As floodwaters ravaged Middle Tennessee on a Saturday in August, people reached out to ask if my family and I were okay. We were. This was a familiar experience, right down to the texts of “Are you okay?” In 2010, my sophomore prom and the rest of that school year were canceled by the great floods that made national news for swamping Nashville landmarks like the Grand Ole Opry. I spent that weekend wading in floodwaters, chasing tractor tires as they floated away, and the rest of the summer cleaning city trash out of our fields so we could replant our crops. There was another more localized flood in 2011 that yet again disrupted school, washed-out roads, and flooded homes in the area. We helped each other through it. The bold response of our government and regular citizens working together to dig ourselves out of the crisis drove me to begin a career organizing rural Tennessee. Across the state, Tennesseans lift each other up, provide for each other’s needs, even search through rubble to find one another. We believe we can get through things, and so we do. That’s how I know that when we come together and share a goal, we can face big problems and solve them.
A little over a decade later, as I was experiencing the deja vu of flood pictures from my friends on social media and hearing stories of the devastation from August’s floods unfolding, it struck me exactly why I could be so sure my family was safe. Like many privileged families in small towns, we live in homes built on high ground. Our hilltops serve as places of refuge in disasters. My confidence in my family’s safety is rooted in a nagging inequality that nearly every community faces as the climate crisis mounts. As “100-year” floods become “once a decade” floods, the privilege of high-ground housing is increasingly scarce and vital. This inequality was put in sharp relief during the floods this past August, as swollen creeks jumped their banks and swallowed hollers within minutes, turning low-lying homes into death traps, ripping some clean off their foundations, leaving nothing but polished slabs of concrete.
This storm hit folks from all walks of life, but we cannot ignore that it was the poor and marginalized that bore the brunt of the flood in Waverly. How we structure our communities perpetuates racism in disasters. It’s no coincidence that, in small towns and big cities, our Black, brown, and poor communities are often relegated to the back of the holler by the sleepy creek, or down in the river bottoms. Public housing neighborhoods were hit especially hard. When the water wakes up, these communities become frontlines in the fight for life, and it’s happening with greater frequency and severity. Our climate is changing and becoming more extreme. What was at one time manageable and rare flood conditions in some neighborhoods, are now commonplace with areas becoming repeated disaster zones.
The effects of the climate crisis are here, and we have an opportunity to prevent loss of life, tackle racial and wealth inequality, and address climate change, while revitalizing rural and underserved communities. This will require changes in housing policy, community planning, investing in clean energy, and disaster response that supports families living in harm’s way before the next flood comes.
Legislation such as the budget reconciliation and infrastructure bill waiting in Congress could increase and streamline investment in newly flood-prone property at pre-storm prices, guaranteeing a family’s safety and financial security. This would allow local governments to shift their infrastructure investments from continual reconstruction after storm damage to building in safer areas and using the unreliably dry ground alongside bodies of water as much-needed green space. This shouldn’t stop with housing. Several grocery stores, churches, and a 911 call center were all impacted during the August flooding. The breakdown in services made it harder for authorities to respond, setting back rescue efforts while dozens of our neighbors were still missing. We should help local governments protect their vital services and relocate them if need be.
We also have an opportunity with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the nation’s largest public power provider right here in Tennessee, to lead the transition to clean energy that can help make these events less severe in the future by reducing planet-warming emissions from the power sector. However, their current decarbonization plans and plans to build new gas plants are out of line with the science and with President Biden’s goals of decarbonizing the electricity sector by 2035. The federal budget reconciliation package currently being considered by Congress would also help drive the transition to clean energy by incentivizing and supporting clean energy and energy efficiency, with particular provisions for under resourced communities, would also help drive the transition to clean energy by incentivizing utilities around the country to add more clean energy generation.
I have organized rural Tennesseans for nearly ten years. They are ready for change and are willing to do the work. It’s time for Washington, Nashville, and TVA to do their part by investing in our shared future.
Tennesseans want to work together and be part of our own solutions. It’s time our government gave us the tools to handle these mounting crises more sustainably and justly. Some are saying we cannot plan for disasters like this, but we are seeing them happen over and over again – and this is just the beginning. Our weather patterns will become more extreme as the planet warms. Without addressing the moral failure of centuries of structural racism and classism in towns big and small, we will collectively pay a higher and higher price in the years to come, handing taxpayers bigger bills every time we need to rebuild the “American Dream” for families we’ve pushed into places where it is all but certain to wash away next time the waters rise. If we, as a country, really want to be the shining city on a hill – it’s time to start building houses for everybody up there.
This guest post was written by Charles Uffelman, Training Director at Organize Tennessee.