Miombo DrUmBeAt – It is very much refreshing and eyeopening to publish a story about the effects of climate change in our modern Panglobal society. It was our first time to publish an interactive story/essay since the inception of our humble journal and this is a special blog article. In this blog essay Sycamore May interacts with a woman called Erin from Louisiana who experienced in close combat and close fist the fear , trouble and dangerous effects of climate change as they perpetuate moral instability ,political decadence , economic collapse and social thread bareness. Sycamore May is a writer , arts fusionist and an eco-feminist.
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Erin grew up in Metairie, Louisiana; her mother worked as a nurse in a hospital a few blocks away from home; her father worked as a diver, inspecting oilrigs off the gulf coast; and her older brother spent most of his time engaged in music. Erin lived with her family from the time she was born until her family fled the catastrophic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“[Hurricane] Katrina happened. I was twelve. I remember how fast everything changed. The weekend before Katrina was very crazy. My dad grew up in southeastern Louisiana so he didn’t want to leave [when told to evacuate]. By the time they declared a mandatory evacuation, we couldn’t leave.
That night my dad ended up getting really drunk. He had an alcohol problem the whole time I was growing up. He couldn’t deal with stress well. My mom worked the night shift at the hospital and said, ‘I’m taking the kids with me because they won’t be safe in this house.’ So my brother and I went to hospital with my mom.
The VMAs (Video Music Awards) were going on at the same time. So I remember being in a hospital waiting room watching the VMAs. We ended up sleeping that night on old hospital beds. Around midnight the storm started.
Windows were breaking all over the hospital and all the patients were rushed out of their rooms. Then we lost power and plumbing. Then I started thinking about my dad and became very scared.
It was hard being in a vulnerable situation and having no one to turn to; my dad was drunk at home, my mom was helping patients, and my brother was isolating himself.
The next few days it got worse. My mom had to call 911 to see if my dad was alive. He was alive; he ended up getting to the attic of our house. He was able to come on a boat to the hospital, which was only two blocks away from the house. The canals had a lot of waste – sewer backup and snakes and alligators. You didn’t even know the animals that were lurking. At first the hospital had food for everybody – but after a few days they started running out, and they cut off food to the kids and spouses of the hospital staff.
Martial law was about to be enforced. I remember looking out of a window in the hospital after Katrina and seeing people loot the pharmacy for diapers and food. I don’t think there was any store that wasn’t looted. Any store was viewed as fair game. People needed food.
At that point we realized we had to get out. My mom’s car was parked on a hill but the windshield was cracked from the storm. We decided to drive to Texas to get to family. I remember my parents talking to hospital staff and being told we were not allowed to leave. We took a chance early the next morning.
The security officer looked the other way when we left. My mom had to stay behind and keep working at the hospital. I didn’t see her until three weeks afterwards. She was the stable one, and to be in the care of my dad who was very erratic was difficult. We made it out, and thankfully everyone lived.”
Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. There was an insufficient and delayed reaction from the federal government in providing care to those most in need. New Orleans has a history of not only flooding, but failing to provide safety to its citizens during flooding catastrophes such as Hurricane Betsy in 1965 and Hurricane Andrew in 1992. During Hurricane Betsy, it was rumored that levees in the lower ninth ward were blown up with dynamite to steer floodwaters from wealthier suburbs to impoverished communities.
The Army Corps of Engineers constructed the levees after Hurricane Betsy to keep the city from flooding. However, they were poorly constructed and fell apart forty years later during Hurricane Katrina. Engineering problems, including shallow sheet pile foundations and flimsy levee walls, were discovered in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The city’s poorest neighborhoods and most vulnerable communities flooded; homeowners in the lower ninth ward lost their lives and their homes.
In total, Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures resulted in the deaths of at least 986 Louisiana residents. Nearly half of all victims were over the age of 74. Many could not evacuate because they were homeless or disabled. The storm displaced more than a million people in the Gulf Coast region. Up to 600,000 households were still displaced a month later. At their peak, hurricane evacuee shelters housed 273,000 people and later, FEMA trailers housed at least 114,000 households. 12,000 people relocated to Tennessee, 20,000 to Arkansas, and more than 150,000 to Texas. In the media, displaced citizens of New Orleans were wrongfully blamed for a rise in crime in relocated areas. Many families were separated for months with no way to communicate with one another. Eleven years later residents continue to struggle to return to their homes and lives.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Erin and her family fled to northwest Arkansas. “We had some FEMA assistance that helped us pay for rent and furniture.” After Katrina, Erin remembers feeling very disappointed in the government.
“The way the levees were constructed put poor people more at risk of destruction – it was irresponsible to have housing there in the first place. I lived in a suburb. Thinking about the lower ninth ward, which had a lot of different issues – it didn’t have good schools, churches were the backbone of the community – it showed a lot of inequality and racism in how cities are built and who will be hurt first. FEMA helped us, but my neighbors who lived right next door couldn’t move into a FEMA trailer for six months because FEMA lost the keys to their trailer and others. There were so many organizational problems that caused additional issues for people who had already been traumatized.”
Erin felt a shared responsibility to her community and country to improve disaster relief amid the chaos and trauma wrought by Katrina. She started volunteering with FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) Corps after graduating from college.
FEMA Corps is a governmental service program that provides disaster relief to millions of Americans. The program is a combination of FEMA – an agency of the Department of Homeland Security, and AmeriCorps NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps) – a national service program that addresses the needs of local communities.
“A couple years ago when FEMA Corps started, the idea was that they would do a lot of on-the-ground work, such as interacting with disaster survivors. But a lot of volunteers were doing paperwork, which caused a lot of frustration. FEMA Corps is still figuring out its weak spots. They obviously have really good values and do good work but they also have paperwork and it’s not as glamorous as building a home for somebody. You don’t get that instant gratification that you get with other work. During Katrina, the fact that there wasn’t any leadership in the city – that the mayor jumped ship – is a testament to the state-controlled anarchy in a way.”
Five days after the storm, Michael Chertoff, the head of Homeland Security, was reluctant to name Katrina as a national disaster. After hearing about the extent of the storm, Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans consulted first with the business community so that he wouldn’t lose his economic base. The citizens of New Orleans were not informed about the extent of the storm until it was too late.
At the same time, American tax dollars were funding the war in Iraq instead of disaster relief in the Gulf Coast. With 80% of New Orleans under water, 50,000 people were stranded at the convention center (an evacuee shelter) without access to food, water, or medical help. Even people who tried to escape the city of New Orleans were met on the interstate with soldiers who told them to “turn back.” Mainstream media spewed lies that there was a jailbreak in New Orleans, and called the people who tried to leave the city “thugs” perpetuating fear and uncertainty in the Gulf Coast and its surrounding states. Years after Katrina, many people developed cancers or became depressed and took their own lives. The stress, strain and pain of Katrina caused widespread illness.
“When I did FEMA Corps as a team leader, I wanted to understand how it could be better. But I also interacted with survivors, one-on-one. I think it did make me more sensitive. People don’t realize the PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and trauma that comes with disasters.”
While FEMA Corps does not provide mental health services, they connect victims to facilities in their area.
“I have really good memories of getting people through the registration process to get FEMA assistance. It is a privilege to help people heal. It is really special. No one in my family got assistance for their PTSD, but it wasn’t something that we really thought about. We were all really depressed about all the changes that happened. My parents were on the verge of retirement but Katrina changed all of that. Working with FEMA corps, at times I felt triggered. One time I cried in front of my team. There was a Katrina presentation going on and there was a picture of an old man being rescued from his house. It reminded me of my dad. I think it’s something I still have to work through. I was talking with my mom about the trauma she felt working in the hospital and seeing so many people suffer in such tense conditions. It’s not something you think about everyday, but when it comes up it’s so powerful and overwhelms you. It’s a very dark reality to have to make really difficult choices.”
Erin led a disaster relief team for FEMA Corps from the summer of 2015 to the spring of 2016. She bonded with the shared passion to make a difference in the wellbeing of communities. Erin’s proudest moment as a team leader happened in Austin, Texas:
“We were registering survivors and it was a small disaster, which meant there was not a lot of work to do. We were working with this family whose house had been destroyed. You have to take out everything that’s broken and build it back up. FEMA doesn’t have control over the building aspect – it’s more financial support.
I talked with my supervisor and we decided this was where people actually needed us. My team was really excited to get their hands dirty. They hadn’t had that kind of experience yet, and they did a really good job taking direction.”
Erin and her team went under people’s homes wearing HAZMAT suits, removing debris from houses to speed up the building process for developers.
“Later on when we were in Louisiana after some flooding, a bunch of people from my team volunteered to go under the house. Weeks earlier a new AmeriCorps group refused to go under the house. My team did not hesitate. They got so dirty, but it was a very proud moment for me to see how committed they were and to see the value of what they were doing.”
Erin originally felt excited to return to New Orleans, but she found it difficult to work for FEMA in a city that had been so betrayed and abandoned by the Department of Homeland Security.
“The project we were doing was to connect churches with local emergency management. As AmeriCorps, we would be a bridge for people. We would wear the FEMA Corps uniform and people would complain to us. When we would go out on the streets, people would scream, ‘Where’s my money FEMA?’ People still didn’t trust the federal government. Their experiences were definitely valid. FEMA did add to the suffering of those who were already in pain [during and after Katrina]. Our leader didn’t give us any guidance, the communication was bad and it felt like there wasn’t a lot of work for my team to do. It seemed like I was causing problems because I was voicing concerns. I think there are still a lot of opportunities to mend that bridge and I don’t have any answers, still there has to be a different way of going about it. AmeriCorps has a good reputation in New Orleans but FEMA doesn’t. It didn’t have the outcome I was hoping for. Recently, Baton Rouge [the capital of Louisiana], flooded very badly. They constantly need this emergency management support especially in particularly vulnerable places.”
In 2008, when Erin was thirteen, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal passed the Louisiana Science Education Act, which allows public school teachers to use “supplemental materials,” or non-scientific literature, in science classrooms. Today in Metairie, in the public schools Erin attended, students study creationism instead of evolution, and the Bible is heavily implemented into science curricula. Undermining the scientific method of research lowers the awareness of scientific issues such as climate change. Therefore students receive a miseducation in science and have little awareness of industrial pollution on a global scale and its dire planetary consequences.
Crime escalated in New Orleans post-Katrina because of a lack of education funding and displacement of students and families. New Orleans public school systems currently have a 60% dropout rate. Schools are not air conditioned in 95-100 degree heat, and bathrooms are unsanitary. The city can’t fund education when there are no children or families returning to New Orleans, especially in the African American communities. Now there is a desperate need to preserve culture, music, and tradition while also raising awareness about disaster preparedness.
“We would talk with churches about how prepared they were, and how they can work with disaster relief in the city. That backfired, but I think it would work if it were internal – if there were a local liaison that spoke for the churches. There was an official in external affairs who was really good at talking to people in the city. The pastors have accountability and can reach a larger audience. My experience and take away is that it really depends on the messenger.
Disaster preparedness alleviates suffering. People feel more in control if they are prepared – with water, a disaster route, etcetera. With climate change running the course that it is, there will be more disasters. Now we are trying to mitigate climate change. For me, I see it as an intersectional approach instead of one-sided like it is now with disaster prevention throughout the year.”
As Canadian activist and writer Naomi Klein mentions in her critique of global capitalism and its impact on planetary physics, “When you have a culture that allows people to be shot by police when they’re walking home, or you have Syrian refugees disappear beneath the waves, it makes it easier to somehow rationalize allowing poor people’s countries to disappear.”
In Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine, she analyzes how governments and corporations use trauma as a chance to profit from previously public goods. For instance, after Katrina, many public housing units, undamaged by the storm were knocked down, despite the thousands of people displaced and homeless. This disregard for the safety and wellbeing of the New Orleans community post-Katrina is symptomatic of corporate capitalism. Since land developers profit from the privatization of public goods, the storm became justification for gentrification: many public developments are currently undergoing construction are the last priority for the government, and now only accommodate a fraction of the displaced citizens. The many problems of the city remain unaddressed as the drive for greater profits remains the top priority. Many people remain homeless and displaced.
Environmental catastrophes continue to contribute to disasters experienced in the Gulf Coast. Over the last 70 years, the wetlands surrounding New Orleans have been starved to death. Wetlands help absorb water from storms but in the Gulf Coast they’ve been drilled into, mined for oil, and have subsequently dried up over the years. 25% of all natural gas is produced offshore of Louisiana and 20% of all domestic oil is produced offshore of Louisiana. The state of Louisiana has long been used as a place to extract resources like oil, natural gas, and seafood yet the money from those industries travels out of state to Texas, Tennessee, and the Carolinas. If the money earned in Louisiana was returned the state, the state’s government could rebuild the wetlands and levees to make sure catastrophes like Katrina never happen again.
Today, Erin continues her compassionate work focusing on how disasters intersect with environmental issues. In the past year, Erin has graduated from FEMA Corps – with its “limitations of bureaucracy” – and is focusing on how climate change continues to impact disaster prevention and relief. She now works as the campaign organizer at Environment Missouri, a citizen-based environmental advocacy organization.
“People think this will never happen to me. We need to have a dialogue about [disaster prevention] and it’s better to have community leaders talk about it before taking action. It would be so powerful if each church had its own emergency management ministry. There is a lot of opportunity there. It’s about keeping people alive and better off, I think that goes with religious doctrines. Especially in a neighborhood that has been disadvantaged, the church is their home. Learning about these things from the church is something that could be transformative.”
Sycamore May- is a Poet, Artist, Writer and an Activist. She is inspired by wilderness and motivated by the desire to conserve and protect. She recently moved from the city to the country to start her own organic farm, to learn more about sustainable agriculture and how she can reach out to citizens about the unjust environmental/economic/ecological practices of the United States agricultural system. Throughout her education, She have always been interested in food – eating it, cooking it and growing it. Working on a local, organic farm in her hometown provided a romantic and spiritual relationship to the earth. She felt compelled to speak for local farmers after reading about the ways in which big businesses and the government have kicked them off of their land. Eco feminism, or the belief that the earth is our mother, has deeply resonated with her and speaks through her poetry, fiction and nonfiction writing.