Our climate is changing quickly — and outpacing our nation’s ability to prevent or prepare for disruptions to our energy system. And, as is so often the case in the wake of natural disasters, low-wealth people and communities of color, who contribute the least to climate change, are most at risk.
Hurricane Ian, which last week struck my home state, is the most recent illustration.
Ian left some 2 million of my fellow Floridians, not to mention hundreds of thousands in the Carolinas, without the power they need to light, heat, and cool their homes, cook meals, connect to work and school, or access life-saving medical care.
Several of the most severely impacted counties have high poverty rates. Additionally, about 9 percent of Floridians live in manufactured housing, and the percentage is growing. Approximately 281,000 households in the areas affected by Ian live in manufactured housing, which is particularly vulnerable to disasters because it isn’t traditionally built to withstand hurricane-level winds or floods.
As Center for Progressive Reform President Rob Verchick notes, “Catastrophe is bad for everyone, but it is especially bad for the weak and disenfranchised.”
One week after Ian made landfall, almost 200,000 customers of Florida Power & Light, the state’s main power company, are still navigating floods and still without power. Those who have been able to evade flooded areas are seeking refuge at outage relief sites within various Florida counties. These sites are providing temporary shelter, food, water, and even charging stations, as many victims haven’t been able to contact friends and family during the disaster. Electric companies are working to restore power, but, due to extensive flooding, it has taken longer than usual to do so.
I have a sense of what they’re going through. As a Louisiana native, having spent my formative years in Baton Rouge, I vividly remember when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. The storm and its aftermath left my family without power for two weeks during one of the hottest and most humid months of the year. Without electricity, two weeks felt like an eternity. I distinctly remember my mother driving us back and forth to a family member’s home to charge our cell phones, take a hot shower, and cool down for a few minutes each day. I considered myself fortunate to have that option when so many others did not.
Grocery stores were also without power, making it difficult to find water. To purchase a gallon or two — the maximum allotment — we had to stand in the grocery store line for long periods, and the lines stretched to the back of the store. Almost two decades later, these memories flood back to me as I consider the Floridians who are now experiencing the aftereffects of Ian.
A More Energy-Resilient Future
Natural disasters in the United States and around the world are becoming common as our climate changes. Storms are becoming more frequent and intense, sea levels are rising, and waters are warming. At the same time, our population is growing, which places a strain on resources and exposes more people to climate-related issues such as hurricanes and flooding, especially in low-resource areas. As the population grows, we’re developing more of our natural land, drilling more oil, and cutting down forests — all activities that exacerbate climate change and damage our environment’s “natural infrastructure.”
With an ever growing number of people relying on traditional energy sources, it becomes more and more difficult to recover in times of disaster. As Ian churned toward Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a State of Emergency. Evacuations were not encouraged until one day before Ian made landfall, at which point the economically advantaged were able to evacuate while the already overburdened were forced to ride out the storm. Many residents live paycheck-to-paycheck and had no financial cushion to weather the storm — no emergency fund, no extra food and water, no home generator—and have had to go without energy for extended periods, making it difficult to carry out basic activities, like cooking, working, and going to school.
Fortunately, many in the public and private sectors are working to build a more energy resilient future for all.
From 2005 to 2015, Florida Power & Light has undertaken efforts to make Florida’s energy grids more resilient by progressively replacing wooden electric poles with concrete fixtures, which are better equipped to withstand extreme weather. In both Florida and the Carolinas, electric companies placed extra crew members on standby in preparation of Ian.
But these efforts don’t go nearly far enough — and don’t take equity into full or fair account.
All the while, the inequality gap is widening.
As Ian demonstrated, decades-old energy-related hurricane plans don’t meet the needs of today’s social infrastructure. Although electric companies had extra crew members on standby, flooding and wreckage have prevented access to hard-hit areas. Black community members say they are used to being the last to have power restored during inclement weather and didn’t expect any difference with Ian.
One proposed solution to energy injustice is to empower communities to generate their own electricity utilizing renewables. This not only reduces carbon emissions, but it also alleviates the burden of high energy costs and ensures security and resilience in the wake of extreme weather events. The Center for Progressive Reform recently launched a Campaign for Energy Justice in North Carolina. Concerns have been raised about affordability and equity as the state’s leading energy company plans to dramatically reduce carbon emissions through renewable energy. Everyone, not just the wealthy, needs reliable access to affordable clean energy.
In a 2018 report published by the Center for Progressive Reform, From Surviving to Thriving: Equity in Disaster Planning and Recovery, the authors suggest rethinking our infrastructure and making room for “smart” power grids that provide clean energy. The report makes several good recommendations, only some of which have been implemented.