Over the past few years, California has experienced extreme wildfires, heat waves and an ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. What has become abundantly clear, especially due to the devastating impact of the pandemic on low-income communities of color, is that disaster risk is not a matter of equal opportunity.
The latest evidence of this came this past weekend when a dam on the Paharo River collapsed and flooded a small town populated mostly by migrant workers and their families. In an eerie coincidence, the dam collapsed on March 12, 95 years after St. Francis Dam catastrophically failed due to a defective foundation and other design flaws.
The collapse of the dam caused severe flooding in Los Angeles and Venutra counties, killing nearly 500 people, many of whom were undocumented migrant farm workers. This is the second largest loss of life in California history after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, and is still considered one of the worst construction disasters in US history.
As with the St. Francis Dam, the collapse of the Pajaro Dam was not an entirely “natural” disaster. For decades, government officials have known the dam was vulnerable but never prioritized repairs, largely because their cost-benefit analysis did not take into account the losses of the low-income city. As Stew Townsley of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said over the weekend, “Mostly you get building costs in the Bay Area, but the cost of ownership isn’t all that high.” A fairness reassessment was made, but clearly too late to avert catastrophe.
The challenge now is not only to hold officials accountable for poor planning decisions that led to the dam failure, but also to ensure fair relief and recovery.
Relief efforts after the St. Francis dam burst provide an instructive lesson in how to make mistakes. The Red Cross, for example, has largely refused to provide assistance to flood victims in Mexico; local authorities instead enlisted the support La Cruz Azul de San Fernandoa local charity that provided mutual aid to Hispanic victims in racially segregated shelters and offered coordinated interpreter services. city of los angelesthe operator of the St. Francis Dam, was later accused of giving Hispanic farm workers lower payments to cover loss of property and funeral expenses.
It’s not just some old story. In our study of wildfires in Ventura, Santa Barbara, and Sonoma counties from 2017 to 2020, we found that undocumented migrants have become invisible due to cultural norms about who is considered a worthy victim of a natural disaster. Interviews with victims and analysis of government data revealed a pattern: resources were diverted to wealthier people, resulting in local immigrant advocacy groups providing basic services such as language access to emergency information in Spanish and indigenous dialects, labor protection for agricultural workers who were threatened thick smoke, and the creation of a disaster relief fund for undocumented migrants who are not eligible for federal assistance.
Given their marginalized social status, undocumented migrants are particularly vulnerable to natural disasters and require special attention in disaster planning and response. They are adversely affected by racial discrimination, economic exploitation and deprivation, fear of deportation and communication difficulties. Based on 2019 data State Auditor’s Reportemergency workers routinely lose sight of the state’s most vulnerable populations in preparation for predicted wildfires, floods, and other natural disasters.
Stronger defenses are needed. For example, improved language access to emergency information; inclusive disaster planning and climate change adaptation programs; disaster planning funding for migrant community organizations; improved health and safety provisions; a permanent nationwide disaster relief fund for undocumented immigrants to cover unemployed and medical expenses, housing and property replacement, and hazard payments to those working in hazardous conditions during a disaster.
Wildfires, heatwaves, floods and pandemics make no difference. These disasters are not unforeseen, isolated events. Disaster risk and disaster interventions are ultimately political. As the number and severity of our changing climate challenges rapidly increase in California, we must embrace and engage all Californians, including those who may be without legal status, to prepare for a sustainable future. Addressing the Pajaro crisis in a fair and inclusive way gives us the opportunity to do it right for current residents and future generations.
Michael Mendes is an Andrew Carnegie Scholar and Associate Professor of Environmental Planning and Policy at the University of California, Irvine. Manuel Pastor is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Equity Research Institute at the University of Southern California.
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