A largely forgotten flood ignited the environmental justice movement – Low Calorie Diets Tips

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Fifty years ago, on the night of June 9, 1972, a wall of water tumbled through downtown Rapid City, SD. By the next morning, the flood had killed at least 238 people and caused up to $100 million in property damage.

The disaster disproportionately harmed Native Americans, a minority in the city, and generated awareness and activism on the issue at the core of contemporary climate change politics: environmental justice.

Environmental justice is typically defined as equal access to resources and equal protection from threats posed by the non-human environment regardless of race, gender, sexuality or class. And its absence can sometimes be bolder than its existence — for example, the continued exposure to unclean water that has ravaged the majority-Black city of Flint, Mich.

While many observers date the rise of a movement to combat this inequality to the 1982 North Carolina protests, the Rapid City flood was one of the first moments to motivate such activism. The multidimensional struggle against environmental injustice in Rapid City after the floods paved the way for the groundbreaking protests in North Carolina, as well as today’s Land Back movement and other more recent Indigenous-led movements such as the Standing Rock anti-pipeline protests of the last decade.

The Rapid City flood devastated the Rapid City Native American community. Between 20 and 25 percent of those who died in the 1972 flood were Native Americans — in a city that in 1970 was 90 percent white and only about 5 to 7 percent Native American.

This inequality stems from decades of discrimination in housing and employment. Among the sites most devastated by the disaster were trailer parks and temporary housing built in the most dangerous parts of the Rapid Creek floodplain. These were places where poorer Rapid City residents lived—and being poor in Rapid City in the early 1970s often meant being Native American.

Cecelia Hernandez Montgomery, an Oglala Lakota woman born on Pine Ridge Reservation in 1910, recalled living in Rapid City in the mid-20th century. “Once I was looking for a house… and when I showed up, they found I was Indian. They said, ‘Sorry, it’s rented.’ ”

Stories like Montgomery’s abounded. Lakota journalist Tim Giago recalled applying for a job in Rapid City. The owner “looked at the application and then looked at me. … Finally he said, ‘I’m not hiring anyone from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.’ ”

Through this type of discrimination, Rapid City whites carefully managed where Native Americans could live, either by denying them well-paying jobs that could provide advancement, or by not giving anything to American outside of a few select neighborhoods, including some Indigenous people rented or sold directly on the Rapid Creek floodplain.

This discrimination not only placed Native Americans squarely in the Rapid Creek floodplain, making them vulnerable to the flood, but also made their recovery thereafter difficult. Flood refugees had a much harder time transitioning from government-provided shelters to permanent shelters.

In 1973, Edgar Lonehill, a member of the Rapid City Indian Flood Victims Association, a congressional committee holding a hearing on the flood his group had observed, said “some discrimination against flood victims in India.”

Incidents included verbal abuse at a refugee camp at a nearby National Guard base, as well as more subtle forms of discrimination. Government charities prioritized financial relief for homeowners (who were mostly white) rather than renters (many of whom were Native Americans).

Hazel Bonner, a representative of the United Renters Council, a Rapid City advocacy group, testified before Congress that there had been “discrimination against minority groups…especially Indians” in Rapid City. Bonner cited an experiment her organization conducted by sending a white prospective tenant to tour apartments, followed by a Native American tenant. “The white tenant … had three possible places to live,” reported Bonner, while “the Indian tenant … got nothing.”

In addition, city leaders made well-directed decisions to use federal aid money to revitalize downtown businesses, rather than investing heavily in low-income housing for those affected by the floods. A new community center soon emerged. Likewise, a flood memorial and a long parkland along the creek to prevent new buildings in the flood plain. Because much of the funding for flood relief went to these improvements rather than affordable housing, Rapid City’s housing shortage only worsened in the decades that followed. Today, Rapid City has a homelessness rate nearly three times the national average, and the majority of the city’s homeless are Native Americans.

But such environmental injustice also created a space for new movements and activism. In the years immediately following the 1972 flood, Rapid City and the Black Hills became an epicenter of the Red Power movement, led by groups such as the American Indian Movement (AIM) and Women of All Red Nations (WARN). That was no coincidence. Activists cited the injustices exposed by the flood as one of the reasons they made Rapid City a focal point of protest beginning in the 1970s.

Native American protest in the 1970s also led to increased activism for environmental justice in and around the Black Hills. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, AIM and other Native American activist groups joined with mostly white environmentalists and even white ranchers to protest proposed uranium mining in the region. Calling themselves the Black Hills Alliance, these various interest groups held rallies and filed lawsuits to successfully stop uranium mining before it began.

That activism predated by two years what many observers believe to be the moment that launched the environmental justice movement: 1982 protests by black residents of Warren County, NC, against a proposed landfill site in their community. These protests inspired communities across the United States to organize protests against environmental crises that have disproportionately affected communities of color, poorer communities, and women.

But Rapid City’s flood had already catalyzed that kind of activism, and a dawning realization that the damage from natural disasters was often not natural, but the by-product of bigotry and discrimination that increased risks to poor and communities of color.

While the Warren County protests targeted visible environmental injustice, the Rapid City flood showed that human choices made natural disasters like floods unequal events. Furthermore, the example of Rapid City in 1972 shows how not only the disaster but even disaster relief can become an issue of environmental injustice if not approached from an environmental justice perspective.

So the flood in Rapid City 50 years later can teach us a lot about environmental justice. “Natural disasters” will only occur more frequently in our changing climate, and in doing so, disempowered people—like Rapid City’s Native Americans, who are forced by discrimination to live in the floodplain—will bear an unequal burden of risk and damage. Disaster preparedness strategies could address this reality by prioritizing vulnerable communities.

But environmental justice does not have to be simply reactive; it can also take the form of planning and preventive measures. Some institutions are already doing this. In May, the Biden administration announced a new Bureau of Environmental Justice as part of the Department of Health and Human Services. But such actions are only the beginning. Tackling environmental injustice requires a proactive and systemic approach if we are to prevent communities from simply duplicating past wrongs.

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