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From U.S. to Philippines, Nurses Mobilize in Typhoon Haiyan’s Wake

4:41 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally published at In These Times

When Typhoon Haiyan made landfall in the Philippines a week ago, the destruction was swift, total and unsparing—showing the disproportionate impact of disasters on poverty-stricken communities of the Global South. The international aid response is still struggling to grapple with the scale of the storm damage.

But it just so happens that many Filipino immigrant workers in the United States are uniquely well-suited to lend a hand in the recovery. The Philippines is a major “exporter” of highly skilled nurses and other healthcare workers to the U.S. and other Western nations. There’s a long history of transnational cooperation in the Filipino diaspora—the country is supported through a massive network of migrant remittances. And in the U.S., Filipino immigrant workers also have a rich history of activism within the labor movement, forming a key part of many progressive unions, including the National Nurses United (NNU).

Out of this tradition of labor activism and deep diasporic ties comes an initiative by nurses with NNU’s Registered Nurse Response Network (RNRN), many of them Filipina, to send a solidarity relief mission to the Phillipines.

Immediately after the typhoon struck, the NNU put out a call to members asking for assistance and received some 1,500 responses from both Filipina and non-Filipina volunteers. The union is now sending an initial team of nurses to the disaster zone to start coordinating a medical response delegation that will ultimately deploy to the disaster zone in collaboration with local partners.

RNRN, first formed in the wake of the deadly Indonesian tsunami of 2004, ran a relief delegations to Haiti after the earthquake, as well as general medical missions to the Philippines and other countries, as a way both to meet emergency nursing care needs in humanitarian missions and to foster international labor solidarity.

The pending mission to the Philippines has special significance for nurses in the Filipino diaspora. Ironically, many of the health workers who went to work abroad in the West to support their families are cut off from loved ones in the storm’s aftermath and unable to use their skills to help heal their communities. Together with other fundraising and aid efforts by diaspora groups, the delegation may help some nurses to directly help stave off the health crisis brewing in the wake of the storm. Read the rest of this entry →

How Sandy Clean-Up Brought Day Laborers Out of the Shadows

6:34 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(El Centro de Immigrante)

Originally published at In These Times

When Sandy hit last October, the Northeast shoreline seemed to freeze: people were stranded in flooded homes, businesses shuttered, downtown Manhattan’s lights went eerily dark. But the paralysis wasn’t total—the area began buzzing immediately with invisible workers. The day after Sandy was just another day of honest work for the “casual” manual laborers who would spent months cleaning, gutting and rebuilding homes and businesses across the stricken area, often in grueling conditions with little protection from collapsing walls, toxic mold and other hazards.

A study published late last month by researchers with the City University of New York’s Baruch College reports that after Sandy, many of these day laborers—a workforce that is typically dominated by Latino immigrants and considered a “casual” or irregular part of the construction trade—were unnecessarily put in harm’s way amidst the haphazard recovery process.

Based on interviews with workers and advocacy groups in New York and surrounding areas, the researchers found that while demand for day laborers spiked post-Sandy, working conditions sank even lower than usual. Flooded areas were quickly awash in contractors and desperate homeowners seeking quick, cheap labor to fix their property damage, which led to a perfect storm of risks, ranging from injuries and toxic exposures to wage theft by crooked subcontractors.

The researchers note that many day labor sites belied major safety threats, such as “industrial cleanups involving warehouses that stored pharmaceuticals and in hospitals.” And in many cases, homeowners who informally hired day laborers for immediate clean-up did not understand the complex hazards involved with clean-up, demolition and rebuilding, leaving workers even more vulnerable. Read the rest of this entry →

Disaster Unpreparedness: Wildfire Tragedy Sheds Light on Dangerous Budget Gaps

4:05 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(Michael Young / Flickr / Creative Commons)

They went in as a team and perished as heroes. From what ongoing investigations have been able to determine, the 19 elite firefighters of the Prescott Fire Department’s Granite Mountain Hotshots followed safety protocols amid the ferocious wildfire at Yarnell Hill in Arizona. But evidently the fast-changing wind conditions doomed them.

We may never know exactly what went wrong in the hotshots’ final moments. But we can know that underlying their misfortune were human-driven risks that have long shaped the Western landscape.

Beneath the immediate disaster—a lightning-sparked blaze that consumed several thousand acres—lurk factors that have for years exacerbated wildfire hazards: global warming and chronic drought, along with severe resource gaps for the public servants serving as the first line of defense.

Federal authorities report that wildfires consume twice as much land annually as they did forty years ago, as rising temperatures and parched vegetation transform Western landscapes into the perfect tinderbox. Risks have also multiplied as rural housing developments continue to sprawl and more people move into harm’s way. Meanwhile, changing climates tend to intensify the brutal heat conditions and lengthen the fire season, which raises direct risks for firefighters on the front lines.

At the same time, fire-management resources are drying up. This fiscal year’s cuts to the Forest Service’s Fire and Aviation Management budget shrank its forces from 10,500 to 10,000 firefighters.

These fiscal strains also impede efforts toward comprehensive, sustainable wildfire control. With tightly limited overall resources, the Forest Service strains to pay for frontline fire suppression, while longer-term wildfire programs are depleted. This makes it harder overall to invest in mitigating future hazards and prevent catastrophes.

Forest Service spokesperson Jennifer Jones tells In These Times: “Over the last few years, budgets for [reducing] hazardous fuels have been declining–and are expected to decline further.” Along with the budgets, the acreage treated for fuel reduction (mainly by thinning brush and setting contained fires) has also fallen in recent years. Meanwhile, says, Jones, “millions of acres are at risk of extreme wildfire due to climate change, drought, insect infestation, invasive species and other factors.” Yet coping with future disaster risks would involve sustained, proactive investments in measures such as restoring wild landscapes to strengthen natural fire resilience and helping communities build adaptive protective infrastructure—not just emergency responses.

Testifying before Congress in June, Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell described pressures on the agency to stretch limited funds to cover diverse complementary needs: “When you have a constrained budget situation the money has to come from some place, so that’s why it’s so hard.”

The funding crunch extends beyond top-of-the-line federal responders like the hotshots to state and local  firefighting budgets. Rick Swan, State Supervisor Director of CDF Firefighters of the International Association of Firefighters, tells In These Times that state and local fire stations, which often support federal firefighting, are not seen as major funding priorities, in part because extinguishing rural fires may seem “less glamorous” than, say, crime-fighting operations. Some politicians, he says, show more interest in lavishing high-tech equipment on municipal police, while community fire departments struggle to keep their stations fully staffed or to set up decent radio equipment. (The New York Times reported on signs of communication technology problems facing hotshots as well.)

But if firefighting infrastructure and personnel are allowed to erode, Swan says, “Good people [go] to other jobs.” Then, he says, private contractors move in to fill the gap.

Read the rest of this entry →

At ‘Urban Uprising’ Conference, Activists Reimagine the City Post-Sandy

10:11 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

“occupy sandy. 520 clinton avenue.” (bondidwhat via flickr / creative commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

Disaster has a way of concentrating the mind. And Gotham has always had its share of it: whether it’s a slow-burning disaster like the epidemic of income inequality, the endemic scourge of police brutality and racial profiling, or the chronic deprivation of healthy food in isolated neighborhoods. Superstorm Sandy churned all of these elements of urban chaos. But in its wake, the storm has laid bare new pathways for innovations, and new frontiers for struggles against inequality.

The undercurrent of these contradictions ran through a conference this weekend dedicated to “designing a city for the 99%,” a possibility made more real and urgent in the storm’s aftermath. Urban Uprising, held at the New School and the CUNY Graduate Center (where this reporter is also a graduate student), brought together academics, legal experts, organizers and urban ecologists to broach fresh questions about organizing communities: how to harness the energy of Occupy and channel it into direct, localized campaigns; how to balance environmental renewal with economic development; and how to reorient debates on food policy away from apolitical consumer interests and toward the connection between food justice and fighting poverty.

The post-Sandy recovery process colored discussions of one of the main themes: “reimagining the city,” which focused on cultivation, both literal and figurative, of a new urban landscape.

David Harvey, a City University anthropology and geography scholar, has long argued that the Left must learn to organize at the level of the city. His work on the links between urbanization and capitalism helped invigorate the “Right to the City” alliance, one of the groups that organized the conference. During the conference, Harvey noted the ways in which community initiatives like Occupy Sandy are reclaiming urban space for popular struggle. “In a way,” Harvey said in an interview with In These Times, Occupy Sandy is “spreading a political message by a different route. And therefore, Occupy has not gone away. It’s moved into the boroughs… It is therefore a commitment to a different kind of lifestyle, a different kind of on-the-ground politics which in the long run may be just as important as the symbolic politics of Zuccotti Park.”

A broader political backdrop to the discussions was the looming security state that has crystallized over the past decade, putting communities under both economic and political siege. Groups like the Immigrant Defense Project and the Los Angeles Community Action Network described struggles against the militarization of policing around the country, as well as the growing transformation of local police into agents of immigration enforcement, counterterrorism and drug wars. Read the rest of this entry →

Post-Sandy Relief Workers Toil in Tough Labor Conditions

4:29 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

ConEd employees and other relief workers in New York City face dangerous environmental conditions and exploitation in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. (Dan DeLuca / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

More than two weeks after Hurricane Sandy hit New York City, residents of storm-battered communities from Coney Island to Long Beach are still living with darkness, squalor and a growing sense that they’ve been abandoned by official response teams (notwithstanding valiant grassroots volunteer efforts).

But as public frustration mounts, the emergency responders, manual laborers and utility workers on the front lines have their own frustrations. Many are laboring under precarious work conditions while their own neighborhoods still struggle to recover from storm damage.

In places that are still lacking utilities–including many public housing units that had their services preemptively shut down as a protective measure–a wave of anger is beginning to crest. The Long Island Power Authority in particular has come under fire for leaving tens of thousands customers still powerless as of November 12. And New York Daily News‘ Denis Hamill recently reported on the lonely struggle of Far Rockaway residents. When asked about the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) providing clean-up assistance, Cynthia Torres complained,“They never came once to see how we were doing when we were living for 10 days in the pitch dark with no phones, no hot water, no heat, no cable, sometimes no drinking water or food, no nothing. Two NYCHA guys came today for the first time since the storm.”

Storm-hit New Yorkers have voiced frustration at the “chaos” of ConEd’s response, particularly poor-to-nonexistent communications with customer service.

But the workers leading the power restoration are similarly frustrated by what they see as an underlying crisis of an eroded, overwhelmed workforce. Following the storm, Local 1-2, the utility workers union that led a groundbreaking labor standoff at ConEd last summer, issued a statement suggesting that exasperated customers should understand that the damage exceeded official estimates and was far beyond workers’ capacity in the immediate term: “if you think a repair crew is slow to get to your area, please keep in mind that we are just like you, and that we are seeing things that have never happened before. It is that serious.” Read the rest of this entry →

In Sandy’s Wake, New York’s Landscape of Inequity Revealed

2:15 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Flood damage to the subway system will disproportionately affect the lower-income New Yorkers who use it the most, worsening structural inequality. (MTA / Flickr / Creative Commons).

Originally posted at In These Times

The shock of Sandy is still rippling across the northeastern United States. But in the microcosm of New York City, we can already see who’s going to bear the brunt of the damage. As Hurricane Katrina demonstrated, floodwaters have a way of exposing the race and class divisions that stratify our cities.

Though some bus and subway service is returning, many neighborhoods dependent on public transportation remain functionally shuttered. Not surprisingly, recent surveys show that Metropolitan Transit Authority ridership consists mostly of people of color, nearly half living on less than $50,000 a year in one of the world’s most expensive cities.

It’s true that Sandy’s path of destruction was to some extent an equal opportunity assault, pummeling the trendiest downtown enclaves and blighted neighborhoods alike. But residents’ levels of resilience to the storm–the capacity to absorb trauma–will likely follow the sharp peaks and valleys of the city’s economic landscape.

Even before the storm, inequities arose in the city’s disaster preparations. Many public-housing residents who stayed behind in evacuation zones were preemptively blacked out, left without elevators, heat or hot water. Meanwhile, once again, in a repeat of Hurricane Irene, the city was criticized for shamelessly denying the incarcerated at Rikers Island an adequate evacuation plan. Read the rest of this entry →