As lawmakers gathered Monday to approve funding for Hurricane Florence relief, residents and community leaders from Eastern North Carolina came together outside the General Assembly.
They told their personal recovery stories and encouraged lawmakers to put recovery money – and their political power – where it’s most needed.
The Just Florence Recovery Collective represents more than 25 community organizations and dozens of impacted residents. Its goal: to shed a light on racial and class disparities that have made storm damage worse and recovery slower in North Carolina’s poorest and encourage those in power to reverse the trend and make those communities whole.
Bobby Jones of the Down East Coal Ash Coalition came from Goldsboro where, he said, “part of our community has been used as a dumping ground for Duke Energy’s 6 million tons of poisonous coal ash.”
For over 60 years unlined coal ash basins have harmed drinking water in and around his community and been released into the Neuse River, Jones said.
“And then the storm came,” Jones said. “When Hurricane Florence came through Wayne County, the water submerged these coal ash basins and the coal ash was washed into the river.”
The result, Jones said: levels of arsenic 18 times higher than safety standards for drinking water.
“We need to hold Duke Energy accountable,” Jones said.
“We need to hold the people who work over here accountable,” Jones said, pointing toward the legislature.
Addressing legislators, Jones said Eastern North Carolinians are making a simple request of legislators who have given tax breaks to and eased regulations on companies whose pollution has devastated the state and its residents.
“We are asking you extend to the citizens of North Carolina just a fraction of the favor that you extended to Duke Energy,” Jones said.
From coal ash contamination to millions of gallons of hog feces unleashed in flood waters and into waterways, La’Meshia W. Kaminski said the location of the damage is not a coincidence.
“It is clear to see that communities that are most impacted by this destruction are disproportionately low
income communities and communities of color, who are already burdened by decades of pollution,” said Kaminski, one of the organizers of Monday’s event.
“We are here to say that Hurricane Florence and Matthew before it are not just natural disasters,” said Kaminski. “They are the logical outcome of a society that believes certain people and lands are expendable. And this is simply unacceptable. The destruction we are witnessing is the product of a broken political and economic system – a system based on the marginalization of poor and minority communities along with a government that is captured by powerful polluting interests.”
The areas hit hardest by the storms of the last two years need immediate and adequate funds for relief, Kaminski said – but they also need elected officials to address the root cause of the environmental disasters in the wake of the storm. Both need to be free of legislative restraints, she said.
“We have a record $2 billion in our rainy day fund and a $500 million unappropriated balance from the state’s final budget,” Kaminski said. “However, there is a legislatively imposed limit on the rainy day fund that states annual expenditures cannot exceed 7.5 percent of the previous year’s operating budget. Now I’ve said this before: We all know a storm does not operate on a limit. It doesn’t stop for 7.5 percent.”
Kaminski called for the override of that limit and release of the full funding needed – closer to Gov. Roy Cooper’s suggested $1.5 billion than the $800 million discussed Monday.
Twenty-eight counties in North Carolina have been identified by FEMA for federal disaster assistance. About 2.6 million people live in those counties. The cost impacts from Hurricane Florence have been estimated at $13 billion statewide – more than twice the $4.8 billion in estimated damages from Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
In South Lumberton, Shalonda Regan’s family’s home was declared fit for habitation after Hurricane Matthew – but persistent mold spread throughout and made the first floor uninhabitable. For an asthmatic like Regan, it became nearly impossible to breathe in that environment.
Health concerns are even more intense in her community followed Florence, she said, as people continue to report irritated skin, hair loss and other illnesses in the wake of long-standing industrial pollution spread by the storm.
“To every coal fueled power pant, hog lagoon and poultry waste operation I stand with one ask today,” Regan said. “That ask is: what will you do to help human health and the environment? Your answer, of course, lies within the audacity of your underreporting and your unending work to basically diminish the public’s understanding of just how big a threat your operation poses.”
Brian Kennedy is a policy analyst with the N.C. Budget & Tax Center, a project of Policy Watch’s organization, the N.C. Justice Center. The state has the money to do what needs to be done, he said at Monday’s rally. Legislators simply need the political will to commit the money and reject tax cuts that would diminish the resources they can use toward recovery.
“Just two years ago, with Hurricane Matthew, only $300 million was committed over the course of two years while growing the rainy day fun,” Kennedy said. “That is not acceptable.”
“The good news is that we have the money,” Kennedy said. “After years setting aside dollars we have $2 billion in the rainy day fund, we have half a billion dollars in unappropriated funding from last year and if we choose to not allow scheduled tax cuts go into effect for wealthy North Carolinians and corporations, we’ll have an additional $900 million.”
Kennedy said it is time for lawmakers to invest in a recovery that is adequate and addresses systemic racism, classism and inequality that has persisted in the state for hundreds of years.
“We have a choice, we have the option,” Kennedy said. “We can no longer use the excuse that it’s a bad economy. We can no longer use the excuse that we don’t have the money. Because the funding is there. It is a choice. From Puerto Rico to elsewhere, this is not a singular event. It is a trend. Communities of color, communities that are not wealthy have continuously been left out of the picture.”
After their rally outside the legislature groups from the rally headed into the building to personally press their elected officials to hear their recovery stories and use this special session to take meaningful and lasting action.