A just recovery in North Carolina after Hurricane Florence

A just recovery in North Carolina after Hurricane Florence
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Now that the winds and rains of Hurricane Florence have gone, North Carolinians are mobilizing a relief and recovery process for the eastern part of the state. Charitable and government assistance is flowing into the region. Donations from individuals, corporations and professional sports franchises are made to the Red Cross in such times of crisis.

It’s first come, first serve until the FEMA funds run out abandoning those who cannot bounce back as quickly as the more affluent, if indeed they ever recover. Without an intentional focus on equity and access, this kind of giving often misses the people who are most in need of assistance.

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“Just recovery,” a term coined by grassroots organizations shortly after Hurricane Harvey, is an alternative to top-down charity. It is a commitment to directly support and prioritize grassroots groups working at the intersection of racial, economic and environmental justice. It is an understanding that climate disasters amplify systemic harms and therefore require systemic solutions. 

Those of us who engage in climate justice efforts often use the term “first and worst impacted” to describe how communities of color and impoverished communities receive the brunt of the damage from extractive industries and climate disasters.

We knew that Hurricane Florence would mean extreme devastation for poor communities that have been forced to live on the land most prone to flooding. Many of these communities have never received the promised recovery funding after Hurricane Matthew’s floods two years ago. We also knew that long-standing environmental injustices — such as water contamination from massive coal ash ponds and pollution from industrial-scale hog farms — would be exacerbated by this storm’s unprecedented, lingering, rainfall.

Emergency funds must be administered by the people on the frontline of climate and environmental justice. Recovery efforts must take direction from grassroots leaders on the ground.

Because these groups have member networks in the most impacted areas, they have already been able to rapidly respond to changing conditions as rivers continue to crest. 

For example, they have been able to assess where to direct airdrops to flooded areas with no road access and to organize their own volunteers to unload the planes and distribute supplies to those most in need. Funds and supplies that flow to this effort are nimbly and effectively used. Through a “just recovery” approach, they are driving the process to address the most pressing concerns of under-resourced areas while strengthening their organizational capacity to win on long-term campaigns.

Another important aspect of “just recovery” is holding accountable the corporate and governmental bad actors that are contributing to climate disruption and environmental injustice. The disaster left in the wake of storms like Hurricane Florence are the result of a broken economic and political system that dismiss the reality of climate change and continues with business as usual.

Charlotte-based Duke Energy, one of the larger utilities in the world is pushing fracked gas is a bridge fuel between coal and renewables. In addition to building the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline (along with Dominion Energy) through several of the eastern counties receiving FEMA assistance post-Hurricane Florence, Duke calls for building the equivalent of 24 large gas-fired power plants and to be only 7 percent renewable in the Carolinas.

This proposal comes in despite technological gains in battery storage which, combined with distributed solar, could rapidly and cost-effectively replace coal and “natural” gas while helping all customers. We continue contesting Duke Energy’s huge expansion of fracked gas and urging its leaders to use their enormous resources to help slow climate change instead of making it worse. 

Hundreds of low wealth people, including those in communities of color, suffer disproportionately because this country won’t find the political will to slow climate change. Until the root causes of carbon pollution and inequitable recovery are addressed, just recovery funds are the best way of minimizing the pain and suffering of vulnerable communities.

Connie Leeper is the organizing director at NC WARN.

Jodi Lasseter is the founder of the NC Climate Justice Collective