Visionary Science, Ethics, Law and Action in the Public Interest

State of Emergency (& Rage): A Live Journal, Part III




I’m angry today. So very angry.


Hurricane Florence is still heading towards the East Coast with winds of 110 miles per hour, based on the satellite models shared this morning.


Families have boarded up their homes, placed sandbag barriers, and a million people have been issued mandatory evacuations. People are scared, people are already counting their losses, and even though they have been preparing for this storm for days, it’s very possible that life will be lost.


Yes, the winds have slowed from 140 and even 130 miles per hour and that is good news, but not good enough to change the outcome of the storm. When dealing with hurricanes, volume of rainfall isn’t the only concern—storm surges are often the real problem and while the wind has dropped 20 miles per hour in the past day, there is still “wave memory”, meaning the potential for the same amount of predicted storm surge water of 20+ feet is still entirely possible.


Now for why I am seething and trying desperately not to punch my fingers through each of the plastic keys on my keyboard…


Yesterday the President of The United States issued a warning to the Eastern Seaboard in front of the White House press pool and I am having a really difficult time articulating exactly my feelings, so here is a quick rundown:


Trump on Hurricane Florence: “It’s tremendously big and tremendously wet”.

I have no response to this statement other than it is utterly ridiculous, completely devoid of factual information, and also completely useless to the million people who have been issued mandatory evacuations.


But, on second thought, I have an obligation to respond to this as someone who is paying attention, as someone who cares. What the figurehead of the United States government failed to mention was not only the potential for immediate devastating impacts from heavy rainfall, winds, and anticipated storm surges of 20+ feet; he also failed to mention (or read off the pre-prepared statement on his desk) the following critical topics that are going to factor into the long-term recovery efforts from this storm:


  1. Critical public infrastructure is impacted by a lot less rain than what North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia are expected to experience. What you failed to mention, Mr. President, is that wastewater treatment plants are typically placed at lower elevations in close proximity to coastlines in order to take advantage of gravity and require less pumping stations. The resources saved in foregoing more pumping stations is completely null and void when it comes to the impacts of coastal flooding. See, wastewater treatment systems are not usually redundant. Houses and businesses are connected to a sewer line that connects to one wastewater treatment plant. Once power fails at that plant, there is no failsafe, nowhere else for the untreated waste to be re-routed. Last year, Hurricane Harvey caused 40 wastewater treatment plants to go offline for days and even weeks. 7 of the original 40 remained inoperable for a month after the initial storm (Hummel, Berry, & Stacey 2018).


  1. You know what else was built near coastlines? Nuclear power plants. A majority of nuclear power plants were built in the 1970’s and 1980’s when people assumed that sea level rise would be extremely gradual. This was great news considering nuclear power plants require a reliable source of water for constant cooling procedures. However, we are now living in a climate changed and sea levels are rising far faster than the engineers predicted. This is problematic because, yes, nuclear power plants require reliable and plentiful water, but flooding can cause the systems to become overwhelmed and shut down. Without the cooling systems running, the chance of meltdown (literally the equipment melting down from the radioactive material), is high, risking short-term and long-term radiation exposure to the surrounding population. Why is this a problem related to Hurricane Florence? I refer to Julia McNamara of the Union of Concerned Scientists to answer this one for us: “There are 7 nuclear reactors operating in South Carolina and 5 in North Carolina, plus 4 more in Virginia.”


To further compound this problem, the storm is directly on target to hit Duke Energy’s Brunswick Nuclear Power Station, which, after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, was reported by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to have, “hundreds of missing, degraded, or unverifiable flood seals” (McNamara 2018). While Duke Energy has since addressed some of these safety concerns (reportedly), the follow-up report is not available to the public.


In addition to Brunswick, there were 34 other U.S. nuclear plants that were identified by the Union of Concerned Scientists for being at a heightened risk of flood damage—and not just by direct heavy rainfall—but by upstream dam failure. 4 of these plants are located in the area to be affected by Florence. McGuire in North Carolina, H.B. Robinson and Oconee in South Carolina, and Surry in Virginia.


  1. People living in these areas are also worried about the effects of exposure to coal-ash pits and spillover from open pig manure lagoons. This area is a huge livestock industry and environmentalists and citizens alike are worried about what happens when the dams are overwhelmed by the incoming deluge and they are exposed to manure and heavy metals (arsenic, chromium, and mercury) in their drinking and recreational water supplies. As a P.S.- Duke Energy owns 39 coal ash basins (which are disposal sites for the by-products of burning coal) in North Carolina (Bloomberg).


Trump in reference to response efforts: “We are sparing no expense”.

Except for the $10 million dollars your administration moved from FEMA to ICE directly before Hurricane season because detaining children and separating families was costing you $200 million more than initially anticipated. So, sorry North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia—destroying the lives of other people was more important than keeping $10 million in FEMA’s budget to assist during this devastating time in your lives. Yes, you read that correctly. $10 million dollars was taken from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s regional operations budget, therefore cutting mitigation efforts, mission support, and law enforcement training budgets (NPR).


Trump on Preparedness for Hurricane Florence: “We are as ready as anyone has ever been”.

I ask you to refer back to every single thing I have written up to this point in abject refusal to validate this statement in any way. We can’t even have an honest, transparent conversation about climate change in 2018, so no, we aren’t even a little bit prepared for Florence or for anything else.


Trump on Puerto Rico: Puerto Rico was ‘an incredible unsung success’.

He then proceeded to lie through his teeth about the number of lives lost in Puerto Rico. So, ONCE AGAIN, let’s see the facts: nearly 3,000 people died. To be most accurate, the death toll is officially at 2,975, which, by the way, is still just an estimate. Power wasn’t restored to Puerto Rico for 11 months. Rather than start screaming, I’ve collected these tweets for you, dear reader.


“Success? Federal response according to Trump in Puerto Rico a success? If he thinks the death of 3,000 people [is] a success, God help us all.”

“Pres Trump thinks losing 3,000 lives is a success. Can you imagine what he thinks failure looks like?”
– Carmen Yulín Cruz (Mayor of San Juan)


“I mean this seriously, not as a political dig. If you’re in Florence’s path and considering riding it out, your President just said that a hurricane response where 3,000 die is his measure of success. Get out of there.”
– US Senate Candidate Chris Murphy of CT.


“In the 10 months after Hurricane Maria, over 2k Puerto Ricans applied for funeral assistance. Mothers, fathers, grandparents. They died without water, without electricity, & without a President who cares about the safety and well-being of ALL US citizens.”
– Senator Elizabeth Warren


So, yeah, I’m angry. Angry for those still suffering in Puerto Rico who have lived through a year of abject hell. Whose lives are now irrevocably changed after the most desolate and traumatic year we can imagine. Simply turning the lights back on isn’t going to fix that damage. I’m angry for the families who have evacuated and left their homes and lives behind, held at the mercy of a climate changed. And I’m scared for them, scared for all of us, trapped in a spiral of uncertainty and impatience as I track the path of Florence across multi-colored models, waiting for predictions to become reality, for landfall.