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The Floodwaters of Detroit

The Floodwaters of Detroit

Navigating Environmental Justice in the Motor City

In August of 2014, a major flood hit Detroit. Declared a national emergency, it accounted for 60% of flood damages in the United States for the entire year. A local nonprofit, Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, is trying to create a new group of informed urban environmentalists and build a critical mass of concerned citizens: to pressure the city government to adapt to a changing climate.

In the story of global climate change, Detroit is usually considered one of the bad guys. The city was the center of the auto manufacturing world. General Motors, Chrysler and Ford famously based their production in Detroit, where they spent decades not only spewing chemicals, but making more machines that would, in turn, rack up emissions.

But if Detroit is a perpetrator, it’s also a victim. Detroit is home to three of the most polluted zip codes in the state. Asthma hospitalizations are three times the national average. Now, the effects of climate change—floods, extreme heat, economic disruption—are adding pressure. How will the city adapt?

In August of 2014, a major flood hit Detroit. President Obama had declared it a national emergency, and it accounted for 60% of nationwide flood damages for the entire year. Detroiters affected by the flood could apply for grants and loans from the federal government to help them recover.

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(source: National Weather Service)

Lucille Johnson Good, whose home was damaged by the storm, remembers the episode well. It was the first time she realized climate change was having an impact on her city.

Today, Good is a Climate Ambassador, a post created by Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice (DWEJ), a local nonprofit. DWEJ is trying to create a new group of informed urban environmentalists and build a critical mass of concerned citizens, to pressure the city government to adapt to a changing climate. They’re also developing a city action plan with a variety of institutions, everything from universities to community groups to the sanitation department to businesses—even partnering with manufacturing giants Ford and GM.

Whether the efforts of DWEJ succeed or fail will have implications way beyond Detroit. Looking around the world, some of the places likely to see the worst effects of climate change are developing countries. These are places whose governments, like Detroit’s, won’t have the ability to help people brace for the coming changes. And like in Detroit, poverty and lack of information will likely exacerbate the problem.

So what Detroit’s doing is sort of a test—and so far, it’s not easy. But if the spirit of activism and community engagement continues to build, and the unlikely partnerships formed thus far stay strong, the future may be bright.

text by STEVEN JACKSON
photography by flickr user fnemecek