Kelsey Walker lives in North Carolina 200 miles from the coast. She told this reporter that a month after the historic flooding from Hurricane Florence in September, the low-lying and low income east side of Greensboro still had folks without power. That’s the Black and Latino part of town.
Walker’s great-aunt in Wilmington managed to evacuate but lost her home and all her belongings. The woman, in her late 80’s, applied for FEMA grants and temporary housing but was denied everything and was staying with relatives.
This sort of scenario plays out over and over in working class and people of color communities every time hurricanes hit. The profit system disregards them, and they must band together for survival.
Natural and man-made disaster. Rural North Carolina, one of the poorest areas on the eastern seaboard, was already battered by poverty and pollution before Florence made landfall. Forty-eight percent of state residents are poor and over a million have no health insurance. Poverty is multiracial. The majority of poor people are white, even though 62 percent of Blacks are poor.
Already distressed from living paycheck to paycheck and suffering from polluting factory farms and coal ash heaps located nearby, the poor have no savings to evacuate, much less rebuild or move away. Floods amplify the economic and environmental blows already bruising communities.
During Florence, epic floods overran hog and chicken farms.
Millions of animals drowned and lagoons of animal feces overflowed into rivers and floodwaters. Thousands of immigrant farmworkers were stranded and left to fend for themselves.
With homes destroyed and jobs lost, people reeled from a one-two punch — first the preventable storm of poverty and pollution, then the fierce hurricane damage.
Under Obamacare, North Carolina officials could have accepted federal funds to expand Medicaid, but they refused, denying healthcare to half a million people. State government’s refusal to admit the reality of climate change even after the devastating Hurricane Matthew in 2016 meant there was little preparation for evacuations and few upgrades of infrastructure like dikes to stem flooding. Developers continued to build in coastal areas and interior flood plains, polluting industries continued to be sited near poor towns and Black communities.
Some profit from tragedy. Construction companies and suppliers thrive on disasters. After Hurricane Sandy devastated the New Jersey coastline in 2012, Home Depot pocketed $242 million, attributing much of its windfall to the hurricane. No wonder Home Depot co-founder Bernard Marcus’ foundation has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to climate change deniers.
Politicians fight tooth and nail to overturn environmental protections. It helps the bottom line of their campaign contributors — agribusiness, the construction industry and fossil fuel interests. In North Carolina a series of lawsuits have been filed against hog farms for failure to control toxic emissions. After several won this year, state lawmakers swiftly passed legislation to limit punitive damages and restrict filing of such lawsuits in the future.
Duke Energy adds to global warming with some 16 coal powered plants in the Carolinas. They are mostly located in flood-prone areas. During Florence, Duke coal ash heaps were washed out, causing lead, arsenic and mercury to seep into ground water. But profit comes first — the company won’t transition away from fossil fuels or clean up its poison even when it sickens and kills people. Government isn’t about to make them.
FEMA short-sighted by design. Federal Emergency Management Agency recovery efforts after Florence, and Michael a month later, mirror its failures in previous hurricanes: Katrina on the Gulf coast in 2005, Sandy in the Northeast in 2012, Matthew in 2016, and Maria (Puerto Rico) and Harvey (Texas) in 2017, among others.
Over a month after Florence hit, only nine families in North Carolina had temporary housing and 600 were on FEMA’s waiting list. When Hurricane Michael wiped out coastal towns in Florida, people didn’t see aid for days.
FEMA does little to help poor people. Former head Craig Fugate has admitted, “It’s not a safety net. The system is really designed for the middle class.”
According to Politico, after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas most federal money went to the better off who could afford flood insurance and to counties as block grants to use as they wished. The average FEMA grant to non-insured families in Houston was $4,300, well below their need.
The response to Maria was criminally negligent. The Trump administration showed no concern. The help sent was minimal and long-delayed. Puerto Rico, which U.S. capital has been sucking dry for years, is still devastated.
Instead of using FEMA funds to relocate homes out of flood zones or to prepare for sea level rise, the agency is limited to rebuilding what was there before. The Trump administration compounded the problem this year by transferring $9.8 million from FEMA to Homeland Security to help ICE pay for more detention beds and deportations.
Solidarity during crises. If the federal government really wanted to prepare for hurricanes, it would emulate Cuba. It has a one-hundred year plan to protect its people from climate change. Construction is banned in threatened coastal areas, habitat like mangroves that buffers the seacoast is being restored, and lowland villages like Palmarito have already been relocated. Evacuation plans are detailed and practiced annually.
In the Carolinas multiracial grassroots groups including Rev. William Barber’s Poor Peoples Campaign and North Carolina Environmental Justice Network fight environmental racism and poverty. Groups like Greensboro Housing Coalition, Socialist Rifle Association, and local churches work to quickly get aid to those most seriously impacted. It will take more anti-capitalist, anti-racist environmental organizing to stop fossil fuel use and strengthen safety nets so people can survive their storm-tossed lives.
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