statewide disaster relief fund for undocumented immigrants to cover unemployment and medical costs, home and property replacement, and hazard pay for those working in hazardous conditions during a disaster.
Wildfires, heat waves, floods, and pandemics do not discriminate. Nor are these disasters isolated and unforeseen phenomena. Disaster risk and disaster interventions are ultimately political in nature. As California experiences a rapid increase in the number and severity of challenges associated with our changing climate, we must embrace and engage all Californians, including those who may lack legal status, in preparing for a sustainable future. Addressing the crisis in Pájaro with an equitable and inclusive approach offers us the opportunity to do well for current residents and future generations.
Michael Mendez is an Andrew Carnegie Scholar and assistant professor of environmental planning and policy at UC Irvine. Manuel Pastor is a professor of sociology and director of the Equity Research Institute at USC.