Striking similarities that lay the basis for such social disasters can be seen in every corner of the capitalist world, from the wealthiest imperialist countries to undeveloped semicolonial nations. Such is the case with the unfolding calamities that followed Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast of the United States, and more recently Typhoon Bopha in the Philippines. In both cases, the most vulnerable areas—for both natural and man-made reasons—were populated by working people.
When Sandy made landfall Oct. 29, low-lying, densely populated areas in New York and New Jersey were badly flooded.
For decades state and city governments have directed planning and development for working-class housing to precisely these areas, where two major hurricanes in 1893 and 1938 caused massive flooding and devastation. Much of the city’s public housing, home to 400,000 working people, was built on waterfronts in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens beginning in the 1930s.
In the 1950s the city started building high-rise projects in the Rockaways area of Queens, one of the largest flood-prone sections of the city. In 1975 the Rockaways contained 57 percent of the borough’s low-income housing, but only 5 percent of its population.
Over time, people with steady incomes were encouraged to leave to make room for those on public assistance. To the propertied rulers in New York and the government officials who run the city on their behalf, the Rockaways’ distant location made it an ideal destination for the lowest-income, jobless, infirm and elderly sections of the working class, which they view with contempt. “After World War II, Rockaway was essentially treated as a dumping ground,” Lawrence Kaplan, co-author of Between Ocean and City: The Transformation of Rockaway, New York, said to the New York Times Dec. 3.
The projects were soon joined by facilities for recently deinstitutionalized mental patients and high-rise nursing homes. Today, half of the city’s nursing home facilities are in the Rockaways, many sitting right on the oceanfront.
The 21 people who drowned in the storm surge on Staten Island were concentrated along the south shore, where the most recent large-scale construction was done in the late 1980s and early ’90s, when the city cleared the building of hundreds of closely-packed condominiums and master-planned communities just feet from the high-tide line.
Developers have built more than 2,700 mostly residential units on the island in areas at extreme risk of storm surge flooding between 1980 and 2008, with the approval of city planning and zoning authorities.
In a 2010 report, the New York State Sea Level Rise Task Force wrote that the state should “reduce incentives that increase or perpetuate development in high-risk locations.”
But the New York City Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability dissented in a response. “The draft recommendations could result in a policy of disinvestment in and promote relocation from existing urban areas. This would have dire economic and environmental consequences for the city and the state.”
Ocean County, N.J., home to devastated communities like Seaside Heights and Toms River, has been one of the fastest growing counties in the state. Between 1980 and 2010, the county’s population increased nearly 70 percent, from 346,000 to nearly 577,000. Today 60 percent of New Jersey’s population lives in coastal communities.
Patterns of working-class housing are determined by the capitalist law of value: land prices and rent are lower in flood-prone or otherwise dangerous or unhealthy areas. But through a bourgeois lens, working people simply choose to live in such areas and therefore assume the risk for which they are individually responsible.
“People who live along the shore always live with a risk, and they know that. That’s understood,” Larry Ragonese, spokesperson for New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection, told the Huffington Post Nov. 12, adding that it is not the state’s role to dictate how redevelopment should occur. (Of course governments do play a role in this regard, just not in favor of workers.)
Typhoon hits PhilippinesOn Dec. 4 Typhoon Bopha slammed the Philippines, a semicolonial island nation in South Asia with a population of 100 million. Winds up to 100 miles an hour were accompanied by torrential rains.
More than 900 people are reported dead and close to 1,000 missing. Nearly 5.5 million are affected and 80,000 are still in evacuation centers.
Deaths are concentrated to an impoverished, mountainous agricultural and gold mining area crisscrossed by rivers on the eastern coast of Mindanao, the country’s southern island.
Thousands of people live in shanties on river banks and islands. More than 20,000 have settled on the mountainsides in recent years digging for gold. They’ve built hundreds of makeshift tunnels with small processing plants. Extensive logging has led to deforestation, greatly exacerbating the area’s vulnerability to floods.
In the heavy rains the mountainsides were washed away by landslides, taking houses, roads and bridges with them and burying everything in mud. Entire villages were wiped out, banana plantations destroyed and coconut trees struck down, many ripped up by their roots. Most people who died either drowned or were hit by falling trees or debris flying around.
New Bataan, the hardest-hit city, with a population of 45,000, was built in 1968 in an area classified as “highly susceptible to flooding and landslides.”
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home