Floodwaters engulf a car near Desoto, Missouri.
Floodwaters engulf a car near DeSoto, Missouri. Photo courtesy of the Citizens Committee for Flood Relief.

Survivors Recount Harrowing Battles Against Flooding

How four leaders on the frontlines are fighting to save their communities

Flood activists across the country are fighting crumbling infrastructure, apathetic local governments, over-development, gentrification, and the destruction of wetlands and forests. In their own lives, many are also battling damaged property, rising insurance costs, debt, physical illness, and emotional stress — all in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Higher Ground is the nation’s largest network of flood survivors. Their rallying cry, “I Flood and I Vote,” raises consciousness that flooding is more than a climate problem, it’s a political problem. This page profiles leading activists based on interviews provided by Higher Ground. Some quotes were edited for clarity and length.

Queen Quet Marquetta L. Goodwine, Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation

St. Helena Island, South Carolina

Queen Quet on the shoreline amid trees toppled from erosion.
Queen Quet on the shoreline amid toppled trees. Photo courtesy of Queen Quet.

Queen Quet Marquetta L. Goodwine is Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, and founder of the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition, a chain of islands running from Jacksonville, North Carolina to Jacksonville, Florida. The Gullah/Geechee people can trace their roots back to the Africans who were enslaved there. As both a traditional spiritual leader and the thrice-elected head of state of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, Queen Quet is leading her people through floods on multiple fronts.

On Coastal Erosion, Overdevelopment, and Government Apathy:
“As a Native Gullah/Geechee person, I’ve seen throughout my life differences in the fluctuation of how water ought to work, in terms of human life. We all expect rain at times, we all expect the tide to come and go when you’re island people. But you don’t expect the tide to begin to come in and take out massive amounts of trees with it, for instance. We started seeing over the last couple of decades that you start going to shoreline areas and you literally see the trees laying down. When we mentioned this to so-called ‘elected officials’ they just looked like [shrugs] ‘no big deal.’ … We saw this increasing the more the overbuilding was happening along our shores.”

Susan Liley, Citizens Committee for Flood Relief

DeSoto, Missouri

A community meeting of the Citizens Committee for Flood Relief.
Susan Liley is at the far right. Photo courtesy of Higher Ground.

Susan Liley was tired of seeing her community devastated by flash floods year after year. Following the drowning of neighbors trapped in their cars, and the drowning of horses trapped in a barn during flash floods, Liley and a few friends formed the Citizens Committee for Flood Relief to find viable solutions. The Citizens Committee connected with the US Army Corp of Engineers Silver Jackets program, who undertook a flood study and worked with the community to develop a flash flood warning system, so local residents can monitor rainfall and water levels to the inch on their phones, and get life-saving advance warning of a deadly flash flood. Liley is still pushing elected leaders to prevent dangerous “fill and build” real estate practices that leave more families vulnerable to flooding, and to implement natural solutions to absorb floodwater at its source.

On Predatory Real Estate Practices:
“We’ve got to work hard on ‘re-buying flood homes.’ We’ve got to stop that practice… We don’t need to have another family come in and go through the same pain that the other family has already been through. Repetitive loss homes should never be sold. People will contact me at least once a week and say ‘hey, how about this home?’ and I’ll say, ‘well maybe water didn’t get inside, but a car washed away.’ Or, ‘a huge 60-yard dumpster went down the creek there,’ but people feel like these homes are so cheap, and it’s not going to happen again. It is going to happen again. We’ve got to stop the repetitive loss flooding.”

“A lot of people these days think that ‘fill and build’ is the solution. ‘If you fill it up and make it higher, you’re not going to flood.’ Well that doesn’t work out either. Somebody else is going to flood because you build. These people in town, their homes are at least 60 to 100 years old. They didn’t build in a floodplain, the floodplain built around them.”

Hilton Kelly, Community In-Power and Development Association

Port Arthur, Texas

Hilton Kelly, flooding and environmental justice activist.
Hilton Kelly, photo courtesy of Higher Ground.

Port Arthur is home to more than 50,000 people, predominantly Black and Latinx. The Gulf Coast city on the Texas/Louisiana border is surrounded by refineries and chemical plants and is host to the largest oil refinery in North America, Motiva. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey hit Port Arthur especially hard, dumping 26 inches of rain on the city in 24 hours. Mr. Hilton Kelley is a former actor, U.S. Navy veteran and 2011 Goldman Environmental Prize awardee. For decades, he has been fighting the environmental violations by polluting industries and raising global awareness about environmental racism.

On Pollution and COVID-19:
We have a disproportionate amount of pollution being dumped into our air here in the city of Port Arthur and to add insult to injury, what we are finding from the reports is that COVID-19 really does take a toll on people that already suffer pre-existing conditions when it comes to respiratory issues like hypertension, liver or kidney disease.”

On Increasing Hurricane Frequency:
“We’re no stranger to storms, but I do remember a time when hurricanes weren’t as frequent…and they weren’t very strong and they stayed South, more like by Corpus Christi. And the furthest they would come up to the Port Arthur/Houston area was somewhere in between Corpus and Houston…Within the last 15 years we have seen at least maybe four to five hurricanes coming to the Gulf per year and we believe that it’s large and in part because of climate change.”

Suzanne Hornick, Ocean City, NJ Flooding

Ocean City, New Jersey

Suzanne Hornick displays a lawn sign against flooding in Ocean City
Suzanne Hornick displays a lawn sign against flooding in Ocean City. Photo courtesy of Higher Ground and Suzanne Hornick.

Suzanne Hornick was laughed at, mocked, and threatened with eviction from city council meetings for demanding that the Ocean City do something about the chronic flooding that was burying many parts of the island under four feet of water multiple times a week. It wasn’t until Mrs. Hornick started posting videos and photos of floodwater on social media that her neighbors joined her grassroots effort to force Ocean City’s elected officials to take the problem seriously. Their campaign forced the city to change its tune from “live with it or leave” to making a multi-million-dollar investment in new stormwater drainage infrastructure and committing to manage flooding long-term.

On How Rising Seas Impact Life in Ocean City:
“Flooding keeps you from getting to your doctor’s appointments, your dialysis appointments, your pharmacy. It causes property damage and destruction. It causes mold. There are so many things that people don’t think about. Flooding can destroy your way of life.”

On Flooding as a National Problem:
There is nobody advocating for flooding victims, and we flood all over the country. People don’t realize that. There’s flooding going on in the Midwest, the East Coast, the West Coast, the North the South. Higher Ground is bringing us all together to share our resources, but also to help each other and to help other people who come along and say ‘hey wait, I’m having that problem, too.’”

Higher Ground is the largest network of flood survivors in the United States, representing 20 U.S. states and Puerto Rico. Eighty percent of Higher Ground’s 52 chapter leaders are women and 60 percent represent low-income and communities of color. To connect with members of Higher Ground, email Marlene Peralta: MPeralta@climatenexus.org.

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