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Race, Class, and Climate Change in the Wake of Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy ravaged much of the eastern seaboard, leaving some dead, many without shelter, and all of us wondering how such an event could happen. What we realized, though, is that we can no longer ignore how climate change affects public health and the environment.

I grew up in the Borough of Queens, surrounded by most of my family and friends. Now I live in Washington, D.C., but I'll always consider myself a New Yorker, maintaining close ties with home. So when I learned that forecasters expected Hurricane Sandy to sweep through Queens, I feared for my loved ones.

One of my favorite aunts lives in Far Rockaway, a beachfront place with few exit routes and large numbers of low-income residents of color -- a potential recipe for disaster, should a major storm make landfall.

Sure enough, Hurricane Sandy hit, and harder than most New York residents expected. My fears were realized. Far Rockaway was destroyed.

What has been most troubling about this episode is not the physical damage caused by the storm, but instead, the city's response. Residents of the various housing projects in the neighborhood went days without power. Many still don't have it. Few have heat. Clean-up efforts remain practically non-existent.

In Sandy's wake, Far Rockaway residents are faced with tough choices. Most have limited incomes and cannot readily repair their homes. Many rely on public transportation and now have a difficult time getting to work. Many have stayed in their apartments, waiting for help to come, rather than risk their lives by navigating to the city's overcrowded shelters.

Hurricane Sandy brought the issue of climate change back to the forefront of political discourse, something we cannot ignore any longer. However, when it comes to issues of climate change, we rarely hear about how the phenomenon affects low-income communities, which are disproportionately of color. When events like Hurricane Sandy occur, we focus on weather patterns and rising sea levels, but we ignore the direct impact on people's everyday lives.

Yet climate change has the potential to unravel the fabric of communities most in need. Inaction is simply unacceptable. We must act now to reverse the harmful effects of climate change, and as we do, we must not forget about communities often neglected after events like Hurricane Sandy.

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