The Florence disaster isn’t over for the poor

September 20, 2018

Anderson Bean and Juan Miranda write from North Carolina on the devastation that follows after Hurricane Florence — and on the man-made factors that made it worse.

THE STORM that hammered the Carolinas has moved on, but the catastrophic effects, made much worse by man-made factors, are still being felt. And like the storms before Hurricane Florence, poor and working people and communities of color will suffer the most.

As dramatic as the images of the hurricane making landfall on September 14 were, it is the misery and suffering for days, weeks and months to come that will be burned into the lives and memories of ordinary people here. As an activist friend beautifully wrote:

Poverty has always been a flood and not a hurricane. It’s always been a long, rolling disaster, with muddy gray water under an incongruent blue sky. It’s always been a slow build of mold between generations of people making do with babies in faded milk crates floated on mattresses down city streets.

Florence struck the North Carolina coast with winds reaching 92 miles per hour, then moved inland and south to South Carolina, then drifted north again toward Virginia and eventually West Virginia.

Agricultural waste spills into a North Carolina river during the flooding caused by Hurricane Florence
Agricultural waste spills into a North Carolina river during the flooding caused by Hurricane Florence (Rick Dove | Waterkeeper Alliance Inc.)

The storm brought destruction to every community in its path. As of the writing of this article, it had claimed 32 lives, including that of a 1-year-old who was swept away by floodwaters in Union County in North Carolina.

One preliminary estimate puts the damage caused by Florence at $18 billion. Nearly a million people lost power, and many are expected to remain without it for weeks.

THE STORM dropped torrential amounts of rain on the Carolinas as it moved inland, with some areas getting over two feet of rainfall. The resulting flooding will be an ongoing hazard for weeks to come.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, the flooding triggered a series of ecological disasters with coal ash ponds, chemical factories, landfills and hog farm lagoons located on or near the two main rivers in Eastern North Carolina, the Cape Fear and Neuse Rivers.

In a statement on Monday night, the North Carolina Pork Council announced that at least one hog lagoon — a basin where the waste of pigs raised in huge industrial facilities is channeled and held — had breached, four were flooded and at least seven more seem to have overtopped.

While it remains to be seen what will happen with the rest of the more than 3,000 pork manure pools in the state, it’s clear that this type of “disaster” is a direct result of an industry that has consistently expanded, while looking for the cheap ways to deal with its waste.

Similarly, Duke Energy spokesperson Paige Sheehan announced that more than 2,000 cubic yards of ash (about 180 filled dump trucks) were displaced at the L.V. Sutton Power Station outside the city of Wilmington, and the contaminated runoff likely flowed into the plant’s cooling pond.

This gray ash that is left behind after coal is burned contains toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, lead and mercury.

Duke has been under intense scrutiny after a previous coal ash spill at an old plant in Eden, North Carolina, in 2014, which coated 70 miles of the Dan River. Almost four years after this spill, hundreds of people in the area continue to live without potable water.

As if that wasn’t enough, Duke tried to pass on the bill for the cleanup to its customers before pleading guilty to nine violations of the Clean Water Act and being forced to pay $102 million in fines — a drop in the bucket for the multibillion-dollar energy corporation.

The effects of the flooding that will plague the Carolinas for some time to come aren’t only and even mostly the result of a natural disaster. They will continue to be aggravated by a system that makes irresponsible and greedy decisions and is perfectly at peace with endangering people’s lives as long as a profit is guaranteed.

MUCH OF the media discourse surrounding such tragedies tends to blame the victim. The questions we hear on the news are: “Why did they not evacuate?” or “Why did they choose to live there knowing the risks?”

This narrative obscures the sharpest contradictions revealed by disasters like Florence that raises a different question: Why do poor and working people and communities of color suffer disproportionately?

The media’s conventional wisdom ignores the systems — or lack of them — put in place over the 40-year-long neoliberal assault on the working class that has left millions of people vulnerable and with few options.

They don’t ask what ought to be an obvious question: After years of stagnant wages and declining living standards, and with 40 percent of Americans with less than $400 in savings, how are these people supposed to pay for transportation or a hotel room in order to “evacuate”?

Likewise, the common media of Florence as “historic” and “unprecedented” ignores how devastating storms like these have become all too common in recent years.

When Hurricanes Irma and Harvey struck last year, it was the first time in history that two category 4 hurricanes made landfall in the U.S. in the same year. As Florence was hitting the U.S. coast, Typhoon Mangkhut, classified as an even more powerful storm, swept through the north of the Philippines, leaving at least 25 dead.

Most of what we call “natural disasters” (hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, droughts, etc.) are natural to the extent that they are the result of natural processes of the earth. But human factors can increase their frequency and intensity — and of course, how we prepare for and respond to disasters is everything but natural.

Climate change, austerity, racism, inequality and existing power relations are all factors that must be taken into account. Calling them “natural disasters” artificially naturalizes the harms they cause. Calling them “natural disasters” implies that these events are solely a misfortune, rather than a consequence of our economic and social relations.

Over the last 18 months, we have seen an unusual number of such catastrophes. Hurricanes Irma and María that struck Puerto Rico last year claimed the lives of at least 2,000 people, and the untold damage to the island is far from being remedied. Hurricane Harvey claimed 82 lives in the Houston area last August, and wildfires in California are responsible for at least 42 deaths.

And this is not reckon with disasters in other countries, such as the flooding in Bangladesh, India and Nepal last August that killed more than 1,400 people, and the mudslide in Sierra Leone a few weeks later that claimed more than 1,000 lives.

As much as Trump and Co. try to obscure the issue, these disasters are undeniable evidence of climate change. Whether the destruction is caused by too much water or not enough, one essential cause of all of them is the increased average global temperatures that have made these types of disasters occur more often and with more severity.

In the case of Florence, because of increased temperatures — surface temperatures in the Western Atlantic Ocean are currently at 84 degrees, 3 to 4 degrees higher than normal for this time of year — the amount of water vapor than can stay in the air increases, allowing moisture to accumulate much more quickly and with greater volume.

Additionally, higher temperatures mean that more water from the oceans evaporates into the air, furthering the quick development of storms and increasing their size and severity.

According to the 2014 National Climate Assessment, the amount of rain falling in “very heavy events” — those at the top 1 percent of all rainstorms, often hurricanes like Florence — has risen by 27 percent in the Southeast between 1958 and 2013.

THE FULL toll of Florence can only be assessed over the weeks and months after the storm, and its long-term impact — along with the conditions that exacerbated the crisis — will continue to be felt for years, unless there is a fundamental change in the way we relate to our environment and each other.

Such changes will only be fully carried through as part of a total transformation of society, where the needs of people and our common interest in protecting our planet is prioritized over the needs of corporations to continue exploiting our communities.

Before the storm even hit, immigrant rights organizations such as Siembra NC were already organizing themselves and recruiting volunteers to assist with cleanup and relief efforts.

This is a stark contrast to the news last week that Trump had moved nearly $10 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s budget to boost U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. As Laura Garduño García, a Siembra NC organizer, told Democracy Now!:

[I]n the moment where we are looking at the devastation caused by the hurricane, immigrant families are not able to trust in federal agencies looking out for their well-being, and are not able to seek the support from FEMA because of their undocumented status. Right now, we know that individuals who are in the community are facing fear, are facing distrust of federal agencies and are in imminent need of resources and support to come out from the hurricane and the storm.

Examples of solidarity Siembra NC demonstrate that a transformation of society is not only possible, but necessary — and urgently so.

For the kind of movement capable of making such a transformation, it’s essential that we question the way that so-called “natural disasters” are understood, and challenge the ways in which capitalism helps shape the conditions for these “perfect storms.” We need a world where all people’s needs come before profit.

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