Liberation Road

Hurricane Irma: The Intersection of Race, Class, and Ecology

By Badili Jones

I came to Miami about ten years ago.  Miami is a tourist destination and an international banking center, among other things. It is a place where, due to social and historical circumstances, Spanish is de facto the first language, Haitian Creole is the second and English might be the third with Brazilian Portuguese moving up as a close fourth.

It is a difficult place to live, situated within South Florida, the level of income inequality and the consistent disregard displayed by many elected officials when it comes particularly to Black and Brown communities is pronounced.  On the other hand, the weather, for the most part, has been the most attractive feature of living in Miami. I thought I was living a charmed life when it came to my existence in Miami, at least when it came to the weather. Ten years and no major hurricane.  Last year Miami came close with Hurricane Matthew which was a category five hurricane which devastated the Caribbean but narrowly missed Miami.  Matthew left in its wake left 603 fatalities and $15.1 billion in damages.

For me, Hurricane Irma broke the spell. We have yet to know of the total devastation of Irma and its predecessor Harvey. Irma was a quick teacher about Hurricane preparation, about what happens during and after a hurricane. I decided not to evacuate because I didn’t have the resources to leave to a remote location. Unemployment and no immediate funds helped me make my decision.

Additionally, I didn’t live in any of the Storm Surge Planning Zones from A-E.  Each zone was outlined by suspected storm surge risk in relation to the storm category. For example, Zone A was at risk of storm surge from a category one hurricane.

I live on relatively high ground in Little Haiti. It comes as no surprise that today this neighborhood is the target of the ethnic and social cleansing, also known as gentrification. The community, even before Irma, has been engaged in the process of resisting the aggressive onslaught of developers and property speculation. Undoubtedly, the wolves will be more aggressively snapping their greedy jaws at the community.

Just before the storm people swarmed the stores to buy bottled water, canned goods, and other non-perishable food along with batteries, charcoal, and flashlights among other things. By Friday night, the shelves in most stores were practically bare.

Folks who were planning to evacuate to distant locations out of state were on their way and in no time the roadways were clear. The Governor was “generous” enough to eliminate the tolls that at other times painfully consume the earnings of people that must commute daily. Some people spending up to $200 a week just on tolls.  People who couldn’t evacuate remotely prepared to go to designated evacuation centers which, for the most part, were schools. People had to bring their own bedding and provisions. The shelters filled up fast.

I hunkered down alone in my shuttered second floor casita apartment. My windows were shuttered and boarded and I had water, can food, and snacks. I had books on my tablet and I was planning to preserve my phone, little did I know that my phone would stop working for the most part.

Irma creeped up on us. I heard about the devastation of the island of Barbuda, the trajectory of the storm, and the so-called spaghetti models. Meteorologist could not quite determine where Irma would end up and for the most part people were preparing for a direct hit.

As people were calling me to see how I was doing I looked out on a sunny, partially cloudy, sky with hardly a breeze. “I’m fine, no problem”, as I looked around and noted the structural flaws of my tiny apartment. “I wonder if the crack under the door is a problem” and “I think that mango tree is going to be okay”. Gradually Irma waltzed in and I sat on my little landing outside as the heat and creeping since of claustrophobia grew inside.

By Sunday morning the winds had increased and the palm trees swayed in the strong winds.  I sat and read and watched some movies that I had downloaded on my tablet, making sure I kept my electronics on maximum charge because it became apparent that the only question was, “When will the power go out?”.

The storm reached the height of ferocity in Miami around midday and the lights were gone and I had second thoughts about staying behind.  My tablet finally lost power and I had no means to keep it charged. I turned my phone off and on to try to preserve the power.  Most of my neighbors were behind their shutters and I was wondering if they were having second thoughts like me, “Maybe I should have left.”

So, I sat and dozed in the dark nibbling my hurricane snacks and sipping water as Irma pounded and howled outside with wind and rain. The house vibrated with each major gust of wind. It reminded me that although I had done some preparation, I was not very prepared.

I could feel that the wind had subsided and the rain had also slowed down. I could take the nerve to look out. Stepping outside of my door I could see trees, big and small, thrown down everywhere. Many of them across the streets. Some had fallen into structures. Every light in the neighborhood was out and, as dusk turned to night the absence of electric power threw an eerie shroud over the neighborhood. And there was silence because most people had not stepped out of their shelters.

The aftermath has been a massive amount of clean up. Powerlines and trees laying all over the place and communities without power. As I sit here, on the Friday afternoon following Irma’s passage, many of the low-income communities are still without power. FEMA and the Red Cross are missing in action. I went out with a community based coalition which is trying to mightily respond to what is truly a disaster by attending to the most neglected and vulnerable sectors of Miami.

The Hurricane Irma Community Recovery Fund is the result of organizations based primarily in communities of color around the state of Florida, attempting to take disaster recovery efforts into their own hands.  South Florida, being on the frontline of climate change, and governed by a state administration that won’t even let their employees speak about global warming and climate change, has for some time shown the impact of decades of warming temperatures and sea level rise. Parts of Miami Beach are flooded even on sunny days when the tides are especially high.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that no concerted effort has been taken by county and city officials to marshal any relief in working class communities of color such as Overtown (predominantly Black), Little Havana (predominantly Latinx), Little Haiti (predominantly Haitian), or Homestead (which has a large indigenous farmworker population).

There are some clear lessons to learn from living in Miami and surviving Irma:

  1. Climate change is real and global warming and sea level rise may not cause these storms but, they make them increasingly more severe. Irma was the largest Atlantic based hurricane in recorded history. (Earliest known record of hurricane is 1495).
  2. Irma and Harvey show that low income folks in communities of color, and working-class people are the most vulnerable and are placed on the frontlines when it comes to the impacts of climate change in different ways. One way we see this in Miami is that historical Black communities, settled near the railroads, which were constructed on higher ground because the land was less desirable for wealthier white people. Developers have cast their gaze on the high ground settled and occupied by various ethnic groups of color and have initiated a form of ethnic and social displacement that is headed at destroying these unique communities in South Florida.
  3. Irma poses the question, “What would a protagonistic and democratic disaster preparation, and response really look like?” What if there were more shelters that were fully provisioned with food, water, and other things essential for facing disaster? What if there was a disaster plan that did not ironically rely on thousands of carbon emitting cars to get people to a safe place? What if the people who would likely be the most impacted be the ones that are planning and administering the disaster response plan? Say what one will about the political and social situation in Cuba, for example, the island nation of Cuba has been able to endure devastating storms that demolished everything in its path with minimal fatalities. Cuba has a system that will deliver flood prone populations to centers that already have a medical staff and has a stock of food and water. Each block has someone who has the responsibility to account for everyone during a hurricane with special attention to the sick and elderly. Here in Miami, eight elderly people died in a nursing home from heat related causes and the nursing home was right across the street from a hospital.
  4. Because many people in South Florida, and other parts of the country, come from countries that have been severely hit by these storms, this is no time to rescind the policy of Temporary Protective Status (TPS). The U.S. only allows people from ten countries to obtain TPS. This allows people to stay in the U.S. who are unable to safely return home due to disaster or armed conflict. The Trump administration is attempting to eliminate TPS rather than affording relief to these impacted populations.
  5. Real disaster relief in the U.S. and impacted countries. People make donations of billions of dollars to charities that have little or no accountability about what they do with those donations. The bulk of the money ends up in the pockets of high paid executives and administrators. Notoriously, the Red Cross spent $500 million dollars on earthquake relief in Haiti, after the earthquake in 2010, and the result was six houses. Little of those funds provided long term relief.
  6. Climate change cannot be substantively addressed without climate justice. As massive as Irma was, we must be aware that the impact of climate change is international, from mudslides in Sierra Leone, to floods in South Asia, to wild fires in Europe. We must see that this is a global phenomenon and that it is all interconnected, which clearly impacts the poorest and most marginalized. Work must not only be done to check the causes of global climate changes. Effort must also be made to justly address the way people are impacted regarding climate change. Populations are uniquely impacted regarding class, race, gender, and other factors. Primarily, who has power and who doesn’t.  We must flip the balance of power.  Capitalism is, and remains, the fundamental causal factor to climate change. We need a movement that understands this and centers the participation and leadership of those who are impacted and who have the greatest interest in the elimination of capitalism.  As long as systems exist that prioritize the maximization of profit over human need and human dignity, we have no chance of stopping completely the ravages of climate change.

We can’t wait for the establishment of socialist society. With a sense of urgency, we must address this now. Building political power and organization amongst impacted populations along with forging a united front against the forces that stand in the way of climate justice is the start. Significant steps to a more democratic and participatory society in all aspects of our society would be a major step forward.  This is not a single-issue struggle but a struggle that addresses the root cause of oppression and inequality in the world.