Opinion: What happened in Pajaro wasn’t just a ‘natural’ disaster

In recent years, California has experienced extreme wildfires, heat waves, and the pervasive COVID-19 pandemic. What has become abundantly clear, especially since the pandemic’s toll on low-income communities of color, is that disaster risk is not a level playing field.

The latest evidence of this came last weekend when the Pajaro River embankment failed 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, the St. Francis Dam failed catastrophically due to a faulty foundation and other design flaws.

The dam collapse triggered massive flooding in Los Angeles and Ventura counties that claimed the lives of nearly 500 people, many of them undocumented migrant farm workers. It represents the second greatest loss of life in California history, after the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, and is still considered one of America’s worst civil engineering disasters. United States history.

As with the Saint-François dam, the failure of the Pajaro dike was not entirely a “natural” disaster. For decades, government officials knew the levee was vulnerable but never prioritized repairs, largely because their cost-benefit analysis failed to assess the losses to a low-income town. As Stu Townsley of the US Army Corps of Engineers told The Times over the weekend: “You basically get construction costs in the Bay Area, but the property value isn’t that high. ” A reassessment taking equity into account was made, but obviously too late to avoid catastrophe.

The task is no longer just to hold officials accountable for the poor planning decisions that allowed the levee to breach, but to ensure that relief and recovery are provided fairly.

The relief effort in the aftermath of the St. Francis Dam failure provides an instructive lesson in being wrong. The Red Cross, for example, largely refused to treat Mexican flood victims; local government officials instead sought help from La Cruz Azul de San Fernando, a local charity that provided mutual aid to Latino victims in racially segregated shelters and offered services coordinated by interpreters. The City of Los Angeles, the operator of the St. Francis Dam, was later accused of providing Latino farmworkers with lower payments to cover loss of property and funeral expenses.

It’s not just an old story. In our research on wildfires in Ventura, Santa Barbara, and Sonoma counties from 2017 and 2020, we found that undocumented migrants were rendered invisible by cultural norms regarding who is considered a worthy disaster victim. . In interviews with victims and analysis of government data, a pattern emerged: resources were directed to the wealthiest people, leaving local immigrant rights groups to provide essential services such as language access. to emergency information in Spanish and indigenous dialects, labor protection for agricultural workers threatened by heavy smoke, and the creation of a disaster relief fund for undocumented migrants not eligible for federal assistance .

Given their marginalized social status, undocumented migrants are particularly vulnerable to disasters and require special attention in disaster planning and response. They are affected by racial discrimination, economic exploitation and hardship, fear of deportation and communication difficulties. According to a 2019 state audit report, emergency officials routinely overlook the state’s most vulnerable populations when preparing for wildfires, floods, and other predictable disasters.

Stronger protections are needed. For example, better language access for emergency information; inclusive disaster and climate change adaptation planning programs; disaster planning funding for migrant community organizations; better occupational health and safety provisions; a permanent statewide disaster relief fund for undocumented immigrants to cover unemployment and medical expenses, housing and property replacement, and hazard pay for those working in dangerous 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 response 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 not have legal status, in preparing for a future. sustainable. Addressing the crisis in Pajaro with an equitable and inclusive approach gives us the opportunity to do things right for current residents and for future generations.

Michael Méndez 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.

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