It feels strange to already be talking about this year’s hurricane season, especially since communities in Texas, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Florida are still recovering from last year’s historic season, but the reality of the situation is that it’s just one month away and we’re not ready.
Last year, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria laid waste to Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Texas, and Florida, making clear that our nation’s infrastructure is not keeping up with the impacts of climate change. In some areas, the hurricanes destroyed critical infrastructure systems, plunged millions of Americans into darkness, and further aggravated an already desperate need for safe water. Today, Puerto Rico’s grid is still unstable and families in Houston are still displaced. They’re still trying to get back on their feet while staring down the barrel of another hurricane season.
What happened last year should have been a wake up call — a wake-up call to not only provide these communities with adequate relief, but also to get out ahead of these impacts we know will continue to come and to rebuild to be stronger and more resilient. This wake up call should have resulted in lawmakers getting serious about developing a robust plan to rebuild our nation’s crumbling infrastructure that addresses the growing challenge of climate change, makes our communities more resilient to extreme weather and other threats, and creates quality, family-sustaining jobs. That’s not what happened. In fact, the administration and lawmakers have publicly admitted that a comprehensive infrastructure package is on the back-burner and won’t be dealt with until next year at the earliest.
That is certainly far too late to be useful to communities in the hurricane danger zone.
UNION MEMBERS AND ENVIRONMENTALISTS STEP UP TO HELP
Luckily, if last year taught us anything, it’s that when disaster strikes, even if Congress drags its feet, labor union members across the nation will be quick to jump into action. Here are a just a few examples of how labor unions helped provide relief to areas impacted by last year’s devastating hurricane season.
- The American Federation of Teachers Launched Operation Agua
Puerto Rico’s water infrastructure was in bad shape long before Hurricane Maria hit. According to one report, 99.5 percent of the population was served by community water systems in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act. Maria only made the situation worse, leaving at least 30 percent of the population without access to drinkable water of any sort. Reports from the island told of desperate citizens drinking from hazardous Superfund sites, and filling jugs in contaminated runoff.
The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) could not stand by as the health, safety, and lives of millions of American citizens were put at risk. AFT launched Operation Agua to provide safe drinking water to families across Puerto Rico. The union collected donations for the purchase and distribution of water filtration systems throughout the island. Operation Agua has raised at least $1.75 million since it was launched and has delivered 54,000 water filters across the island, including to more than 1,100 public schools and tens of thousands of homes, churches, and community centers.
2. United Steelworkers Members Helped Evacuate Houston during Flooding
When flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey forced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes in Texas, members of United Steelworkers (USW) were among those to brave the rising waters to rescue individuals and families stuck in dangerous situations. When the water finally receded, USW members were there to help their brothers and sisters begin to rebuild.
3. Supply Drives and Distribution Centers Were Set up
Hurricane Harvey impacted more United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters (UA) members than any of the other storms to hit the United States in 2017. As the storm began to clear, UA members immediately began collecting supplies. A distribution center was organized to get donations from UA members throughout the nation out to those in need.
By the end of September 2017, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers (SMART) had distributed roughly $500,000 in cash and material relief to impacted members. Volunteers across the U.S. and Canada collected and delivered box fans, dehumidifiers, bleach, food, diapers, and other items to members in affected communities.
4. Disaster Relief Funds Were Launched
In addition to manning the boats that were used to rescue people from the flood waters in Texas, USW launched a disaster relief fund, as did UA. A similar fund was opened by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to help members in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and California impacted by 2017’s powerful storms and the wildfires that continue to burn in the west.
5) Members of the Utility Workers Union of America Hit the Road to Get the Lights Back on
Members of the Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA) were among the first to spring into action after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma left thousands of residents in Texas and Florida without electricity. UWUA members from across the country loaded up their trucks to help get the lights back on in impacted communities.
6) Environmentalists Jumped Into Action Too
Another BlueGreen Alliance member, the Sierra Club, was quick to launch relief efforts after the Hurricanes hit. The group mobilized a response team to get on the ground in Puerto Rico as rapidly as possible. The response team worked with contacts in Puerto Rico to arrange shipments to the island of solar lanterns and water filters, which were then distributed in many cases door-to-door to those without electricity or access to clean water.
WE NEED TO BE READY FOR THE EXTREME WEATHER CLIMATE CHANGE IS BRINGING
Throughout the nation, America’s workers have been on the ground, helping to provide critical services to those in need, volunteering their time and money to those who have lost everything. Unfortunately, the problem is much bigger than can be handled by even the most ambitious of our laborers.
It only makes sense to build our infrastructure for the conditions of the future, not the past. The Union of Concerned Scientists in November 2017, released a white paper exploring what a climate smart infrastructure system might look like in California, another area of the country that has been greatly impacted by the affects of climate change.
It’s time for Congress to take seriously the growing impact that climate change is having on our nation and support commonsense measures to ensure our communities are prepared for its impacts, like making sure the next generation of American infrastructure is built climate smart.