Lost in the Flood
What’s happened in Houston, Florida, and the Caribbean is beyond comprehension: back-to-back historic storms the likes of which no one has seen before.
The Sierra Club is a national organization, but we’re also part of each of the communities that have been affected by these storms — from Puerto Rico, to Florida, to Houston and the Gulf Coast. You can learn about what we’re doing to help these communities recover and find out how to help here. Our advocacy for a just recovery will endure, long after the TV cameras have gone elsewhere.
I don’t know how these extreme events will change our country, but I’d like to see two things happen above and beyond the immediate relief and recovery efforts. My first hope is that we’ll see a renewed and urgent national conversation about climate change (though EPA administrator Scott Pruitt’s cowardice doesn’t inspire much confidence). My second is that these hurricanes will reinforce how much we rely on each other and on our government — not only during disasters but also before they occur.
During these storms, many brave people risked their lives to save others, but one whose story I’ll never forget was Alonso Guillén, a 31-year-old immigrant who drove more than 100 miles south to Houston from his home so he could help rescue people from the floodwaters. Alonso was a “dreamer,” someone who was brought to the U.S. as a child, grew up here, finished school, and stayed out of trouble. Although a strong swimmer, Alonso drowned when he was thrown from his boat after it struck a freeway bridge. Just days later, President Trump announced that he would terminate DACA, the program that protects 800,000 people like Alonso from being deported.
The Sierra Club, of course, has a problem with that attitude. The word “protect” is right there in our motto, after all. We fight for protections every day — for public lands, for the climate, and — especially — for people. We believe that everyone has a right to clean air and clean water — not just those who can afford it. Along with a lot of other basic human rights (such as a basic education, a living wage, and equal treatment under the law), clean air and water have to be protected. Providing those protections is not just the job of government, it’s the responsibility.
What happens if the government turns its back on that responsibility? For one, we pay a steeper price when the waters rise, the winds blow, and the fires rage. It’s not hard to make the connection. For example, Donald Trump tweeted his appreciation for the Coast Guard, which saved thousands of lives during Hurricane Harvey. His exact words were “We love our Coast Guard!” That’s the same Coast Guard that his proposed budget would decimate by $1.3 billion in annual funding.
Trump was also quick to compliment FEMA chief Brock Long for “doing a great job” — yet has proposed that FEMA’s budget be slashed by more than $1 billion. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, which is responsible not only for climate research but also for tracking hurricanes, would get a 16 percent budget cut if Trump’s budget were passed. Trump’s rationale for these cuts? To help pay for a border wall and mass deportations. Incidentally, had Alonso Guillén lived, he could well have been among those deported.
Though they clearly show his priorities, Trump’s budget cuts are still only proposals. Over at the EPA, though, the crusade against protection is in full swing under Administrator Scott Pruitt. Since the EPA’s actual mission is protection — it’s right there in the name — Pruitt is working overtime to dismantle not only the EPA’s previous policies but the agency itself. If he and the Trump administration can permanently damage or even destroy the EPA, they will.
Meanwhile, over at the Department of the Interior, Secretary Ryan Zinke is actually working to un-protect national monuments. Undoing protections is the guiding principle of this administration, and it’s not just protections for the environment. Consumer protections. Health insurance protections. Voter protections. You name it — they want to un-protect it.
If they succeed and these protections are weakened or even eliminated altogether, all of us will lose something. Inevitably, though, some people will lose more. It won’t be fair, either. Usually the ones hurt the most deeply will be those who had the least to begin with. That’s also true after a hurricane. But while no one can stop a hurricane, we can stop injustice.
Our nation is supposedly divided by an unbridgeable chasm between right and left. Don’t believe it. People put up bridges in a hurry when confronting disasters like Harvey and Irma. That’s because we really do care what happens to others. We want to help. During Harvey and Irma, thousands of people like Alonso Guillén rushed to do that, and the same will happen during and after every other disaster the planet throws at us. Millions of us who are nowhere near the destruction will contribute what we can to help those who need it. I can’t explain why other than to say it’s part of being a decent human being: Care about other people. Protect the vulnerable. Do unto others.
That the people running our federal government have chosen to turn their backs on those principles is a tragedy of its own — one with the potential to amplify every other disaster that comes our way. We can’t let that happen. So while our first responsibility will always be to help those who need it now, we mustn’t forget our other responsibility. Every day, we’ll keep fighting not just for protections but also for the principle of protecting.