When Hurricane Floyd-induced floodwaters ran their devastating eastward course last September, the swelling currents swallowed everything in their path: wastewater treatment plants, junkyards full of chemicals, hog waste lagoons, pesticide runoff and thousands of carcasses. The environmental impact was devastating, and while politicians seem to see the flood as an unavoidable act of God, others have come to see it as God’s wake-up call, something akin to the biblical flood faced by Noah.
“The flood is not simply the consequence of divine wrath against human evildoing,” said Collins Kilburn, head of the N.C. Council of Churches. “It is a strategy of Yahweh for saving the world from self-destructiveness.”
Neuse River Keeper Rick Dove doesn’t buy the blame-God line either. Both men shared their thoughts on the Floyd floods during March 3 panel discussions in Raleigh called “After the Flood, A Possible Rainbow?” Sponsored by the Council of Churches, the daylong discussions examined the economic and environmental impact of Floyd, and the effectiveness of efforts to rebuild in its wake.
During his presentation, Dove showed a video clip of Gov. Jim Hunt and President Bill Clinton at a news conference the day, last September, that Clinton came to survey the flood damage. Hunt tells his audience that because it was a 500-year flood, “nobody was really fully prepared.”
But Dove, a man who speaks with passion about the river he loves, and the ecosystem it supports, called Hunt’s comment “ridiculous.”
“[Hunt] throws his arms open with the president at his side and says there wasn’t anything we could do to get ready for this,” Dove said. “That’s just not so. … We did everything wrong.”
God wants humans to live in harmony–not try to control nature, Dove said. “We have this stewardship responsibility to act in a way that takes care of Mother Nature,” he said. “If we don’t, we need to be ready to pay the consequences for our actions.”
And the consequences are still mounting, Dove said. “There has never ever in the history of the state of North Carolina, been an environmental disaster to equal this one.”
While everyone–from big farmers and commercial fishermen to well-heeled homeowners–took major hits from the flood, recovery has been hardest for those living on the margin. From farmworkers to the residents of impoverished river-edge communities like Princeville and Tarboro, the fallout from the flood is far from over.
Panelist Nan Freeland, coordinator of the N.C. Environmental Justice Network, said the flood’s devastation made a bad situation worse for the area’s poor. “The hardest thing for some of these people really has been to have not had anything and then to have lost that little bit.”
While government buyouts will help some, the poor won’t get enough of a payoff to improve their plight. “Most of these people were living where they were living not because they wanted a view of the river,” Freeland said. “It’s because that’s the only land they could buy. Any kind of buyout was going to be totally insufficient. The replacement value’s not going to help them because they were living in such dire straits to begin with. To add insult to injury, now there are dead hogs floating down the street.”
The flood’s impact on farmworkers has also been severe, and could remain so as the new growing season begins, said Student Action with Farmworkers director Melinda Wiggins. Farmworker housing, already substandard, will be even worse this season.
“I don’t think the Department of Labor has an emergency plan to be able to inspect all of those houses, but … we need a way to inspect them before farmworkers [move in],” Wiggins said.
Geographic isolation and the language barrier resulted in additional problems for farmworkers, according to Wiggins. In addition, many farmworkers were denied emergency aid, such as food stamps, because they were undocumented.
“FEMA denied aid to people who had no Social Security numbers,” Wiggins said. “In an emergency you would think they wouldn’t be so strict. We’ve got an undocumented work force here. We’ve got to deal with that. … That’s going to be a long-term issue. This flood made us realize that the undocumented farmworkers lost out.”
This all goes to show, said Scott Marlow of the Rural Advancement Foundation International, that restoration must be comprehensive for flood-ravaged communities.
“If we merely help people get back to where they were the day before the flood, we have not done anyone a favor,” Marlow said.
Farms in Eastern North Carolina, especially small family farms, were already stretched thin, Marlow said. Farmers live for the good years, and before Floyd, the 1999 growing season was shaping up as a bumper year on the heels of several bad ones.
Joe Mann, chairman of the Council of Churches’ Rural Life Committee, pointed out that, in the wake of the floods, we have an opportunity to support sustainable growth.
Sustainable agriculture that brings farmers beyond “the old economies of tobacco in the region” will be essential, Mann said. Sustainable also “means that we have to create jobs that pay a living wage,” Mann continued, and “allow people to have decent housing.”
Panelist Mike Kelly, from the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said the state is looking carefully at redevelopment, making sure that potential environmental hazards such as wastewater treatment plants and hog lagoons are kept out of the floodplain.
Dove just hopes the state’s efforts aren’t coming too late. Poor planning and hits from two hurricanes–Dennis and Floyd–showed our vulnerability, Dove said. Nature’s buffers are gone. Once-absorbent forest land is now occupied by impervious surfaces, and our rivers collect sediment.
“Nature has no storage capacity,” Dove said. “We filled the wetlands. We’ve cut down the forests. We’ve gotten rid of the buffer. … Is there a rainbow after Floyd? Well, I say not if we’re going to continue on with the practices of the past.”
Said Kilburn: “The people of God are taught to look for rainbows after floods. Sometimes renewal follows destruction; resurrection follows death. Not guaranteed, but possible.”