Mutual Aid Networks Go Beyond Disaster Relief. They Offer Community Empowerment.

Mutual Aid Networks Go Beyond Disaster Relief. They Offer Community Empowerment.

Climate change is no longer a vague and distant threat looming on the horizon — its effects are already causing massive disruptions globally and are proving more significant than most of us could have imagined even a decade ago. And although extreme weather events and climate-fueled disasters do not discriminate between rich and poor or the privileged and the underserved, the impacts of these events generally reflect pre-existing divisions marked by race, class, immigration status and other inequalities.

We saw these divisions play out recently in the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian swept over the Abaco and Grand Bahama Islands killing at least 52 people (although this number is expected to rise dramatically) and leaving 70,000 people homeless. Breaking with a decades-long norm established by Congress, the Trump administration decided to revoke Temporary Protected Status (TPS) from Bahamians fleeing the islands. And as millions continue to be displaced by climate-fueled extreme weather events globally, this refusal to provide humanitarian relief to climate refugees is an ominous harbinger of what’s to come.

“As we enter this new age of climate change and we see more and more people displaced by disasters, this phenomenon of increased migration around the world, whether it be within a country or across borders, is a growing concern,” Samantha Montano, Assistant Professor of Emergency Management & Disaster Science at University of Nebraska Omaha, told Truthout. “And we don’t yet really even have a legal framework to match these people’s needs.”

Immigration status is also a determining factor as to whether many undocumented individuals and communities already in the United States receive humanitarian aid. Undocumented individuals are restricted, either legally or out of fear of deportation, from accessing disaster relief funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) — a source of funding that can make an immense difference for individuals or families affected by climate-fueled disasters.

“People who don’t have resources pre-disaster are the ones who not only experience the most significant impact from that disaster, but who also have the hardest time recovering from those disasters,” Montano said. “We can look at it from an individual level or from country to country, but we can also look at it from city to city or even neighborhood to neighborhood.”

In Montano’s early research focusing on Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures in New Orleans, she noticed how a neighborhood’s access to resources and political power shaped how well it recovered from the disaster.

“When you go to New Orleans, you can be Uptown or in any of these wealthier neighborhoods like the French Quarter or Lakeview, and it looks relatively like it did pre-Katrina—things look fine,” Montano told Truthout. “But then you go into a neighborhood like the Lower Ninth Ward that is predominantly an African American community and that has a lot of folks who are low-income, and there are areas where it looks like the flood just happened.”

According to Montano, the United States federal emergency management system is explicitly designed to be as limited as possible, which helps explain the inadequate response to politically disempowered communities like those in the Ninth Ward, or in neighborhoods like the Rockaways in New York City, which was largely abandoned after Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012.

With discrimination already baked into the emergency management system as a whole, the biggest challenge that the most vulnerable communities among us now face is how to build resilience for an uncertain future. Fortunately, there are quite a few examples of how communities have responded to disasters which can serve as replicable models that address not only the need for immediate relief, but which also have an eye to the longer-term strategy of building political power as well.

Building Mutual Aid Networks

When climate change-fueled Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, it resulted in thousands of deaths and knocked out power for almost an entire year. The result was what many consider to be one of the worst disasters in United States history. Hurricane Maria hit an island that was already reeling from an ongoing debt crisis, and an attack on public services brought about through the austerity imposed by the neoliberal administration of the recently disgraced ex-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló.

It was in the face of this economic and environmental devastation that what began as an emergency-response community kitchen in the town of Caguas expanded into an island-wide network of mutual aid centers with very ambitious aims. The original kitchen was started by an already existing activist network that had formed a few months earlier, when thousands of students from the University of Puerto Rico gathered to resist austerity. Their immediate aim after Hurricane Maria hit the island was to help feed people who had lost their homes or lacked access to cooking facilities. But through the process, they realized that they could use the kitchens as an opportunity to build community ties and to organize in a way that went beyond just immediate disaster relief.

“We see our project as a political project,” Giovanni Roberto, one of the founders of the original community kitchen in Caguas, explained. “We want Puerto Rico to be different. We want society to transform in some way. That means to transform values, the way people relate, the way people trust each other. The way people see communities. So, we see this space as a way of organizing people to gain in those values, to gain that experience. In our long term vision we want Puerto Rico full of Mutual Aid Centers.”

Now, just two years after that original kitchen was launched, there are already mutual aid centers spread all over Puerto Rico that are training communities in different forms of disaster relief, such as building their own cisterns for water catchment, but also providing broader forms of training in things like mental health services to help relieve stress. (Puerto Rico saw a mental health crisis take hold in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria). And because those involved in mutual aid centers see their project as explicitly political, they also emphasize education and training in activism and organizing — making sure that along with resilience, communities are also building the foundations of political power so that at some point, they can contend with the neoliberal state that has largely abandoned them.

“The Mutual Aid Center definitely does not want to stay in the emergency mindset of surviving Maria,” Astrid Cruz Negrón, one of the founders of the Mutual Aid Center in Utuado, explained. “We want everything we do to build towards a new world, a new, more just, more equal society. We want to empower people to build popular power and gain more skills in terms of education, preparation, and resistance so they can be in a better state for creating and proposing new ideas.”

A similar grassroots community effort emerged in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in New York City. Just like the mutual aid centers, Occupy Sandy was the result of an already existing network of activists that formed their relationships and politics during the Occupy Wall Street movement a year before the hurricane hit. It didn’t take long for those networks to reconnect in the aftermath of Sandy and begin providing many different forms of relief which made a huge difference in poorer areas like the Rockaways, which was hit the hardest by Sandy and where the official response was all but absent.

As in Puerto Rico, the activists and organizers that helped launch the Occupy Sandy relief effort had a much broader vision in mind than simply providing immediate disaster relief. Not only did they provide 60,000 volunteers, prescription drug deliveries, a legal team, a medical team and 20,000 meals a day, but they did it all with a community-led approach that focused on community empowerment. For example, Occupy Sandy volunteers partnered with local organizations to help foster the creation of worker-owned cooperatives to go beyond immediate disaster relief and begin addressing many of the systemic challenges that residents in the Rockaways continue to face.

By helping to organize these communities in a wide variety of ways, Occupy Sandy not only helped the community get back on its feet after the hurricane, but they set into motion and process of community empowerment that will increase the overall resilience of the Rockaways for future disasters.

Terri Bennett, an Occupy Sandy volunteer, explained how one of the most important things you can do to prepare for disasters is to have an organized and civically engaged neighborhood. “The best advice I can really give is knowing your neighbors, have people’s phone numbers, be able to get in touch, hopefully have them trust you, so that if you go in their backyard and you’re getting some kind of tool or something, you have established those kinds of connections already.”

Although it may sound like a relatively minor thing, it’s ultimately through these kinds of community ties that the seeds for broader resilience and empowerment are planted.

“The research is clear about the importance of community organizing, social networks and collective action as being a protector for more vulnerable populations during disasters,” Montano told Truthout. “Anything pre-disaster that the community is doing to build cohesion, to increase their social networks, to really bring the community together—any type of organizing like that is going to end up being beneficial during and after disasters.”

With climate-fueled disasters becoming more and more common, the need for a just relief and recovery process is becoming more apparent. As the efforts in Puerto Rico and the Rockaways demonstrate, along with other examples such as the response to the 2017 Mexico City Earthquake, climate resilience for the most vulnerable communities is often a byproduct of past efforts to organize and activate around a wide variety of causes that go beyond disaster relief. It is through the intersection of many ongoing struggles — from the realm of economics to that of race, immigration status, and so on — that communities can begin to not just build resilience to the storms, fires and droughts that await them, but to also ensure that they gain the political power to demand — and receive — the resources and aid that their governments owe them.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 220 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.