It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.
What the hell is a Scalawag?
This story was co-published with One Breath Partnership, a media and environmental advocacy organization based in Houston, Texas.
The Gibson family lost nearly everything when Hurricane Laura struck Lake Charles, Louisiana on August 27. All of it—their mobile home, the mobile home they owned and rented next door, and all the necessary pieces in between that helped their lives function smoothly.
As LaShonda Gibson unloaded bags of paper towels and toilet paper from the back of an SUV in her mother-in-law's driveway in nearby Moss Bluff, where she and her family were staying two days after Laura struck, she had only just begun accounting for the long and frustrating rebuilding process lying ahead. They were just getting back to town. Ahead of the storm, they had evacuated more than a hundred miles away to East Texas.
"We're just trying to make it for right now," she told me. "I mean, it's hard. You have COVID-19. I have elderly people with me. I'm sick—I had a medical procedure on Monday before [the storm] happened. It's just been rough."
Gibson is worried her husband will be out of work for the time being, too. The company where he is a crane operator had its roof blown off during the storm, and it was unclear when the building would be operational again. He could only shake his head.
"It's just a complete loss," he said. (He declined to share his name.)
LaShonda hopes that he can get on a disaster cleanup crew in the coming weeks. "His mom has no money, nothing, so we're having to take care of her, my mom, my son, and us, on one check. He's not working, so he's not going to get paid. That's just the money we've had saved," Gibson says. She sighs and shakes her head at everything they lost. "When you can stand outside your house and look inside it, it's just horrible."
See also: Too heartbreaking to leave, too expensive to stay. More than 802,000 homes are at risk of climate disaster—mostly in the South.
In the ensuing days after Laura hit the region, Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter said between 4,000 to 5,000 people from Calcasieu Parish had been displaced. And like many of those people, many of whom are working class, the Gibson family is not sure what comes next. Their story reinforces an uncomfortable truth: those least responsible for the climate-changing pollution increasing the severity of storms are impacted the most.
As Tropical Storm Eta moves through Florida on Monday, the 2020 hurricane season is officially tied with the 2005 season record of 28 named storms of tropical storm strength or greater. Laura was among the season's most powerful. On August 27, it hit southwest Louisiana with more than 150-mph winds, triggering a diaspora of evacuees. Six weeks later, Hurricane Delta again devastated the region when it landed as a Category 2 storm. And on October 28, Hurricane Zeta spared the region, but slammed southeast Louisiana, leaving several dead and millions without power.
Many evacuees have since returned to southwest Louisiana. Even so, some say the nation's attention has moved on, as their homes remain in ruins. They worry it'll be up to them alone to pick up the pieces. In many ways, it seems, it will be.
Since Laura hit, Lake Charles resident Kelli Stawecki says she hasn't been able to see the road from the windows in the front of her home due to the debris piled high in the street.
Her home isn't habitable at the moment, anyway. Laura damaged the roof, which they promptly tarped—but then Delta ripped it off, and without electricity to circulate air while the power grid is down, she suspects mold is growing.
See also: Mold, foundation cracks, sinking houses: How a Florida Habitat for Humanity neighborhood fell apart
Stawecki's options for alternative housing are limited. Nearby motels and hotels were damaged, too, forcing closures. The nearest places to rent, she says, are all the way in Baton Rouge or Houston. The commute alone would be expensive. "It's like living in a town where a bomb went off and the whole city is destroyed, and you don't see a way out," Stawecki says, her voice a decrescendo. "I don't want to be pessimistic. I want to be hopeful. But you can't see it. There's so much to be done."
Limbs and shreds of trees still litter the roadways. Stores to buy groceries are hard to come by, if operational at all. Of the few fast, easy food options there are, the hours to go out and purchase a meal are limited, as are the options on menus. Often, Stawecki says, they're forced with the decision to either find a meal or work on their house.
"It's really, really heart-wrenching," Stawecki continues. "I am not a depressed kind of person. I serve in the ministry. I run a homeless outreach through our church and a food pantry. Not a whole lot of situational things will make me depressed, but this is the worst that I've ever felt in my whole life, even after the death of my dad. Every curb is filled six-feet-high worth of people's houses."
Stawecki thinks most people have become desensitized to natural disasters like Laura and Delta. She thinks the nation at large has become numb to the people who experience it. But that only underscores the inequity across the country that some communities face, whether they're rebuilding in oil industry-dependent Lake Charles or breathing industrial pollution in neighboring Texas cities, like Port Arthur and Houston. A new survey conducted with WE ACT for Environmental Justice and Environmental Defense Fund shows that a vast majority of Black and Latino residents in Houston understand how they are being impacted and threatened already by the climate crisis—an awareness shared much less readily by their white neighbors. Only 36 percent of white Houstonians said they had heard of the idea of "environmental justice."
See also: On Blackness and bad weather
Residents across threatened communities say they're waiting for the public perception to catch up. They understand it would be the first step in addressing the climate crisis in a just way, but it's unclear how they might manage to get their message beyond the climate conversation void.
For example, Stawecki recently called her bank to ask how to deposit a check. Much to her surprise, her bankers hadn't even heard about the storm. The same could be said for friends and family living elsewhere across the country. At first, the calls and texts checking up on her and her family were frequent. Then, within days, they stopped.
She doesn't blame them. Stawecki's not sure who—or what—to blame. "Honestly, I don't know if there was more plastered on national news or something, more people would be willing to help … because we need help," she says. "We desperately need help."