Community and Organizational Responses to Flooding

Russell Lee, flood refugees at meal time, Charleston, Missouri, February 1937. FSA-OWI Collection, Library of Congress, LC-USF34- 010215-D.

New Orleans Bear with me on this, because we’re going to take some twists and turns, but trust me, these things are all connected, and the water is always rising somewhere, so it matters.

Partly of course we’re closing in on the 12th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. We’re still in recovery. There are still volunteers coming in from time to time to help. We’re still trying to develop the ACORN Farm in the Lower 9th Ward. There’s still a fight to stop expansion of the Industrial Canal that flooded the area and ACORN’s affiliate, A Community Voice, is still in the thick of the fight as it has been for the last dozen years. In Paris one evening during the ACORN International staff meeting we showed a clip from the upcoming documentary, The Organizer, that told the story of ACORN’s fight to rebuild New Orleans after the storm. I’m telling the truth when I share that there were some tears in the eyes of these hard bitten organizers.

Arthur Rothstein, State highway officials moving sharecroppers away from roadside to area between the levee and the Mississippi River, New Madrid County, Missouri, January 1939. FSA-OWI Collection, Library of Congress, LC-USF33- 002975-M2.

I was struck reading Michael Honey’s book and oral history on John Handcox and the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, Sharecroppers Troubadour, on the plane back to New Orleans from a too long 19-day trip to Hungary, France, and Italy. The STFU and Handcox had been organizing in the Bootheel section of southern Missouri which cuts into northeastern Arkansas when the Great Ohio and Mississippi River Valley Flood of 1937, “displaced 7,000 whites and 5,000 blacks, including nearly all of the STFU’s 250 paid members in nine Missouri locals.” Like Katrina the impoverishment was devastating, except if anything worse, because the country had not found an adequate response to its peoples’ disasters then either. These were farm workers whose crops were washed away, partially when the Corps of Engineers used 200 pounds of dynamite to blow up a levee to stop more flooding downriver. Like the ACORN Hurricane Katrina Survivors’ organizations in cities throughout the south and southwest footprint, as Honey notes, the STFU “organized an Official Council of the STFU Refugees, which excoriated the federal government for having caused ‘the most disastrous flood in the history of our country.’” There were too many coincidences. The little money promised came too late. The crops recovered, but the people did not. The STFU had to also be rebuilt in the area to fight again in a last gasp.

John Handcox and Michael Honey, 1986.
Smithsonian Folkways – Smithsonian Institution

There was a story recently about the National Flood Insurance Fund in one of my daily papers, which grew out of these kinds of disasters. The fund is $25 billion in the red largely because of Katrina, Sandy in the New York-New Jersey area, and continued flooding in Louisiana from massive rains. The piece claimed that 30% of the money went to repeaters, folks whose homes just keep being flooded. A family in upstate New York was interviewed who were about to raise their house 10 feet with the insurance support. They couldn’t sell the house because of the floods. They wanted to retire and move to Arizona but they couldn’t. Poignantly, they said they knew they would be hit by another flood in the future. It was hard to not wonder, why the fund didn’t just help them get a new place?

As climate change becomes a constant concern, all of this history and these simple questions are going to be harder and harder not to answer with a more constructive and humanitarian response.

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The Consequences and Prevention of Nuclear Power Accident Disasters for $29.41 per Person

New Orleans  If you live within 50-miles of a nuclear power plant, then count yourself part of the majority of the US population, since that’s the case for 65% of us. On the other hand, you may not want to hear all about this, but folks with the Union of Concerned Scientists and Princeton University wrote a piece in the recent issue of Scientific American that scared the stuffings out of me.

These scientists were looking at the risks posed by the handling of spent fuel and in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan in the wake of the earthquake in March 2011, are now making the case that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) did not go nearly as far as needed to assure citizen protection for a potential US disaster. The NRC did a safety review and ordered some safety upgrades, but the scientists argue that they “rejected … a measure to end dense packing of 90 spent fuel pools, which we consider critical for avoiding a potential catastrophe much greater than Fukushima.” I visited the Fukushima area several years after the disaster to try and learn the lessons from that disaster and compare them to what New Orleanians had learned from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, so I found all of this unsettling especially since it is six years after Fukushima and some families are only able to return now, and some will never be able to do so.

Here’s the deal. These spent rods are put in cooling ponds for a few years until they can be moved to dry storage casks safely. In the US, the NRC allows them to be kept in this way semi-indefinitely until a “geologic repository…becomes available.” The operators therefore pack the rods in the pools like sardines in order to keep their costs down, but of course that also increases the risks “about 50 times as much as the corresponding values for a fire in a low density pool,” in the NRC’s technical analysis. Yet, the NRC didn’t order a change, which ought to scare the fiery hell out of all of us.

From there it’s all a dogpile of problems. The NRC didn’t look at terrorism. Hey, what could happen? They didn’t look past 50 miles to the other 35% of the US-population that might be worried. They claimed that disaster areas would be repopulated within one-year, which doesn’t fit either the New Orleans or Fukushima experience. The NRC also “assumed radiation dose standards for population relocation that were much less restrictive than those recommended by the EPA.” The scientists estimate that if EPA standards were used “the average evacuated would increase about threefold.” Using the right figures, the NRC cost-benefit ratio would favor moving, which means making the industry pony up about $50 million per plant or $5 billion overall.

They go on and on from here, and, trust me, it only gets worse, and I think you get the message. It also helps to do the math here, since it’s not like nuclear power companies don’t pass the costs on to consumers. I stand second to no one in wanting to keep utility rates down, but when you divide $5 billion by 170 million people minimum that might be affected if the NRC’s pattycake with industry doesn’t play out in our favor, then the cost would be about $29 and change.

Come on, let’s get serious about this before it’s too late. Where can I send my check today?

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Please enjoy Art Carter’s Mighty Mississippi. Thanks to KABF.

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