Saturday, February 16, 2013

Vertical Katrina

Thanks to my favorite librarian for sharing the Occupy Sandy video, which comes from Bill Moyers (whom I recently described as one of my favorite Baptists) by way of Upworthy contributor Carolyn Silveira. This rich video documents the community-based responses of Occupy participants to the ongoing calamity of Super Storm Sandy. This video is eight minutes well spent, as it is full of lessons about environmental geography and the political ecology of disaster.

Occupy Sandy from on Vimeo.

The first geographic lesson occurs early in the segment, when a group of Occupy Wall Street participants use geographic skills to decide where to focus their efforts to help people who might still be suffering the affects of Sandy after the initial recovery period had ended. Since the question of where to reach out was a geographic question, they used a geographic strategy to answer it. Overlaying a map of storm surges with a map of relative wealth, they chose Coney Island as a place where high water and low income meet.

This methodology led them to a surprise -- beyond the carnival rides and boardwalk, Coney Island is home to many high-rise apartment complex in which thousands of people experiencing poverty live in great numbers. And since these neighborhoods had been low on the priority list for governments and utilities, the discomfort and suffering were as severe as the resources were limited. In fact, one of the volunteers declared the disaster to be a "vertical Katrina" and a reminder that the lessons of that travesty have not yet really been learned.

The volunteers exhibit all that has been most positive about the Occupy movement. Among these is a recognition that economic privilege or lack thereof is fleeting, and is contingent on circumstances beyond the control of individuals. Still, privilege does insulate some of us against hardship more than others, and those with privilege -- even modest privilege -- should share those benefits. The horizontal nature of the the movement is also exemplified by this effort, as is the ability to match rhetoric and ideology with tangible action for the good of an entire community. One of the political ecology observations in the video is that the Coney Island neighborhood in which it takes place is a food desert, where the "free market" does not provide the range of foods to which more affluent communities in the United States are now accustomed.

Epilogue: This video was made when people were still wearing sweaters and light jackets. When winter storms began to strike the region in subsequent months, some homes were still without power. It goes without saying that these were not the homes of the wealthy or even the middle class.

Further epilogue: I saw this video as news included not only the recovery of my own neighborhood from a winter storm that left us without power for almost four days (some shorter, some longer), and as the Carnival Cruise ship Triumph ended its ordeal at sea with 4,200 people with limited power. Both of these events have many middle-class people -- myself included -- thinking carefully about both our vulnerabilities and the resilience that is afforded by financial resources and social connections that are not be available to all.

Some have critical of the Triumph passengers for complaining and the media for covering their plight. (And some of them -- such as Ben Vogelzang -- actually did not complain.) I would not go that far, as I do think that so many people on a disabled ship is a genuine humanitarian concern, even if the people involved are relatively wealthy and the discomforts are short-lived. It was a worthwhile reminder, however, that not all such crises come to a happy conclusion, as this one eventually did.

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