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Outside the Spotlight, Communities around the Nation Seek to Rebound from Climate-Related Disasters

While we continue to mourn the communities suffering from Hurricane Dorian, wildfires in the Amazon or California, other communities are also facing a slowly-grinding destabilization due not only to the climate crisis but also government bureaucracy. Often these communities remain hidden, even within their own states and outside the spotlight associated with massive climate disasters.  

GROUPS HOPE GREATER NATIONAL ATTENTION ON CLIMATE REACHES THEM AS WELL

 Contact: Malik Russell / malik@climatemobilization.org

WASHINGTON, DC – (October 4, 2019) – Just little over a week ago, led by youth leaders and organizations around the world, over 7 million people hit the streets in global climate strikes to bring attention to the climate emergency. Last month, the world’s attention was focused on the burning Amazon rainforest and the devastation of Category 5 Hurricane Dorian on the Bahamas where the death toll reached 56 with 1500 in shelters and 600 still missing.

 “Hurricane Dorian is another urgent reminder that we must address the drivers of climate change and invest more in resilient communities. The longer we wait, the more people will suffer. We need to keep the world and people safe,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization, after a recent visit to the Bahamas.

 While we continue to mourn the communities suffering from Hurricane Dorian, wildfires in the Amazon or California, other communities are also facing a slowly-grinding destabilization due not only to the climate crisis but also government bureaucracy. Often these communities remain hidden, even within their own states and outside the spotlight associated with massive climate disasters.  

 Many of these communities are a just one major storm away from washing away all hope for any type of stability. Here in the United States, communities ranging from Port Arthur, Texas to De Soto, Missouri, Ohio and Staten Island, New York are signing onto a petition from The Climate Mobilization calling on Congress to declare a national climate emergency in the hopes it will bring the much needed attention and resources to communities seemingly forgotten by state and local officials. They are members of Higher Ground, the largest flood survivor group in the country, which represents community leaders from 50 towns and cities in 22 U.S. states.

 Despite the dire conditions, there is hope.

 Introduced in July by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), and Senator Bernie Sanders in the Senate, the concurrent resolution has gained over 70 sponsors in the House of Representatives and 7 in the Senate –including most presidential candidates. Yet, even if Congress does move ahead with passing a concurrent resolution to declare a climate emergency sponsored, for many frontline communities with their backs against the wall, the window for survival is closing fast.

  Flooding overtakes homes in Missouri
Flooding overtakes homes in Missouri

 In Missouri, the state reports over 1.2 million acres of farmland are flooded. Recently, the governor organized a meeting for state leaders with those affected by flooding from all around the state which drew Susan Liley, a grandmother in a heavily Republican area of De Soto about 40 minutes from St. Louis. Liley, Co-Founder of Citizens’ Committee for Flood Relief says a lot of people are not necessarily talking about “climate change,” in De Soto but they are talking about the flash floods, including 4 since 2013 that have destroyed people’s property and taken lives.

“Many towns in Missouri are flash flooding,” said Liley. “At first we thought it was a once in a lifetime thing, but it’s happening every year,” she said.

 Liley’s seen a father washed through a drainage tube due to a tornado, an older lady experience a heart attack while being evacuated from a flood by boat and a 72 year old friend lose everything she owned “battling an insurance company,” who refused to pay. This was enough before she and a couple of women got together to create a citizens committee for flood relief. There are hundreds of homes in the area, currently recommended for acquisition-buyout from the government, elevation or flood proofing “if they ever appropriate money for it,” she says.

 Up the river in Ohio, similar stories of unrelenting flooding are also becoming a dangerous norm.

Judy Peyko of Boardman Township, Ohio has seen four floods in a decade including the 3rd one in less than a year. Despite the flooding which continues to overwhelm storm and sanitary buffers, new construction designed to increase residents and growth continues unabated. Last year FEMA came in and declared it a disaster area and Peyko who has worked to get the Army Corps of Engineers to Boardman and Canfield as well but nothing seems to get their attention that what is happening is not normal, but officials just aren’t getting it.

 “They’re not getting it. I wish I could say differently, instead they blame us. And we blame them,” said Peyko. “They don’t understand its urban flooding or climate changes because our leaders keep us in the dark, we don’t live near the Mississippi. I’m afraid I am going to be homeless and it’s a nightmare…no one cares about us.”

 Like victims in Missouri, Peyko whose basement floods with sewage every time it rains, is also seeking help from FEMA with a possible buyout which remains unlikely due to the heavy paperwork involved. Also unlikely is winning a fight with her home insurance company. The flooding has also exacerbated tensions between her and her neighbors, one of whom called the police on her for requesting she not cut down 2 large trees which help soak up water during rains.

 “She called the police because I asked her to reconsider. Every time it rains, it’s a mess, I have flood insurance and they are denying my claim. My flooring is destroyed in the basement,” said Peyko.

 Unfortunately for Peyko and the countless similar stories around the nation, the weather will likely get worse.

 According to the National Centers for Environmental Information, a federal agency located within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), there have already been six extreme weather events causing losses of more than a billion apiece. 

 In just the past four years alone, we’ve seen five Category 5 hurricanes along the Atlantic seaboard ranging from , Mathew (2016), Irma and Maria (2017), Michael (2018) and Dorian (2019). There is no expectation for these storms to decrease and the warming of our planet means they’ll be more intense. NOAA points to a new study from NCEI and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, arguing that “greenhouse gases may allow future hurricanes to become stronger on the U.S. East Coast.”

 While the eastern seaboard has seemingly avoided the worst of Dorian, other places around the nation are still trying to recover from previous hurricanes.

 In Port Arthur, Texas pollution and environmental racism has long-served as a man-made enabler of climate change. Surrounded by five oil refineries in the midst of ‘energy country’ where toxic waste and petroleum products disproportionately impact its African American residents – the city moved into dire straits when warmer-water fueled hurricanes devastated the city.

 “We’d used to get hurricanes every 10-12 years,” said local activist Hilton Kelley, founding Director of Community In-Power and Development Association Inc. (CIDA Inc.), and a non-profit that works to empower low income residents to take action on environmental issues. “But since 2005 seems like they are coming every other year. After Katrina hit and we started resettling folks, we got hit by hurricane Rita,” said Kelley, who in 2011 won the Goldman Environmental Prize for his work on environmental justice issues along the Texas Gulf Coast.

  Hilton Kelley in Port Arthur, TX
Hilton Kelley in Port Arthur, TX

In 2017, Port Arthur was nearly consumed by Hurricane Harvey when 80 percent of housing was destroyed and 65 percent of residents faced water in their homes, drastically shrinking the city’s population since it began a downward trend after the ending of segregation in 1970 saw huge swaths of its non-Black population head to the suburbs. Now, empty shells of houses and unfilled apartments blot the landscape since burdensome restrictions and lack of funding and political will local, state or national present enough funding necessary to rebuild communities. As usual in most places around the nation, those communities who get rebuilt first are usually the wealthy ones. Once population drops below 50,000 the city loses access to substantial federal funding, which it can little afford to lose.

According to one EPA study, African Americans are disproportionately the victims of air pollution compared to whites. This is clear in Port Arthur and as global warming increases the intensity of hurricanes like Dorian; few people whether local residents or state politicians are talking about it in a way that connects to the larger picture of climate emergency.

“There’s a communication gap,” said Kelley. “You have the so called leaders coming to these communities and tell the people what they need instead of listening to the people. Before the first responders arrived I was helping but I was not asked about solutions – they are not listening to the indigenous people of the land. Our state and federal government have known the possibility of flooding in many communities – especially in those low lying areas were blacks lived — they (government) owe it residents to do everything they can to sustain and rebuild our housing rather than leaving people to fend for themselves. People are beginning to feel that there is no assistance coming,” said Kelley.

Kelley and others doubt whether Port Arthur can survive the next major hurricane without state or national help.

He has reason to be worried, as data from The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center shows that a record-breaking seven million individuals were temporarily displaced during the first six months of this year by floods, cyclones, and extreme weather.

Issues of climate emergency impacting communities are not only regulated to parts of the South and Midwest, but also in seemingly unlikely places such as New York City. Residents of Graniteville, a predominately African American and Hispanic neighborhood in the north west section of Staten Island, attribute coastal flood protection during Hurricane Sandy to a 30-acre wetland known as the Graniteville Swamp aka the Graniteville Wetland and Forest on South Ave. The wetland has both freshwater wetlands and a tidal wetland (Old Place Creek) side by side. The Creek empties out into Arthur Kill a body of water between Staten Island and New Jersey.

 On Staten Island amid the declaration of climate emergency by New York City – the largest city in the world among now over a thousand cities/jurisdictions in 19 nations – there exist places of contention where gentrification, greed and bad policies intersect in ways disproportionately dangerous to some communities.

According to local organizer Gabriella Velardi-Ward, founder of Coalition for Wetlands and Forests, while Staten Island is surrounded by climate and environmental health hazards, especially on the north shore, where there are 21 toxic sites, the Staten Island Expressway, Newark Airport and chemical plants in close proximity, there exists one saving grace – a 30-acre wetland known as the Graniteville Swamp and Forest on South Ave. This area served as a natural protective barrier for Graniteville during Hurricane Sandy which tore across it in 2012 causing 24 reported deaths and many more among the undocumented population that were never officially counted.

The shore line all around Staten Island was once wetland, but about 80% of that wetland has been lost due to several factors including a flawed oversight and permit process that side with developers. This process now threatens to allow developers to fill in the wetlands with a new BJ’s Wholesale Club, gas station, parking lot for 835 cars and other retail outlets on the scarce 18 of the 30 acre area. If allowed to go through, residents on both the East side and North side – could face catastrophic flooding. It’s already expected that a 120 home trailer park on the West side could be totally when the next Category Four or Five hurricane travels up the coast. This is doubly frightening since Hurricane Sandy had been downgraded to a Category 1 storm by the time it hit Staten Island, it was the storm surge and not the wind that did the most damage.

“Developers are being allowed to build without taking into account the impact it will have on the community,” said Gabriella Velardi-Ward. According to recent reports, while New York is planning to build a sea-wall around the (NYC is planning to build a sea wall around the south east shore of Staten Island. The Army Corp of Engineers is planning to build a wall around all of NYC) city to counter sea level rise due to global warming, it only covers the disproportionately wealthier and whiter South shore of Staten Island and not the North shore. Gabriella and other activists have fought very hard. But at this point, it could go either way. There doesn’t seem to be planning here. In one area they are bringing back wetlands and forests but here in Graniteville, the city has approved the destruction of this forested wetland, due to a technicality. This type of planning is unfair and unpredictable. Her fears are that those elected to represent us, talk the climate emergency talk, but don’t really understand the seriousness of this climate emergency or won’t really get it until it’s too late.

“Climate emergency is real,” added Velardi-Ward. “If we don’t protect our communities with an urgency of understanding and urgency of action, we’re facing not only a threat to Staten Island but all of New York.”

Many of these locations suffer outside of the spotlight and with little recognition, funding or even understanding of what is going on in their communities. Many feel their calls on local, state and national government have gone unheard and in many cases they are not wrong.

  Staten Island, NY
Staten Island, NY

A recent New York Times report shows through June, the Federal government “had spent less than one-third of the $107 billion provided by Congress following the hurricanes and wildfires of 2017 and 2018, federal data show. The Department of Housing and Urban Development, which received $37 billion — more than any other agency — had spent less than $75 million.”

 For the Climate Mobilization, a Brooklyn-based national organization committed to a WWII style mobilization and declaration of a climate emergency by Congress, these stories are clear evidence that the climate emergency is here and only expanding right before our eyes.

 They are hoping more communities across the nation sign onto their online petition to push for climate emergency declarations. TCM is also hoping the concurrent resolution introduced by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Earl Blumenauer and Senator Bernie Sanders continues to gain sponsors and gets to a vote by Congress.

“The purpose of our work is two-fold, said The Climate Mobilization co-founder and director of policy and strategy Ezra Silk. “One to awaken the public to the fact that climate emergency is not a debate and second to awaken elected officials to the urgency necessary in responding with a national WWII scale mobilization to address the climate emergency and then to actually do what it takes to protect communities and preserve the planet for the next generation.”

Tell Congress to declare a Climate Emergency at https://climateemergency.us/

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Alexia Leclerq

Network Coach

Alexia (she/they) is an environmental justice organizer based in Austin, TX. They graduated summa cum laude from NYU (’20), where they self-designed a major titled “The Politics and Economics of Inequality.” Their research focuses on political ecology, environmental justice, AAPI communities, inequality, postcolonialism. As an organizer and researcher they have spent the past 5 years working on various issues from preserving the Colorado River, water rights, fighting land use policy and zoning that enforces race-based discrimination, conducting ethnographic research on climate health, to organizing mutual aid, youth programming, and shaping national legislation alongside members of the Environmental Justice Leadership Forum and the Environmental Justice Health Alliance; today Alexia continues to work as an organizer with PODER, a grassroots EJ org. Alexia is also the co-founder of Start: Empowerment, a BIPOC led social and environmental justice education non-profit working with youth, educators, activists, and community members to implement justice-focused education and programming in schools and community spaces. S:E curriculum and programming has reached over 2,000 students, been recognized by the NYC Department of Education, and taught in universities. In 2021, their work was recognized by the prestigious Brower Youth Award.

Emmett Hopkins

National Organizer

Emmett organizes local-scale mobilization for the Sonoma County campaign, while supporting Climate Mobilization’s organizing efforts around the country. He brings over a decade of experience collaborating with diverse stakeholders to build community food systems, ensure equitable access to public lands, and mobilize resources towards a just transition to an amazing zero carbon future. He graduated from Stanford with a BS in Earth Systems and MS in Urban Planning & Sustainable Design. Emmett enjoys growing food and cultivating relationships, riding bikes and buses, and reimagining our communities to better serve all the people living in them.

Suha Dabbouseh

National Organizer

National Organizer Suha Dabbouseh leads national strategy for The Climate Mobilization. They are originally from Chicago but have lived, organized and rebel-roused in seven states and 11 cities. Suha received their law degree from CUNY-School of Law where they focused on social justice lawyering representing detainees at Guantanamo Bay. While practicing law, Suha had worked to advocate on behalf of domestic violence survivors, transgender clients and fighting employment discrimination. Their passion is building people power and organizing to dismantle structural inequities.

Matt Renner

Executive Director of The Climate Mobilization

Matt has worked as a nonprofit executive in clean energy, climate policy, and journalism for over a decade, focusing on the near-term social and economic impacts of climate change. He leads organizational expansion and works closely with the communications and organizing teams. Matt earned a BA in political science from UC Berkeley, where he was deeply inspired by the work of Professor George Lakoff.

Mariyah Jahangiri

Network Organizer

Mariyah leads Climate Mobilization Network’s recruitment, coordination, and organizing support. She has organized across movements and is passionate about addressing white supremacy in the mainstream climate movement and building capacity for youth-led, BIPOC-led intersectional climate movements. She has been inspired by her experiences organizing to defund the police in Boston, supporting mutual aid and food sovereignty projects in Iowa, Atlanta, and Puerto Rico, and working on a Make Big Polluters Pay campaign. Mariyah worked as an organizer with the Bernie Sanders 2020 campaign and Planned Parenthood PAC. She graduated from Grinnell College with a Sociology degree.

Rebecca Harris

Co-Leader and Director of Organizing

Rebecca leads Climate Mobilization organizing efforts. Along with a history of social movement organizing, Rebecca he has worked as a journalist covering equity in Chicago public schools. Most recently, Rebecca worked as Development and Communications Manager at Latino Union of Chicago, an immigrants’ and workers’ rights organization. She is a 2017 graduate of the Reframe Mentorship in strategic communications and a 2019 participant in the Anne Braden Organizer Training Program.

Marina Mails

Co-Leader and Director of Operations
Marina manages operations and volunteers for both The Climate Mobilization and Climate Mobilization Project. She brings broad experience working in non-profit organizations, health care settings, and running her own private counseling practice. Before joining Climate Mobilization, Marina maintained a practice focusing exclusively on climate-related emotional coping, helping people make bold choices for lifestyle and professional change in response to the Climate Emergency. She has a bachelor’s degree in political science and Spanish from Wake Forest University and a Masters in Counseling from UNC Greensboro.

Meghann Beer

Co-Leader and Director of Resource Mobilization and Strategy

Meghann brings more than 20 years of nonprofit management and fundraising experience to The Climate Mobilization and Climate Mobilization Project. For over a decade Meghann has worked as a nonprofit consultant helping organizations expand their capacity, secure revenue, develop successful strategies, and effectively evaluate their programs, enabling them to create greater positive change in the world. She has also worked as an executive director, designed and facilitated international service learning experiences, and taught university courses in fundraising and nonprofit management. Meghann earned a MPA in Nonprofit Management and Comparative and International Affairs from The School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University, in Bloomington, IN and a BA in Art History and American Studies from Tufts University in Boston, MA.

Cris Lagunas

Strategy Director

Cris is helping to grow the Climate Emergency Movement by supporting creative campaigns and extending the reach of the movement’s message. Cris is a co-founder of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, an organization dedicated to using direct action tactics to expose, challenge and dismantle the immigration detention system.Cris got his start in organizing when he was 15 years old, getting involved in a local group of fellow undocumented youth.

Zack Burley

Policy Associate

Zack provides policy support for the Climate Mobilization team, and brings a versatile set of policy skills and experiences in labor organizing, journalism, legislative politics, and legal practice to the climate emergency movement. Zack earned a JD from Denver University Sturm College of Law, is a founding organizer of the Political Workers Guild of Colorado, and formerly served as a legislative aide in the Colorado General Assembly.

AriDy Nox

Co-Leader and Director of Narrative Strategy

 AriDy Nox is a multi-disciplinary black femme storyteller and social activist with a variety of forward-thinking creative works under her/their belt. They create out of the vehement belief that creating a future in which marginalized peoples are free requires a radical imagination. Their tales are offerings intended to function as small parts of an ancient, expansive, awe-inspiring tradition of world-shaping, created by and for black femmes. They have over a decade of experience as a young social activist and organizer, within reproductive justice and racial justice frameworks with organizations like the Young Women of Color Leadership Council with Advocates for Youth, the Toni Cade Bamabara Collective at Spelman College and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Incorporated. They bring creativity, enthusiasm and a tremendous capacity for organization to her/their role and deep belief that times of apocalypse are opportunities for rebirth. We need first imagine the world we want in order to create it.