Giveaways Created A Poverty Sinkhole. Then The Virus Hit.

Jul 13, 2020

By Heather Richards, E&E News

SHREVEPORT, La. — Deloris Dee Lynch has help at home from her daughter, and she does enough online shopping to get by day to day. Lynch rarely leaves her house.

Coronavirus infections have been spiking for weeks in Louisiana's northernmost big city, as they have across the South and West, from Florida to Arizona.

At 61, Lynch is afraid that her respiratory disease and other health problems leave her vulnerable as the Southeast shatters daily records for new cases.

"I just know people have been dying," she says of her neighbors in western Shreveport.

The COVID-19 mortality rate in Louisiana was on a downward slope for most of May and June. But the state's case numbers are approaching new highs, and the daily death toll is ticking up again.

Lynch has lived in Shreveport's Mooretown neighborhood for almost four decades. Since April, it's been a hot spot for the virus along with an area to the northeast, Queensborough. Many of the residents of the mostly Black neighborhoods are impoverished, and their homes encircle an oil refinery.

Pipes and rail cars cut across the Calumet refinery grounds a short walk from Lynch's front door. The 240 acres of flares and storage tanks are a hub for moving gasoline, diesel and jet fuel into the Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas markets.

The century-old industrial site is a constant for everyone here. For years, Lynch has blamed its pollution for the breathing problems that cause her to rely on an oxygen tank.

Louisiana saw a staggering growth rate of novel coronavirus cases starting in the spring. It stood out on the U.S. map, even as rocketing case numbers and dire hospital bed and equipment shortages in New York consumed national attention. By the end of March, Shreveport, the state's third-largest city after New Orleans and Baton Rouge, would be nearly shut down by the pandemic.

The stakes have always been high for Black people in western Shreveport, some of the poorest ZIP codes in the state. As the virus took hold, Earl Benjamin-Robinson, the tall, bespectacled, deputy director of the state Office of Community Partnerships & Health Equity, mentally flagged the news that people with conditions like diabetes and hypertension were having a harder time battling COVID-19. He feared that Black people were at greater risk of dying.

More than 4,300 cases of the virus have been reported in boot-shaped Caddo Parish, which includes Shreveport. Nearly 250 people have died from the disease. While just under half of the parish's population is Black, its share of deaths is about 68%.

"We can continue to dance around what is happening and how we got to that point," said Benjamin-Robinson, whose office in the Louisiana Department of Health opened in 2019. "Or we can have real conversations about why we continue to see these patterns."

People living in Mooretown and Queensborough today have struggled with decades of economic hardship and the lasting effects of job scarcity. They live in two of the most segregated parts of the city, according to the Opportunity Atlas project at Harvard University, which maps social mobility.

The Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University examined 2017 census data for the areas closest to the Calumet refinery. Poverty rates were nearly double the average for the rest of Caddo Parish. The workshop's analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed residents had elevated levels of chronic lung disease, asthma, heart disease, kidney disease, stroke and high blood pressure.

At its core, the virus's effect on western Shreveport is the story of race, poverty and disease in America. But in this declining city, where some of the ugliest episodes of Jim Crow-era violence and redlining played out, local organizers and health experts say the coronavirus also tells another story: a pattern of sustained community disinvestment.

Generations of families in the neighborhoods live under the same roofs or close by, sharing limited incomes as the country lurches from one recession to the next.

Read the full story on Crescent To Capitol.