Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in Keep It Rural, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Like what you see? Join the mailing list for more rural news, thoughts, and analysis in your inbox each week.
Late last week, the Northeast was drenched by historic rainfall that flooded most of New York City (enough water fell into the Central Park Zoo’s sea lion enclosure for one resident to temporarily escape) and hammered the Hudson Valley and Long Island. Neighboring Connecticut saw major flooding on roads and bridges throughout the state.
The weather hit the Northeast at the same time Congress toiled over the 2024 federal budget, the threat of a government shutdown increasing as the clock ticked closer to midnight, October 1. A stopgap bill passed by Congress and signed by President Biden just before the close of the night on Saturday temporarily averted a shutdown, giving policymakers until November 17 to reach an agreement over federal funding. This means vital welfare programs that would have lost funding (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program, for example) will continue to see money flowing in until mid-November.
Disaster relief funding was also in limbo as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grappled with a shortage in their disaster relief fund which funnels money to states and counties after a natural disaster, like last year’s East Kentucky flooding or, soon, the Northeast’s September 2023 flooding. The agency paused $2.8 billion in spending as it braced for a government shutdown. The environmental publication Grist reported that Perry County, Kentucky, had already been informed by FEMA in August that their federal reimbursements would be paused, even after the county spent $2 million of their own money to rebuild roads and buildings.
The stopgap bill passed over the weekend lifted this pause and allocated $16 billion to FEMA’s disaster relief fund and extended the National Flood Insurance Program, avoiding catastrophe (for now) in the places reeling from disasters both recent and past. But the disaster funding shortage – and the kvetching by House Republicans over the 2024 budget that could have extended this shortage – serve as a foreboding reminder of the forces that control how we respond to a future that will be shaped by disaster, and who gets left behind.
Predictably, I first learned about the Northeast flooding through Twitter (fine, X), where people posted videos of cars splashing through multiple feet of water and a whirlpool that somehow formed in New York City. One person tweeted, in reference to the videos, a quote I’ve seen before that has been circulated online so many times that the original attribution is difficult to find: “climate change will manifest as a series of disasters viewed through phones with footage that gets closer and closer to where you live until you’re the one filming it.”
It’s a spooky quote and perhaps not totally accurate – many more disasters go undocumented, or at least don’t go viral online, usually because they don’t happen in New York City but instead rural Kentucky or Nebraska or Nevada, places that don’t command media attention. But the message resonates with me, especially as someone who has spent the majority of her digital lifetime watching the effects of climate change increase exponentially, the videos getting closer and closer to home. I have also watched this disastrous reality be shaped by the whims of politicians who have vacillated time and time again over meaningful climate policy, too often acquiescing to the wants of the fossil fuels industry instead.
The most vulnerable communities feel the effects first: the East Kentucky floods were a deadly result of the havoc coal mining wreaked on the land, stripping rolling mountains of the trees that naturally prevent erosion and leaving rural communities nestled in the foothills vulnerable to flooding. When the rains hit, 45 people died and the region was left to rebuild, with some help from the federal government. The coal industry, which has a terrible habit of abandoning land after they’re done with it, has largely gotten off the hook for a problem they created.
Lax regulation has fueled this problem, and last week’s almost-shutdown shows just how volatile our future could be in the hands of bipartisan bellyaching. While FEMA’s disaster relief fund has now been refilled, the decision was made almost literally in the 11th hour, and had it gone the other way, it would have left communities like the ones in the currently-flooded Northeast to fend for themselves.
Politicians have known about the threat of climate change for years and have had the time to prepare. Yet here they are, procrastinating in the face of disaster.