Environmental racism links Lāhainā and Katrina

August 29 will mark the 18th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, one of the deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history, which devastated much of the Gulf Coast (specifically Louisiana and Mississippi) and disproportionately struck New Orleans. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration states that this Category 4 hurricane caused at least $108 billion in structural damage, leading to more than one million people being displaced, many permanently, especially the poor and people of color. 

Ninth Ward flooded after Hurricane Katrina, Aug. 2005. (Photo websource: NOLA)

According to livescience.com, an estimated 1,833 people died in the hurricane and the flooding that followed. (Aug. 27, 2015) That flooding, mainly caused by broken levees, overwhelmed the Ninth Ward, a predominant working-class Black neighborhood in New Orleans. Over 1,000 people died from flooding in this neighborhood alone.  

Fast forward almost 18 years later to Aug. 9, when tragic wildfires swiftly devastated huge swaths of the Hawaiian island of Maui, including the historic town of Lāhainā. At least 99 people have died and the death toll is expected to rise even higher. The structural damage for residents is estimated to be over $1 billion with the destruction of over 2,000 buildings.

There were no sirens to warn people before the rapidity of the wildfires as many people died from being burned alive, smoke inhalation and general lack of escape routes. DNA findings are now being required to identify many of the victims.

While no source of the fires has been officially determined, one possibility was the dangerous active power lines combined with high mountain winds emanating from Hurricane Dora, a Category 4 storm located to the south of Maui in the Pacific Ocean.  

Katrina and the Hawaiian wildfires have more in common than not. Both were impacted by climate change, which has grown dramatically worse between 2005 and 2023.

Aftermath of Maui wildfires, Aug. 10, 2023. (Photo Credit: Big Island Now)

Regarding the potential impact of Katrina, Kerry Emanuel, Professor of Atmospheric Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, stated in the scientific journal Nature in early August 2005, that “North Atlantic hurricane power was strongly correlated with the temperature of the tropical Atlantic during hurricane season, and that both had been increasing rapidly over the previous 30 years or so. It attributed these increases to a combination of natural climate oscillations and to global warming.” 

Before the recent wildfires, Maui had already been suffering from a combination of a severe drought and high humidity, deadly precursors to wildfires.  

Neo-colonialism and racism 

Hurricane Katrina and the Maui wildfires have something else in common: They are both social disasters that expose historical and present-day issues of racism and national oppression that permeate every aspect of U.S. society.

Is it surprising that Native Hawaiians reported that the local government did next to nothing? It did nothing to help evacuate people before the wildfires and provided little aid in the aftermath of the destruction. 

Is it surprising that thousands of people were unable to escape Hurricane Katrina days before it landed due to apathy and unpreparedness by various levels of government — local, state and federal? 

The lack of response in Hawaiʻi is similar to what happened during Katrina when the Federal Emergency Management Agency rightfully came under heavy fire for its lack of aid for the most marginalized people, especially in the Black community. 

The Indigenous people in Hawaiʻi and the Black population both constitute internal nationally oppressed populations who have been historically occupied, exploited and repressed by white supremacy for centuries. 

Hawaiʻi was colonized by the U.S. in 1893 before it became a U.S. state in 1959. Hawaiian lands are now dominated by at least 12 U.S. military bases and thousands of acres have been privatized by billionaires. 

Black people were enslaved starting in 1619 and are still denied full democratic rights. 

Both groupings deserve reparations as a result of all forms of institutionalized discrimination including environmental racism.

Monica Moorehead

Monica.Moorehead@workers.org

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Monica Moorehead

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