Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | Thanks to the infrastructure law, community-driven resilience projects in Black and Brown neighborhoods that have been hit hard by past storms are finally being funded. It is essential that government leaders continue to prioritize these frontline areas.
To most people, the bipartisan infrastructure law represents a promise of new roads, bridges and electric car charging stations—all welcome, but hardly life-changing. But to the thousands of coastal communities facing increased flooding due to climate change, it’s a potential lifeline. Take the case of Port Arthur, Texas.
The city of Port Arthur, population 55,000, was built on marshland surrounded by the Gulf of Mexico. During the era of Jim Crow, Black folks working in agriculture and the developing petrochemical industry had few places to live other than the flood prone parts of town. They made the best of things, however, building grocery and dry goods stores, beauty salons, restaurants and juke joints. They attended segregated schools and movie theaters and worshiped at local Black churches. Though they never got the plum jobs and top salaries of white workers, they supported themselves and even managed to pass on wealth to their children—mostly in the form of their homes.
But then the water started rising … and rising. The marshes and bayous that once cushioned blows from the heavy storms that plague the area were now paved over or channelized to make way for the laying of oil and gas pipelines and the movement of tankers. And with land sinking from oil and gas drilling, and hurricanes intensifying, the Black community of Port Arthur was hammered. People’s lives were disrupted, their homes were damaged or destroyed, and so were their legacies. Today, poverty, pollution and flooding mean the fate of Port Arthur—especially Black Port Arthur—is an open question. And that’s where the infrastructure law comes in.
With billions in federal dollars newly available to build flood resilience, grassroots groups are finally getting some of the help they need to organize neighbors and rebuild their city. The Community In-Power and Development Association is one of dozens of local organizations around the country that have received funding through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to plan and begin to build green infrastructure that will allow neighborhoods to better withstand flooding.
The $700,000 that the association received will allow Port Arthur to restore wetlands and build rain gardens and public parks that will slow and spread water.
Other community-based organizations too are working with nature to reduce flood risk. The Center for Environmental Transformation in Camden, New Jersey, representing mostly Black and Latino residents, was this year awarded $600,000 in green infrastructure funding to protect the city from the sewage and industrial runoff that occurs after heavy storms and tidal surges. Another environmental justice group, headed by longtime civil rights leader Katherine Egland, in Gulfport, Mississippi, just received $345,000 to begin planning to halt the recurrent flooding that threatens a pair of historic Black neighborhoods, Turkey Creek and Forest Heights.
Justice-focused federal spending from the bipartisan infrastructure law is beginning to reverse generations of underinvestment in flood protection in Black and Brown communities. But the money allocated so far is just a down payment on the historic debt owed to these communities, and a fraction of the total need.
Flooding is becoming more frequent along the U.S. coastline. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, every site measured has experienced an increase in coastal flooding since the 1950s, particularly along the East and Gulf Coasts. As we continue to experience warmer temperatures, extreme weather like flooding will become more commonplace and more severe, further damaging these communities.
Every family living in a flood zone—not just the wealthy and the well-insured—deserves the right to feel safe in their home, or relocate to higher ground. (Relocation must be an option when flood risk is simply too great.)
As state and local leaders apply for funding under the historic law, they need to take a close look at the towns and neighborhoods that have been hit time and again by climate disasters, listen to local leaders and residents, and commit the money and effort necessary to protect vulnerable coastal communities like Port Arthur, Camden, and Gulfport, so that they may once again thrive.
Hilton Kelley is a Goldman Environmental Prize winner, and founder and director of Community In-Power and Development Association Inc. , which helps low-income residents in Port Arthur, Texas, take action to transform dilapidated and underserved areas into desirable communities with a strong commerce base. Harriet Festing is co-founder and executive director of Anthropocene Alliance, a coalition of frontline communities fighting for climate and environmental justice.