Lessons of Hurricane Harvey and Other Climate Disasters

At the date of this writing, over 70 deaths have been attributed to Hurricane Harvey. Thousands have been made homeless and tens of thousands more will be unable to move back into homes destroyed by flooding. The environmental impacts of Harvey are devastating, including the immediate contamination of drinking water systems from sewage and oil and chemical releases. As is always the case, the greatest harm is, and will continue to be, to those who can least afford it, especially communities of color, who are less likely to have insured mortgages and savings from which to rebuild and who live in areas with less protection from flooding and closer to environmental hazards such as chemical plants. Other lower income workers, the disabled, and the elderly often face similar circumstances.

The initial property damage from Harvey is estimated to be around $60 billion, close to Hurricane Sandy though less than half that of Hurricane Katrina. However, the estimated total costs of recovery could reach $190 billion, making Harvey the costliest climate disaster in US history. (Business economists note that a construction boom may offset some of the cost. Sad to say, rebuilding destroyed cities can be profitable.) Since Houston is the center of the US oil industry and the 6th largest import terminal in the world, the disruption of these sectors is sending shock waves into the whole economy.

Meanwhile, Hurricane Irma, the worst hurricane in recorded Atlantic Ocean history, is hitting Florida, and the US Northwest is battling a record number of extreme wildfires. As sea levels and temperatures rise due to global warming, the damage from hurricanes becomes greater. Warmer seawater results in bigger, stronger storms, making extreme amounts of rain and high winds become more likely, especially in the Gulf and Atlantic seaboard states. Higher sea levels make coastal areas more prone to flooding. In contrast, climate change in the Northwest has resulted in more droughts and a devastating increase in dead wood from tree-killing beetles. Even though last winter was the wettest in many years, the result was more grass and brush, which hotter spring and summer temperatures quickly dried out, adding to the fire hazard.

Yet despite the obvious predictability of such crises, the current administration continues to claim climate change is a hoax. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had funds totaling only $1.5 billion, showing that the US government is clearly unprepared for disasters of this magnitude.

In the face of the Harvey disaster, there has been an immediate, bipartisan push to free up money to make it look like the government is going to respond adequately, despite having done virtually nothing to prevent the damage in the first place. The mainstream news media have been praising Trump and moderate Republicans for working with Democrats in Congress to pass a so-called “massive” aid bill. However, this bill will only provide $15.3 billion, a tiny fraction of what is needed right now, let alone in the future, when politicians are less likely to perceive immediate benefits from appearing generous. Ultimately, the federal government provided $110 billion for Katrina response, and most of that never reached the hardest hit victims. Given the importance of Houston and other Texas Gulf Coast cities to corporate bottom lines, we can assume that much of this current aid will go to defray the costs of industries harmed by Harvey rather than to displaced residents.

So, there is nothing much to feel good about in this picture, other than the usual outpouring of support from average people: heroic first responders, neighbors offering up their cars and small boats for rescue efforts, millions sending small donations. As always, union workers are important to this relief effort. Many of us are employed as first responders. We hold key jobs in utilities, transport, health care, social services, and construction. From around the country, union workers are being sent in to help restore power and provide emergency services. Many unions are conducting drives for supplies and cash donations. The Texas AFL-CIO immediately made available a means to donate online to the relief effort, which we encourage you to support: http://www.texasaflcio.org/donate.

All this is well and good—and necessary—and we should all participate to the extent we can, but it begs the question, why do we face such crises in the first place? Why does the government refuse to invest in a massive program for infrastructure repair and improvement? Why don’t we have adequate plans in place to protect those who will be hit the hardest? Why doesn’t relief money go to those who need it most? How can our government deny the threat of climate change and continue to build fossil fuel pipelines when it is clear we need alternative energy development right now? Why do we have a president threatening nuclear war with North Korea while giving only lip service to disaster relief?

Well, you know the answer. Follow the money. The real question is: what are we going to do about it? Though Labor Fightback Network supports—indeed hails—union relief efforts, our mission is to do whatever we can to get the US labor movement to address the underlying issues. The first step is to realize our political and economic system is designed to benefit only the richest layers of our society, and future survival be damned. As long as we vote for their politicians and accept we can do no better, we can’t expect change. Labor Fightback Network’s answer to virtually all issues facing working people is basically the same: labor needs to engage with all communities who are under attack and to build real political power. When it comes to climate disasters, this means uniting with community organizing efforts in the hardest hit sectors and with the environmental movement to promote job-creating clean energy development, to defeat environmental racism, and to address income inequality, lack of affordable housing, and failing infrastructure. As we gain trust with others in common struggle, we must promote political organizing, initially on a local level, accountable to our communities and fully independent of both the Republicans and the Democrats. The corporations have two parties; we need a party of our own.

About elnwebmaster

This is the discussion blog of the Labor Fightback Network, an auxiliary to the laborfightback.org website. It is designed to facilitate discussion among labor activists concerning the critical issues facing working people in the current economic crisis. Readers’ comments are welcome, but flaming is not. Any comments which are racist, sexist/homophobic, or disrespectful on a personal level will not get past moderation.
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