We Create the Disasters, Not Nature

I have a million things I have to write,  but I can’t stop thinking about a photo from Houston I saw on social media over the weekend. It was the sitting room of a nursing home for the elderly, with water that was waist-deep. The dark water was filthy, with what looked like cigarette butts floating in it. Everything sat in the water: a popcorn machine, lamps, recliners, wheelchairs, articles of clothing. Also sitting in the water:  people.

Old people. Frail people. People who need wheelchairs, walkers, and crutches to get around. People not sure-footed enough to be able to wade through water, with eyesight too poor to see obstacles in the water even if it were clear. People whose papery skin had been sitting in contact with that water for hours, making it more easily tear-able. People with bandages hiding wounds that shouldn’t be in contact with the filthy water. People whose sweaters and blankets are soaked.

Time Magazine reported that someone in the home texted this photo to a resident’s family, who posted it to social media asking for help. After it received thousands of shaming retweets, the city of Houston redirected some strained resources to airlift the seniors out of their center to shelter.

I’m grateful that this part of Hurricane Harvey’s story has a happy ending. I’m glad no one was hurt during evacuation.

But I’m so incredibly angry, still.

I’m raging, because this picture never had to happen. What’s happening in Texas right now, never had to happen. Never should have happened. Never should happen again.

Don’t get me wrong- I know that Houston is working its collective ass off to rescue people right now. And the rest of us are donating what money we can part with (are we? Please do) to help them. I am not criticizing the helpers, who are always underappreciated and overworked.

I am criticizing all of the spineless degenerates who let it get to this point, and who have hamstrung the helpers at every turn, making their missions more difficult, dangerous, and tragic.

The planet, and by default, the country, are going to have more natural disasters. The intensity, both in terms of numbers and severity, will continue to increase. These facts are undeniable, because climate change is undeniable. Censoring it does not change that fact.

What makes a disaster a disaster isn’t the category of Hurricane (or whatever is occurring), and where it is hitting, but the ways in which humans have prepared for it. Or in our case, failed to do so.

There is a whole messy soup of factors that can turn a hurricane into a disaster, most of them decided by humans, and therefore changeable: where people live,  building codes, poverty, civil planning,  transportation issues, insurance regulation, healthcare, preparedness and mitigation, infrastructure, funding for technology, immigration policy,  racism, ableism, ageism, all the isms, energy policy, and likely so many more things I haven’t thought of.

It’s not an accident that the most vulnerable among us are also the ones most affected by natural disaster, and usually the ones who are helped last, if at all. Think about the people who can only afford homes in Tornado alley or in places that have historically flooded. Think about those from cities where insurance is only accessible to those with a certain income. Think about what parts of a city get sandbagged and protected before a storm, and which parts are left to fend for themselves. Think about which parts of a city get ambulance and fire services, and which parts emergency responders are too scared to go into. Think about who can afford to pay, and who is too afraid to call for help in case they can’t.

All of these things tell us about our priorities and about our values. People might be equal under the law, but they aren’t equal in practice- some lives are seen as worth more than others, and we don’t choose to spend the money needed to make every life seem equally valuable.

And because these choices are as American as apple pie, we elect people who tweet about winning Missouri while the infirm watch with weary eyes as floodwater creeps up around their wheelchairs.

“Good Luck,” he finally tweeted.

It’s time to hold policy-makers accountable for their willful negligence in these disasters. We all need to find out who the helpers of our cities/states/countries are, and what it is they need, and then pressure politicians to provide it. Then speak to those people in your circles and beyond who want it to be a Mad Max style every person for themselves situation. Speak to them until they understand: we are all responsible for each other.

Until we succeed, if you can, please give.

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