If there’s been a single most maddening public narrative to accompany the hurricane disaster that has afflicted so much of North Carolina in recent weeks, it probably has to be the chipper, upbeat tone adopted by a number of conservative politicians and think tankers that Florence was, in effect, just “business as usual” for a state located on the nation’s southeast coast.
The spiel usually goes something like this: “We’re used to hurricanes in North Carolina and to pulling together to rebuild. Between our public emergency responders and private charities, we know how to handle these kinds of situations.”
While certainly admirable on some superficial level (obviously, it’s important to keep a stiff upper lip in the face of tragedy), when you dig below the surface, it’s clear that there are some extremely problematic undertones to the “all is well” rap.
Take the existential threats posed by climate change and sea level rise, for instance. Yes, hurricanes are nothing new to North Carolina, but there is also no denying that climate change is making storms more frequent and intense. Add to this the state’s rapidly growing population and the dramatic uptick in consumption, land use and coastal development that have accompanied that growth in recent decades, and the situation is rendered all the more serious.
In 1954 at the time of the infamous Hurricane Hazel that many long-time residents like to cite, the population of the state was around four million. Most coastal communities were only sparsely inhabited. Today, the population is more than 10 million and rising fast. What’s more, the North Carolina of 2018 has vastly less open land to absorb big rains and vastly more pollution sites (hog lagoons, coal ash dumps and toxic landfills) to become inundated than it did at the time of Hazel (and even at the times of Fran and Floyd).
Given such a situation, the notion that we can respond as we always have and that mere charity and pluck will carry us through is increasingly fanciful.
The sunny conservative narrative also comes up woefully short in addressing another massive issue highlighted by Florence: poverty. As we have been reminded time and again in recent days with the receding floodwaters, the people hurt worst by natural disasters like hurricanes are almost invariably the people with the least capacity to absorb such hits.
Nearly everywhere one looks, it is low income people and people of color – the families and communities already disproportionately left behind in our dog-eat-dog economy – who pay rents they can’t afford to live on the lowest ground in the least well-fortified homes, who lack insurance, who lack access to healthcare, who lack the proper papers to document their losses to government agencies, and who certainly lack any capacity to pull up stakes and move.
For the thousands upon thousands of North Carolinians trying to stay afloat in this especially leaky boat, donated supplies and canned food drives simply aren’t going to get the job done. This is especially true in lower income rural areas with little-to-no local wealth on which to draw in order to help finance reconstruction.
In other words, as with so many of the daunting environmental challenges that confront our state, the only realistic hope for a sustained and successful effort to tackle the grinding poverty that afflicts so many consigned to live in the path of Florence and future similar disasters simply must involve a massive public commitment of state and federal resources. Sure, lasting growth and prosperity have to involve good private industry jobs, but without the public infrastructure upgrades – roads, utilities, education, health care, floodplain buyouts – that only a well-funded government can provide, such private economic growth is a pipedream.
In such an environment, the last thing North Carolina needs is a new constitutional cap on the state income tax. As the fiscal policy experts at the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center recently explained, the proposed cap on the fall ballot would lock in a loss of $2.4 billion in state revenue annually when compared to what could be raised if policymakers were able to add two top brackets on higher income. The proposed cap is rendered even more dangerous given the way conservative lawmakers have already starved essential services and infrastructure by enacting billions in tax cuts since 2013 that benefit the wealthy and profitable corporations.
The bottom line: If the latest hurricane recovery session of the General Assembly is to have a real and lasting positive impact, it’s imperative that lawmakers listen to and honestly confront the alarm bells that have been sounded. Like it or not, Florence was not your grandparents’ hurricane and we do not live in your grandparents’ North Carolina.