Despite nearly a week without power, the recent ice storm made me realize how fortunate my family was.
• Our friends took us in because we didn’t have a non-electric heat source.
• I have a very supportive employer who allowed me to telework and paid time off so I could watch my daughter.
• I had access to nutritious food, water, and medications.
• Even though we lost some food, my family’s income mitigated this impact.
• And post-storm, I had money to purchase a propane heater, service my fireplace, buy firewood, and replenish supplies.
This inventory reminds me of my privilege that many in our community don’t have. For many, the storm was truly catastrophic. Thousands of residents lost power, and some (as of this writing in late January) still don’t have power.
And many people in our community—particularly from underserved communities—were not nearly as lucky. Low wages, non-supportive employers, insufficient housing options, limited access to healthcare…this storm was a reminder that we are not on a level playing field.
In other words, we are not all so “lucky.” But is it luck? Or is it a system inherently designed to be unjust?
Whether it’s struggling with wildfire smoke, heat waves, or extreme winter weather, those from historically underserved communities continue to struggle due to systemic failures and access to resources.
This connection between climate change, the environment, and the unequal hardship underprivileged communities experience forms the nexus of what is called climate and environmental justice.
This storm provided an unfortunate example of these concepts.
“The extreme impacts of this ice storm highlights the inequity in how households are able to deal with emergencies,” said Lisa Arkin, executive director with local nonprofit Beyond Toxics. “In homes that are poorly insulated or have outdated HVAC and water heating systems that can freeze up, people turn to using dangerous heating sources like propane heaters or a gas oven, which may result in high enough pollution indoors as to be lethal. This is a more likely scenario for people of color, low-income families, elders and people with disabilities because of systemic disinvestment in these communities.”
Arkin also pointed out that nearly half the homes and apartments in Oregon were built before 1980. These structures are predominately energy inefficient, don’t have air conditioning, and rely on substandard, expensive heating units, often in disrepair.
“We need to make sure these Oregonians have access to affordable repairs and efficient heating and cooling systems that work in extreme heat and cold weather,” Arkin said.
Arkin said local governments and utilities must improve communication during natural disasters.
“Residents need better communication from their local government,” Arkin said. “Days went by with no news of why there were power outages and how soon the situation would be corrected. Yet, simultaneously, people were receiving non-essential text messages from their cell phone providers assuring them that connectivity was restored. If a cell phone company can provide updates, we would hope local governments and utilities could do the same. Reliable information in emergency situations can save lives.”
When it comes to climate and environmental justice, only massive, systemic changes in how we govern, do business, and generally operate as a society will help folks go from feeling traumatized to feeling “lucky.”
Daniel Hiestand is the waste reduction outreach coordinator for Lane County and columnist for The Chronicle. Contact him at [email protected].
Waste Wise Lane County, a part of the Lane County Waste Management Division, seeks to empower residents, businesses, and schools with resources to reduce waste and live sustainably. Sign up for the Waste Wise newsletter at lanecountyor.gov/wastewise.