When the storm comes, our most valuable communities suffer the most. They shouldn’t.
June 1st marks the official start of another hurricane season here in Florida and I still remember what many went through during Hurricane Irma and Michael.
I remember speaking to a community member and asking if she was ready. I could hear the hesitation in her voice when she replied “I hope so, I just paid my rent”.
This was the reality for many at this time, choosing between paying rent, utilities or preparing for a storm, where many believed or prayed wouldn’t hit Florida.
As Floridians, we are encouraged every year to prepare ahead and not wait until the last minute. But the reality is that many people can’t afford to buy what they need to prepare or recover from a storm.
Natural disasters and the subsequent recovery efforts consistently exacerbate economic inequality. This point is proven when we look at places like New Orleans, Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and Puerto Rico.
Unfortunately, extreme weather events like hurricanes will continue to be a commonplace in the coming years, as a result of climate change. Low-income and underserved communities, often home to people of color, will continue to bear the brunt of the effects.
What we have learned from previous storms is that the disaster recovery process can be confusing and imprecise which leads to waste and abuse, while those in need continue to suffer.
In 2017, in the wake of Hurricane Irma, local officials scrambled to open emergency shelters to assist residents who were encouraged to evacuate, only for many to arrive and find the shelters ill-equipped to receive them.
Florida Power and Light, who for years has collected monthly storm fees aimed at hardening the grid, left millions of customers without power.
I dare to say that one of the few things that worked post-Irma was our community response.
Where state and local officials didn’t go, community organizations like New Florida Majority, the Miami Workers Center, Community Justice Project, CLEO, Catalyst Miami, FANM, Florida Immigrant Coalition (FLIC), Miami Climate Alliance and other organizations stepped up to take care of our communities and neighborhoods.
Hundreds of people volunteered to organize the Community Emergency Operation Centers (CEOCs) where we had food, water, and other supplies available for people in need. It was heartwarming to see people patrolling streets in the middle of the debris to check on their neighbors, families donating water and food, and volunteer caregivers taking care of the elderly and the sick.
Time and time again, hurricanes highlight the imbalance of power and resources in our system. The changing of our climate is an impending disaster and we cannot ignore that our poorest neighbors will suffer the most. This marginalization continues in debates about land use, rebuilding, and the right to return in the aftermath of disasters.
As climate change continues to fuel the conditions that make hurricanes more destructive, storms lay bare the deep inequity that exists in our state. They show how quickly interconnection can become disconnection, as electric grids can be undone with a few hours or days of wind — while, in some places, take months to rebuild. These storms churn through different regions without regard for political borders, even while economic and political conditions strongly influence recovery.
As we enter hurricane season, legislators and local officials must execute a plan that helps to prepare all of their constituents and set the course for recovery efforts from potential storms this upcoming season.
The allure of easy fixes that maintain the status quo and don’t address the inherent inequality or policies that make it worse must be resisted. Instead, we need to focus on federal and state recovery aid to ensure equity in recovery.
In the meantime, community organizations are getting ready to protect our most vulnerable communities once again.
Nancy Metayer is the Climate Justice Program Manager for New Florida Majority.