When it rains, it pours, in the Ironbound
Foodies love this Newark neighborhood, but its toxic legacy makes it particularly hazardous for people with a disability.
I consider the proximity of the Ironbound to where I live in Essex County one of the perks of my New Jersey residence. With just a 20-minute light rail ride, I have access to one of the state’s most raved about restaurant scenes. I can’t do all-you-can-eat Brazilian BBQ like I used to, and maybe for the better, but an egg tart and Galão from a Portuguese bakery is a good enough reason for me to take a trip to Newark.
This edition of the newsletter isn’t a dining guide to the Ironbound, though. The neighborhood is sadly one of NJ’s most polluted and because of its high poverty level, immigrant community and history as an industrial zone wedged between train lines, residents face elevated risks to their health and safety. And when you tack on disability, such individuals are even more vulnerable. It doesn’t help that whenever it rains, the streets here are flooded- not only with sewage, but also heavily contaminated water from the Passaic River.
Before I left NJ last month, I reached out to the Ironbound Community Corporation’s Maria Lopez-Nuñez, who was also appointed to the first White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. We discussed many of these threats to the neighborhood as well as how climate change raises the potential for an emergency even more.
Below is an edited and condensed version of our talk. You can read or listen to it via the embedded audio player.
For communities like ours, we're not just gonna get floodwaters, we're gonna get toxic floodwaters when they come into our neighborhood.
What are some of the other risk factors that climate change will exacerbate here in the Ironbound?
Yeah, we're seeing in two main ways, right, we're seeing one sea level rise, of course, and the increase in rainfall is really causing a lot more daytime flooding, of when after it rains for 10 minutes, there's nowhere for the water to go. So there's oftentimes our access points to get in and out of our neighborhood will be completely flooded out. People have to be rescued from their cars. And the other way we see it is during the summer urban heat island effect, we can be between 10 and 15 degrees hotter than the surrounding suburbs. So as the temperatures are going up, and extreme weather is getting more frequent, our community is going to be bolstered, if you will.
Is the environmental contamination, causing disabilities or somehow worsening conditions with people who might have some pre existing conditions?
Oh, absolutely. And we especially saw that during COVID, so much research came out about COVID. And the link to people that were suffering worse COVID. We had, I think, at some point, a 48% infection rate in our neighborhood. And we are noticing that people are having long COVID. A lot of long COVID in our community. But we have an underlying condition that is the disproportionate exposure to air pollution. And so that's been linked to particulate matter 2.5. These really small particulate matters that once you breathe them in, they never leave your body. And I know for people that grew up in our neighborhoods, like I have asthma, and I feel like everyone in our community has asthma or knows someone with a respiratory disease. So that's a really tough situation when then obviously, respiratory pandemic was happening, we knew that because of where we live, we were going to experience it in a different way.
And also in terms of flooding. I mean, I suppose common with the Passaic floods here, it's a problem for anyone to get around. But I would imagine for people who are elderly or might have a mobility impairment, do you see this as a problem for navigating the streets of the Ironbound, when there is some flooding?
Even when there isn't flooding because our sidewalks really broken. You often see people with wheelchairs have to share the road with cars. And because we're next to the port, we're not just sharing the road with cars, they're sharing the roads with trucks; heavy duty diesel trucks that are looming right by them. Because in our neighborhood, we have thousands of trucks that come through the neighborhood using it as a shortcut. Because of the port thats Newark and Elizabeth. It handles the distribution for 80% of the consumer goods in the region. So you can imagine the amount of truck traffic that comes through our neighborhood. And people with wheelchairs is sharing that and when it's flooded, there's just no way out. During Sandy, we had trouble accessing emergency services for people with disabilities, that becomes even higher. And of course, the loss of electrical power. During Sandy there was some of our complexes that didn't have power for up to a month. So if you're on any type of medically necessary devices that became very difficult.
The Ironbound is a bit of an old community in terms of its buildings. Is there a problem entering facilities here, homes or otherwise?
Oh, absolutely. Most of the buildings, we have an incredibly old housing stock. So there are no elevators and the stairs are steep. We have also a problem that our organizations been fighting for is the right to know. Because in our neighborhood, in addition to of course, the superfund site and the port, we have three power plants, we have the state's largest garbage incinerator, and the state's largest waste treatment facility. We have our recipe for disaster. It's not if but when disaster will strike. So if there's ever a chemical leak at any of these facilities, how does the community become aware? Where are the evacuation paths? And do they include a specific plan for people with disabilities who might have access issues? We need a plan, right? We're in a low lying area as the sea level rises and disaster continues to hit people of low income status. How are we going to move? You know, is there a relocation plan? And how do we make sure that everyone's included and reflected and thinking about it? Because it seems like we're building as if nothing is happening. And I worry that our neighborhood might not be here in 10 or 15 years.
That's a sad note to end on.
We'll still be here but we'll be flooding so often, can we actually live here? Is it livable? I think is livable is going to be a deep question. Is it too hot? Because we're 80% concrete. And we continue to build with it mostly concrete, so the water has nowhere to go as it rains more and more.
I think I'm good. You're good?
Yeah, I'm good.
Thank you so much.
For more on environmental risks in the Ironbound, check out this webinar featuring Maria and hosted by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University.
Lens Into NJ
My TAPinto column this month asks if all of New Jersey’s two-million strong population of people with a disability can really be called a community.
While many journalists, academics and advocates might use “community" as shorthand to describe this population, not everyone with a disability feels or wants to belong to it.
Reporting from India
I landed in Bhubaneswar, the state capital of Odisha just under a month ago to start the first leg of my Fulbright research project. I’ll be here until the end of April looking at how this region, which is perhaps the most affected by climate change driven weather in India, includes people with disabilities in their disaster management procedures. Odisha is certainly doing something right; 10-thousand people died during a superstorm in 1999 and since then emergency planning and responses have saved an untold number of lives. When one of the most recent cyclones hit the area four years ago, there were no deaths, well, at least officially. But, I’ve been going around the state and speaking with disabled residents and they’ve revealed there are some gaps in the plans.
A curated list of recent articles concerning disability in New Jersey
New NJ law promises more accessible public transit for all
Corrado Bill improving road safety for individuals with disabilities clears senate
Service for Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month
Wayne YMCA hosts “Sweetheart Dance”
NJ expanding ARRIVE Together program, which changes how police will interact with mentally ill Northjersey.com
Pairing police with mental health program slashes ‘use of force’
U.S. Attorney's Office Reaches Settlement with Ocean County Nail Salon to End Disability Discrimination
Gov. Murphy Proposes $10M Investment to Expand Law Enforcement-Mental Health Collaboration TAPinto.net
Couples with disabilities risk benefits with marriage NJ Spotlight News
Disability Activist Patrice Jetter presides over a mass commitment ceremony Northjersey.com
Community Options celebrates 34 years of supporting people with disabilities
NJ group homes have a staffing crisis. Can cameras and ‘remote care’ fill the gaps? Northjersey.com
Kessler foundation grants nearly $1M to expand job opportunities for the disabled
New education investment to help students with language-based disabilities
Bipartisan NJ Legislative Disability Caucus & Advocates Discuss Access to Quality Healthcare Services For Individuals With Disabilities
Governor Murphy Signs Legislation to Recognize Crucial Importance of Paratransit Workforce InsiderNJ
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Keeley Giblin contributed to this newsletter.