Democracy Alliance Blog / October 4, 2018

Floodwaters Don’t Wash Racism Away

by Jillian Murphy

On the heels of Hurricane Florence, the Carolinas are still waiting for the floodwaters to recede. The storm unleashed historic winds and rain, leaving some places with feet of water and power outages that took days to restore. The human toll is not yet known, as some towns remain unreachable across the floods. What is apparent now is the abysmal, yet somehow improved, response of federal agencies, who floundered in the wake of last year’s storms.

Hurricane Florence nearly coincided exactly with the anniversary of Hurricane Maria, the worst storm in Americans’ recent memory. And yet, a year later President Trump called the Maria response an “unsung success” despite local officials updating the official death toll to more than 3,000 lives lost.

If 3,000 white Americans perished in a natural disaster, the United States would be in a state of national mourning and urgent emergency response. You can see it pretty clearly: Endless news coverage, blame circulating on both sides of the aisle, epic social media tributes to the countless lives lost in photos and videos, televised fundraisers attracting A-list celebrities, and an indelible mark on the American consciousness that we must never let it happen again because 3,000 Americans died an unimaginable death. It would be a national tragedy remembered for at least 3,000 days, if not even more decades to come.

Yet, the best estimates now tell us more than 3,000 Puerto Ricans who lost their lives to Hurricane Maria last year, according to recent studies assessing the longer term impacts of the storm’s wrath. There was no sense of urgency, no endless stream of broadcast fundraisers, and certainly no mark on the consciousness of America’s leaders. This number stands in sharp contrast to the territory and the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency’s official estimate of just 64 deaths due to the hurricane, while an earlier study from researchers at Harvard University puts the death toll even higher, at 4,645.

The Harvard study’s vastly larger death toll comes from survey data that includes deaths attributed to health care loss in the power outages and loss of services in the wake of the storm. Their data also only covers lives lost between September and December 2017, and since some places on the island only saw electrical power and services restored a few months ago this death toll figure could be even higher.

So, what was being said a few weeks after the storm last Fall? Puerto Rican officials were estimating just 16 total deaths from Maria, providing ample justification for a self-congratulatory air from federal officials, and a commander-in-chief tossing paper towel rolls like a game show host.

Even as the story was drowned out by more pressing national tragedies affecting white people on the mainland, communities in Puerto Rico used every means available to them to continue crying out and demanding help. Why on earth were they not being heard?

This was not isolated to an island.

In Houston, low-income neighborhoods like Kashmere Gardens are struggling to rebuild following Hurricane Harvey striking the city last year. Children sleep in gutted homes next to open electrical wires, while their neighbors sleep in a tent in their driveway.

Kashmere Gardens sits in a flood plain, which by federal law requires homeowners to carry flood insurance. But when Hurricane Harvey hit, local families were denied service by federal agencies in a neighborhood where federal assistance is most needed. A study released this spring by FEMA found disparities between high- and low-income households carrying flood insurance, both in Texas and nationwide. Kashmere Garden’s median income is just $23,000 a year, and many residents were unaware of this insurance requirement.

As climate change worsens the intensity and frequency of storms like Harvey and Maria, flood insurance—and the overall cost of federal aid—will only get more expensive and more difficult for families who are barely getting by on a sunny day to receive.

As we pass the midpoint of yet another hurricane season, it’s clear leadership in addressing the inadequacies and failings of federal disaster response won’t come in time for the next major storm. Communities in North Carolina and Virginia saw historic rainfall and flooding, and we know from last year’s storms that communities of color won’t have the resources upfront to prepare, and likely will not get the resources to recover.

We don’t yet know the full impact of Hurricane Florence, and we very well may see yet another Katrina, Harvey, or Maria-scale disaster in the next few weeks or months. It will undoubtedly affect communities of color in vastly disproportionate ways to their white neighbors. These communities have more in common than their humidity and preponderance of mosquitoes. They’re also historically non-white, which in America—and especially in the South—has meant a lack of political power. As we saw with Katrina’s devastating impact in New Orleans 13 years ago, those without political power can easily be ignored no matter how loud they shout from rooftops just inches from rising floodwaters.

Grassroots organizing and building political power can turn voting into a voice. And we must continue to grow that voice to shout for climate justice from polling booths across the country. There inevitably will be more tragedy before there is action, but fortunately, the opportunity for such action is not out of reach.

That opportunity comes this November, when voters from Florida to Texas to Virginia have the chance to elect new leaders from the Senate to the school board, and almost every office in between. Community-based organizations in states like New Florida Majority and Organize Florida in Florida and New Virginia Majority in Virginia are working to build political power in communities of color and elect champions who will work to protect those most vulnerable, while also supporting bold action to address climate change known to be driving more and more intense storms.

While we can’t change the path of any one storm, we can change those in power who decide how to respond after the storm hits.

Jillian Murphy manages the Climate Equity Action Fund which supports voter education and mobilization in communities of color for climate justice. The Action Fund is a project of the Democracy Alliance, the preeminent network of progressive donors in the U.S.