Valencia Gunder: ‘Boots on the ground’ at the front lines of climate change, poverty and disaster
Hurricane Irma is bearing down on Miami, and I’m restless. I’m doing a bunch of work to help coordinate and support our journalism team and our community over at The New Tropic. I’m volunteering some with the Irma Response civic hacking team. I’m also talking with a lot of really inspiring friends who are doing a lot of good in our city right now. I can’t sleep. I can’t focus on novels or Netflix, and I’m already sick of tracking the slow unfurling of the “cone of uncertainty.” So, I’m hoping to spend some of my nervous energy and endless waiting hours recording a few stories.
When I answer Valencia Gunder’s call around 10 p.m. Wednesday, she blurts out, “Do you have a plan?” Her tone is more exasperation than concern. I’d better have a plan. I do, and I rattle off a logistical decision tree that’s branching into fractals. Stay if there’s no evacuation in my zone. Head to my sister-in-law’s if there is. But if they evacuate more people inland, then further north.
“That’s good, good.” She is distracted. I ask her about herself. Our voices overlap. A pause. “Oh, I’m staying. I’m here with my hurricane-proof windows. I got a generator. I got food and water and all my supplies and everything. We’re ready.” She rushes on. “Listen …”
Gunder is a force. She is on a mission, but not in that ironic Miami way. Valencia is chasing justice, knowledge, growth. She is a Liberty City activist strengthening into a national voice on civil rights, on gun violence, on climate change and low-income communities just as Hurricane Irma spins toward her home turf.
Gunder and other activists working in low-income communities have formed Miami Climate Alliance, and now they’re running their own emergency operations center. They’re creating shared documents of hurricane updates, plans and resources for local leaders. This is why she called. They’re talking to media, to the city, the county, to the Red Cross. They’re making sure they’re top of mind.
“Resilience and emergency planning has never been equitable,” she said. Many people in her community can’t afford hurricane supplies, she said. They’re making decisions between rent and groceries already, and the landlord doesn’t have to put any shutters up.
“I tell them once the shelter opens, go to the shelter. But that is only because they live close to one of the high schools that is a shelter. What about somebody who doesn’t live by a shelter?”
They take the bus. They coordinate rides. They share information in Google docs, through tangled networks of texts, in Facebook posts, through WhatsApp group chat, on the radio, door-to-door, through the churches — and in three languages. She worries it won’t be enough.
“When you fail to do community outreach before a storm, people can’t evacuate properly when it’s here.”
Worse, Gunder said, some are scared to go to a shelter. Migrant workers and undocumented people are worried someone will ask for their papers, she said.
That hasn’t happened here, but fear is a powerful motivator. And there is reason for fear. The president has just ended DACA. The mayor and the commission of this county where more than half the residents speak a language other than English at home renounced Miami’s designation as a ‘sanctuary city’ soon after his inauguration. And the sheriff in Polk County gleefully announced that they’d check everyone’s IDs in their shelters to keep out criminals. So, Gunder and her alliance are looking for churches, centers, places unaffiliated with government that might open their doors.
“We can’t wait for government,” she said. Officials have been responsive and inclusive in the lead up to Irma. They’re accessible. They’re listening. They’re trying to help, but these communities have to help themselves, she said. They can’t afford to wait.
Irma is a huge storm, an Andrew-sized storm. Florida City was poor before Hurricane Andrew wiped out almost half its tax base. It was even poorer after. Poor areas take longer to recover from disasters because they can’t compete with more affluent cities and towns for state and federal recovery funds. Fewer of their residents have private insurance. When poor areas lose homeowners to disaster, they often don’t get them back.
Last-minute shoppers scoured the grocery stores for water and the hardware stores for plywood Wednesday. Some resorted to buying oak boards to shield their windows and doors. Being the last to get in line is an expensive problem to have, no matter the economic scale.
But people in Liberty City are calling Gunder to tell her they don’t have anything. Can she help? She’s trying. And she is calling too. Urging people with a little more to help those with a little less. Share your resources. Help your neighbors. Give somebody a ride. Open your home.
We’re going to have to learn to work together, she said. And as soon as the rain stops, Valencia Gunder plans to be “boots on the ground” and ready for the work ahead.
“What this is to us is a wake-up call to be on our shit and be better prepared for next time. Because there will be a next time. Because climate change is real.”