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Natural Disasters Are Human Disasters

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Photos by Kathy Anderson
Flood Street
These are aerial photos of the Ninth Ward area of New Orleans after it was flooded by Hurricane Katrina.
September 9, 2005

Now that Trump has informed us that Hurricane Florence is going to be big and wet, I think we are all pretty confident that this administration is well-prepared for what is happening.

After a year of sabbatical and writing and researching and everything that one dreams of in having a year off, I have entered the most intense semester of teaching I have faced in a decade, for reasons to complex to get into here, with new courses and a lot of them. One of them is Global Environmental History, at the 100 level. This is proving to be an interesting combination of freshmen and upper-division science students needing a humanities course and discovering one they are actually pretty interested in. So overall, I’m pretty happy with the class so far, except that I am totally overwhelmed with all my other work. What this means is that rather than a march through time, I am using the course to make various points about the past and present based around my already existing strengths, which may not have a lot of deep pedagogical meaning, but which does have the opportunity of providing students with a past they can use, based on whatever is happening on a given day. So for Wednesday’s class, I basically ripped up the syllabus and prepared a lecture and short readings based around what Hurricane Florence is going to do to the Carolinas, the relationship between natural disasters and inequality, and how this has happened in the past, using a combination of the British imperialism-exacerbated El Niño driven famine in India in the 1870s (stolen from Mike Davis’ Late Victorian Holocausts, which you should read) and Hurricane Katrina.

And what this all reminded me of is that there really is no such thing as a natural disaster. There are natural forces and how they act upon humans. As one reading I assigned suggested, no earthquake in Antarctica would ever be considered a natural disaster. Moreover, what these big natural events do is demonstrate the deep inequalities of society and the choices humans have made in how to organize their lives and nations. One choice the Carolinas and Virginia have made is to become centers of hog processing without ever really getting serious about mitigating the massive grotesque pollution associated with them. That these polluted hog farms and manure lagoons are centered in the poorest areas of the states with the highest numbers of African-Americans is hardly a coincidence. It’s the same with coal ash from power plants, an incredibly toxic substance. And Florence is quite likely to do some nasty stuff on this front:

Dozens of toxic coal ash piles across the Southeast are in the path of what is forecast to be days of torrential rains and flash flooding from Hurricane Florence.

Environmental advocates are warning that the giant impoundments, often built beside waterways, are at risk of spills or collapsing.

They’ve seen what extreme rainfall can do: When Hurricane Matthew crossed North Carolina two years ago, it caused a breach in a cooling pond, and coal ash leaked from a nearby coal ash basin at a power plant on the Neuse River.

That was a Category 1 storm. Florence was barreling toward the coastal Carolinas as a much more powerful Category 4 Wednesday morning, and it was projected to approach the coast as a major hurricane. It also carries another threat: Meteorologists warn that Florence is looking a lot like Harvey, a slow-moving storm that parked itself over Houston last year and inundated parts of that city with 60 inches of rain.

“Unless you have been on a river or lake and seen these up close, it’s tough to realize how high these are piles,” said Sam Perkins of the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, which monitors waterways in some 5,000 square miles in the heart of the Carolinas. “Sometimes coal ash is piled 100 feet high.”

EarthJustice, with its team of lawyers, has been pressuring the federal government and utilities to clean up problems with coal ash storage for years. It counts 71 coal ash surface impoundments at power plants in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland, most often right next to rivers.

These coal ash ash impoundments can be overcome by floodwaters or their levees can breach during heavy rain and flooding, spilling toxic waste laden with arsenic and heavy metals that could contaminate rivers and potentially drinking water supplies, said Lisa Evans, a senior attorney with EarthJustice.

There are also 29 ash dumps across those states—landfills that could pose landslide risks if they have open faces. And coal ash isn’t the only risk: an Environmental Protection Agency official told CNN the agency was monitoring nine superfund sites in the path of the hurricane, and several nuclear plants in the region said Tuesday they had started to prepare for the storm.

The problem here is that in an era when environmental concerns have almost completely dropped out of political conversations, cleaning up the worst pollution in the nation may have the support of a dedicated team of environmentalists, but it does not any political traction. This should be a top priority for all Americans, but it’s not and we are quite likely to be reminded of the very real negative impact of that indifference.

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