Inequality in disaster recovery

As Xcel Energy crews diligently work to restore power after the weekend’s storms, I can’t help but reflect on the similarities and differences between the recovery response this weekend and the recovery response after the 2011 North Minneapolis tornado.

The 2011 tornado ripped through the neighborhood with the densest poverty in the city. Through social media, KMOJ radio, and door-to-door outreach, word was spread about who had free food, clothing, and shelter. People walked many blocks (or sometimes miles) to stand in long lines to receive what inadequate services were made available by the city, county, and nonprofits. It was grueling, but people helped each other survive.

This weekend’s storm hit the whole Twin Cities, apparently focusing some of its most destructive force in South Minneapolis, where century-old trees were uprooted. Much of the recovery response on social media has focused on sharing information about which restaurants were open and which coffee shops had air conditioning. For those without power in Uptown and Longfellow, that information, combined with their mobility and purchasing capacity was sufficient to help them weather the storm. The contrast offers a straightforward lesson in privilege and inequality in Minneapolis.

Except that it’s not that simple. Among the 90,000 or so people whose power is still out, many lack the mobility or financial wherewithal to buy their way into air conditioning and cold beverages at our city’s fantastic local eateries. The elderly, disabled, and extremely poor in South Minneapolis and throughout the Twin Cities are suffering in this heat. One thing we learned in North Minneapolis is that it will be the least privileged whose power comes on last. This isn’t some grand conspiracy by Xcel, but a reflection of the everyday neglect of absentee landlords who rent to the very poor in Minneapolis.

Houses that lost power because of grid failures are coming back online very quickly. However, Xcel reminded their customers in a memo last night, houses that suffered damage to the electrical service mast on their property are responsible for hiring their own electrician to repair the damage. Homeowners without financial capacity to hire an electrician, and renters whose landlords delay on needed repairs will suffer in the heat long after most people’s power comes on, in some cases for weeks. With temperatures predicted to stay in the 80s and 90s this week, this could be disastrous for less mobile Minnesotans.

This is a good time to revisit Eric Klinenberg’s study on heat waves, which reminds us that “heat waves in the United States kill more people during a typical year than all other natural disasters combined” and that breakdowns in social networks and services leave people isolated and contribute to that death toll.

Let’s not let that happen in Minnesota this year. Check in on your neighbors, especially the elderly and less mobile in your neighborhood. Don't let anybody suffer in isolation. We can all pull through this as a community.

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