August 26, 2020 By Brianna Cunliffe, PEN chief investigative reporter Hurricane Katrina. Superstorm Sandy. Maria. These names stand out in our collective memory as anomalies, moments that shifted the human spirit and shook our country to its core. But as the climate crisis rises to a fever pitch, these storms are fast becoming just three among many, as unnatural disasters […]
By Brianna Cunliffe, PEN chief investigative reporter
Hurricane Katrina. Superstorm Sandy. Maria. These names stand out in our collective memory as anomalies, moments that shifted the human spirit and shook our country to its core. But as the climate crisis rises to a fever pitch, these storms are fast becoming just three among many, as unnatural disasters rock our coasts again and again.
Two storms, one after the other, are churning towards the East coast, and even the seasoned Louisiana citizens who have weathered decades of hurricane seasons agree: something’s different this time. With Marco dumping massive amounts of rain and Laura strengthening into a formidable hurricane as it prepares to hit the coastline, the one-two punch of the storms is described as an “unprecedented threat.” It’s the latest in a devastating string of disasters that aren’t so natural at all.
There is conclusive and growing evidence that warming in the atmosphere and upper ocean, caused by human activity, is creating conditions more suitable for more destructive hurricanes which cause death and destruction in their paths, upending lives, separating families, obliterating economic stability and entire cities.
These Super Storms are destined to become more frequent and stronger without action to abate the climate crisis. Elected Officials to Protect America (EOPA), an organization of military veterans, frontline and young local and state elected officials are calling on the president and Congress to enact a National Climate Emergency Plan that recognizes the severity of the risk at hand. The lives already taken by hurricanes this summer are proof that we cannot afford to wait any longer.
The East coast is still reeling from the aftermath of Hurricane Isaias that left many struggling through flood-choked streets and millions of Americans without power.
“Con Edison still doesn’t have the power on for all its customers in New York. Our communities of color are always the last to get their service restored. It’s wrong. Con Edison is causing untold suffering for people during the pandemic,” said New York Assistant Majority Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, EOPA Council Member and veteran. “But Isaias was small in comparison to Sandy. We have to be prepared for the worst and do all we can end our carbon economy, to halt the growth of these storms. They threaten our security. We need a National Climate Emergency Plan.”
In the face of environmental injustice, and the myriad threats to the health, safety, and humanity of communities of color, Elected Officials to Protect America insists that climate justice and racial justice are inextricably linked. For members of EOPA, bold action now is the only way forward, and beyond that, it’s a moral obligation.
“Americans deserve better. They have given their power to elected officials with their votes, expecting that they will protect them and do what’s right for their lives and livelihood, that includes fighting climate change,” said Oregon State Representative Paul Evans, EOPA Co-Chair and veteran. “If we don’t take the climate crisis seriously we jeopardize our national security. Enacting a National Climate Emergency Plan will help protect America now and set us on a path for a sustainable future.”
The devastation from Hurricane Katrina was worsened by levees bursting and a negligent federal response. Courtesy photo.
This year, the chaotic and desperate process of trying to escape from a hurricane’s path promises to be unimaginably worse, because hurricane season isn’t the only thing surging in the United States. COVID-19 is too.
Governors struggle over whether to even open shelters, balancing the risks of mass infection against homes and lives lost to torrential rains and merciless winds. Evacuees have the capacity to spread the virus like wildfire wherever they take shelter inland. After all, many of the states likely to be hit by hurricanes are the states with the virus the least under control. From Florida to Georgia and up the entire Eastern Seaboard, the number of cases is cause for alarm on its own. With economies, communities, and families already laid low and made vulnerable by the fiscal, social, and practical consequences of a global pandemic, the devastation of hurricanes will be magnified.
“It infuriates me knowing some of those souls might be alive today if the federal government had acted in a humane way taking immediate action after Maria. It’s racism. Two years after, many people were still without water, and electricity,” said New York Assistant Majority Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, EOPA Council Member, and veteran. “This is personal, I’ve friends and family there and even though I’ve visited with aid, I feel powerless. Every morning I wake up wanting hurricane season over.”
Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens who overwhelmingly serve in our military but are denied the right to vote in Presidential elections. The island is poorer than any state in the union, and remains in a recession. When COVID-19 hit the island, the public agencies in charge of confronting the emergency had already been financially crippled. Now cases are skyrocketing.
Puerto Rico is still cleaning up after Hurricane Maria. Courtesy photo
A federal assessment found that Puerto Rico is far from ready for Hurricane season. Its precarious recovery would collapse utterly under another storm of Maria’s magnitude.
40 percent of Americans live in coastal counties, where extreme weather places their homes and lives in danger. America’s most vulnerable, low-income communities, communities of color and rural communities were already struggling before Coroniavirus. The elderly, already threatened by the risk of contracting COVID-19, also experience greater dangers to their often already fragile health (Kim et al. 2017).
As temperatures continue to rise, the world’s oceans heat up. Out of the doldrums, warming waters combine with atmospheric pressures to whip hurricanes into a frenzy, gathering strength. Fishermen are seeing the bizarre consequences of the ‘marine heat wave’ generating these strong and frequent storms, pulling in strange, mutant-like fish from the abnormally hot surf.
But the public is often left in the dark about the reality of how the weather is affected by the climate crisis. While broadcast TV networks’ news programs collectively aired hundreds of segments on extreme weather events that occurred in 2018, only nine of those segments mentioned climate change. With 60 percent of Superfund sites (dump sites with the capacity to do extreme harm to communities if compromised) under threat from extreme weather, elected officials who are veterans insist that the climate crisis is a real and growing threat to US national security. They refer to it as a force multiplier, meaning it exacerbates existing risks and creates new ones each and every day it goes on unchecked.
The connection between extreme weather caused by climate change and national security may not be common knowledge. But from the perspective of leaders in frontline communities, some lawmakers and lobbyists in the pocket of the polluting industries are doing worse than ignoring the crisis — they’re taking actions that make matters worse. Mayor Mitch Colvin of Fayetteville, North Carolina, EOPA National letter signatory, wrote an op-ed in the Fayetteville Observer that highlights the backdoor dealings in Washington D.C. He detailed how the actions of the Trump administration with the support of certain United States Senators, like North Carolina’s Thom Tillis, are unraveling environmental regulations at a time when much of the nation is focused on dealing with the crisis of COVID-19 and working towards racial justice.
“This decision reeks of complete disregard for the health of North Carolinians, especially communities like Fayetteville,” said Mayor Colvin, EOPA National letter signatory.
He described the challenges his community faces with contaminated well-water, carcinogens in the river basins, and hog waste lagoons that threaten to flood each time it rains. Killer hurricane after hurricane strands families, exacerbating environmental injustices. The fight for clean water, according to Mayor Colvin, has never been more important than now, “What we know,” Mayor Colvin said, “is that these actions to strip these safeguards away will disproportionately have a harmful impact on communities of color.”
New Mexico State Representative Debbie Maria Sariñana, EOPA Co-Chair and Air Force veteran, concurred.
“The Trump administration’s roll back of environmental protections and oil giants influencing the lawmaking decision process has to end,” she said. “The American people are suffering while Trump and his cohorts are playing monopoly at our expense.”
Elected Officials to Protect America puts lawmakers like Colvin and Sariñana at the center of their efforts, well aware that lawmakers from frontline communities know best what we stand to lose when we fail to take action on the climate crisis. Alongside lawmakers who are military veterans, they lead this effort to organize officials across the nation. EOPA’s mission is to protect our nation’s present and future from its most persistent, pervasive threat: the climate crisis upending lives across the nation, especially now, as hurricanes bear down on our coastlines.
Americans have been staying home for months. In many places it’s still a mandate necessary to preserve public health and protect ourselves. But when a hurricane happens, millions will potentially be forced to gamble with their lives on whether to stay or go. The consequences of the storms forming in the warm Atlantic waters extend far beyond wind and rain and downed trees.
America loses thousands of lives, homes, and jobs every hurricane season. The risks have only been compounded by a global pandemic, along with environmental rollbacks that further endanger clean water.
Why do POlluting industries get bailouts with Senate compliance, but Americans continue to pay the price for cleanups from hurricanes and other disasters like the pandemic?
“The continued lack of action by Congress and the president to address the climate crisis has helped to birth Super Storms. By helping the oil and gas industry they are fueling the storms,” said New Mexico State Representative Debbie Maria Sariñana, EOPA Co-Chair and Air Force veteran. “Our reliance on fossil fuels has created a crisis of our own making, posing an unacceptable national security risk to our nation, communities, homes, and families and jeopardizes our future. It’s time for a National Climate Action Plan that will address the climate emergency.”
Nationally, over 410 elected officials have signed the Elected Officials to Protect America’s National Climate Justice Sign-on Letter, like Mayor Colvin did. In it they demand a just transition from a carbon based economy to a clean, renewable energy based economy helping communities on the frontlines first and foremost. There is mounting support and pressure for individual states to take action and many are. The time is now to act. For millions of Americans who may be in the eye of the next storm we cannot wait.