Disastrous Inequality

When a disaster strikes in Southern California, the effects to residents will be devastating, and even more so to the regionu2019s poor.

By R.M. Arrieta Jun 21, 2006

Several months ago in Southern California, a televised emergency announcement came on Channel 7 at 7:30 pm. The announcement urged residents to prepare to evacuate in 20 minutes because of a tsunami warning following an earthquake north of Oregon.

"It came out on one channel. Nowhere else," remembered Jesse N. Marquez, 54, a lifelong resident of the Harbor area. Mystified, he wrote letters to his city councilwoman and the mayors of Long Beach, Los Angeles, Redondo Beach and Hermosa Beach.

"No one got back to me. What was their emergency plan?"

Los Angeles, an epicenter for urban disaster planning, is building up one of the country’s leading municipal "homeland security" operations, but little of this emergency planning and resources is reaching those most likely to be left behind, according to many local organizations and experts.

Southern California has more than 300 faults capable of producing damaging earthquakes–more than any other metropolitan area of the United States. The area also has one of the nation’s highest potentials for extreme, catastrophic losses from several natural hazards such as earthquakes, tsunamis, fires, landslides and floods.

Los Angeles is one of the top five cities getting federal funding from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). While local officials laud the disaster infrastructure, calling it the second best in the nation (after New York City), they say there are still serious problems.

In October 2005, Henry Rentería, director of the California Office of Emergency Services, told a congressional subcommittee that "the human toll of Katrina shows we may not have invested wisely. What can be learned from this is that the development of local emergency organizations, reinforcement of training and investment in communications systems are what will best prepare us for the next disaster–be it hurricane, act of terrorism, or the next earthquake."

For 2005, California received $282 million in DHS funds. This puts it at the second among the top five states in homeland security funding. L.A. County received more than $26 million in total grants for 2005, which makes it the highest-funded county in California and the second highest in the nation.

But despite the substantial funding, serious issues plague the county’s disaster infrastructure.

When a disaster strikes, the effects to residents will be devastating, and even more so to the region’s poor.

In areas like South and South Central Los Angeles and East Los Angeles, where large pockets of Blacks and Latinos reside, the message to get ready for a catastrophe doesn’t amount to actual resources for preparation.

L.A. County holds 28 percent of California’s population and 34 percent of the state’s poor. L.A. has higher poverty rates than the rest of the state (16 percent compared to the state’s 12 percent), and Latinos and Blacks have higher poverty rates than whites. According to the Public Policy Institute, the poverty rate for these two groups hovers at about 20 percent–more than twice that for whites at 8 percent and Asians at 10 percent.

South Central L.A. has 39 percent of residents living in poverty. In East L.A, whose population is 96.8 percent Latino, almost 37 percent live below the poverty level, according to the U.S. Census.

Poor neighborhoods have fewer cars–up to 38 percent of households lack access to a vehicle in parts of South Central, Compton and Long Beach where the poverty rate is 40 percent and higher, according to a 2003 study by UCLA scholars Paul Ong and Douglas Miller.

At least 500,000 bus riders depend on the city’s beleaguered public transit system, many of them without cars or with only one car for a household with more than five people, said Geoff Ray of the Labor/Community Strategy Center.

But there really are no concrete plans for a large-scale

"With an earthquake or a major terrorist attack, we’d obviously have no warning. We haven’t looked at mass evacuation or temporary housing for hundreds of thousands of people," Sandra S. Hutchens, chief of the Office of Homeland Security at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, told the New York Times.

When asked about L.A. County’s plan for getting aid in the event of disaster to its large immigrant population, Michael Brooks, acting director of the Office of Emergency Management said, "We don’t identify segments of the population as immigrants or residents. I can’t even respond to that question."

A report by the League of Women Voters found that although the city and county produce a great deal of information about emergency planning and preparedness, non-English speakers and those with special needs are not getting the message.

The study, "How Homeland Security Is Working at Home: Emergency Preparedness in the Los Angeles Area," asked respondents if they were receiving emergency planning materials. Many of those surveyed said either they didn’t have access to the materials in their native tongue, or "there was no access–period," said project coordinator Lynn Lowry.

"A lot of this information is web-based. If you don’t have a computer, you may or may not get access to the information," added Lowry. "The message for the need to be prepared just hasn’t been strong enough."

After evaluating the public outreach campaign, the Office of Emergency Management claimed that the program’s "most significant shortcoming" is the lack of funds to promote emergency preparedness.

Another large gap, according to Constance Perett, former director of the Office of Emergency Management, is that there are no specific plans to help the one million residents who live in the county’s 57 unincorporated areas, or people with disabilities and other special needs.

Oscar Garcia, former president of the L.A. Neighborhood Council for Lincoln Heights, a primarily poor and working-class Latino neighborhood in East Los Angeles, noted: "I feel like it’s a time bomb waiting to happen, and we’re going to get caught in the middle. If we ever had a disaster on the scale of Hurricane Katrina, we’d run into the same situation. Do you know the city plan if there were a disaster? I have no idea. I see it as fend for yourself. The city hasn’t told us where to go for help. The people that would suffer the most would be the poorest–and Lincoln Heights would be right there."

The county’s evaluation of its disaster planning system stemmed from a request by Supervisor Gloria Molina in September, after the devastation in the Gulf Coast following Katrina prompted questions about whether Los Angeles had an adequate disaster-response plan.

"I think that the message has come out very clear from what was seen with the victims of Katrina: Do not be dependent on resources around you and do not expect that someone will come. I think people of color saw they were abandoned and they said: ‘Okay we take this to heart,’ " said Anjelica Salas, executive director of the Center for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) in Los Angeles.

Although communities of color aren’t getting access to information and resources, a study released in January from the Rand Corp., a Santa Monica-based think tank, found that Latinos and Blacks were more likely than their white counterparts to take disaster preparedness into their own hands.

The study found 37 percent of Latinos and 31 percent of Blacks bought extra supplies such as food, water or clothing after the 2001 terrorist attacks, compared with 21 percent of whites and 19 percent of Asians.

The reason? Their perception of how the government responded to communities of color after the 2001 terrorist attack.

"After the anthrax attacks, there was a real reason to believe in disparity after seeing how postal workers were treated in contrast to congressional staffers. And in L.A, we saw a lot of different groups who saw themselves as vulnerable," said the study’s lead author, David Eisenman, a researcher with Rand and professor at UCLA.

He added, "Our survey looked at preparedness and what people had done new since 9/11. That’s different than asking how prepared they are. People who are more prepared tend to be white with a higher income. It takes money to prepare. You need to have discretionary income."

Other leaders in community-based organizations pointed out that disaster preparation takes money.

"How do you help someone who is on food stamps to prepare? You can’t get an earthquake kit on food stamps," said Jim Mangia, executive director of St. John’s Well Child and Family Centers, a network of nonprofit health centers and school-based clinics.

"Altogether we see over a million patients a year. There are a million people coming in who have no health insurance and affordable health care. Most of our clients are families of four living on $600 to $800 a month. How do you afford to keep a bunch of food stored? How would those families be prepared?"

Ellis Stanley is the general manager for the city of Los Angeles’s Emergency Preparedness Department. While he stresses the need for residents to know their neighbors and identify resources needed for survival, he also said, "We recognize that in some of our communities, urging someone to be prepared for 72 hours is silly because they are preoccupied 24 hours a day trying to get through tomorrow–not because there was an earthquake but because they woke up and they didn’t have the means or resources.

"The reality is, our Katrina could be an 8.0 earthquake next month."

Stanley’s department has only 18 workers–for the second largest city in the nation. New York has 125.

During a recent meeting held in South Central L.A. to address disaster preparation, that more than 400 residents attended, Stanley stressed the need for self-reliance and that residents should know their neighbors and identify what resources were available and needed for survival.

"One of the things that’s come out of [social research] is that community self-organization is one of the best bulwarks against these pressures," said Christine M. Rodrigue, geography professor at Cal State Long Beach who has researched social vulnerability and inequity in disaster.

Horace Penman, who lives in South Central L.A., isn’t waiting for any help to come to him or his neighbors should a disaster strike. In fact, he has made disaster preparation his top priority.

"After Katrina, there was a great deal of awareness and a lot of buzz about what the plan was for L.A. Well, there isn’t a plan, so people have to plan block by block, street by street," he said.

Penman, who is captain of the Neighborhood Council, Community and Neighbors for Ninth District Unity (CANNDU) and is also battalion manager for the Citizen Corps Council in his neighborhood, has set up an emergency office, complete with a national emergency radio relay.

The office serves as the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) center, a program developed by the L.A. Fire Dept. in 1985 to create a trained civilian emergency workforce for the city and county.

"Under any emergency situation, we are able to receive emergency radio traffic. If someone calls me from amateur communications and puts us on alert, the word goes out all over through amateur radio," noted Penman.

Last year when the city of L.A. experienced a major power outage, ham radio operators throughout the city contacted each other, Penman recounted. "We did a roll call through the whole city and county. It was the first time that ever happened. We established a communication net in the city of L.A. where there was none."

Penman has mapped out evacuation routes, including a high school field where helicopters can land and a local equestrian area where horses pulling carts can be used to transport the injured and elderly. "The horses have been riot-trained so if there’s an emergency, I can make a call and those horses will be coming down the Santa Fe railroad tracks within 15 minutes."

Said Penman, "The bottom line for me is that I have some peace of mind that I did try to get the word out. That’s all you can do. You can tell the ears that hear."

In lieu of equitable and adequate public resources and political will to care for at-risk populations, the role of communities to organize a "bottom-up" response is even more important. But when it comes to the question of whether communities of color are prepared, the answer is no.

In the Harbor-Long Beach area, also a region of high poverty and concentration of Blacks, Latinos and Southeast Asians, they’ve been worried about disasters long before seeing what happened after Katrina.

Jesse N. Marquez was 16 when an oil refinery blew up across the street from his family’s house in Long Beach. His parents turned off the stove and got everyone out into the car, but it was too hot to stay there. A second explosion happened, and then a third. A ball of flame flew toward their house.

The disaster, which resulted in his grandmother receiving third-degree burns and first-degree burns among the rest of the family, motivated Marquez to get involved with the grassroots organization Communities for a Better Environment.

"We have several major industries that can have catastrophic events. We have the ports of L.A. and Long Beach unloading crude or refined gas. We have three major refineries, all operating at maximum capacity. We have storage tanks, ships carrying crude oil and fuels," Marquez said.

"No one ever comes to tell the community what to do in an emergency."