Without federal aid, how will communities wrangle dual crises? 

Most cities don’t qualify under the stimulus package. Big Oil’s fat cats still have a shot.


Credit: Giphy

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Good morning. I hope you’re as healthy as last week and the week before. I hope your strange days have been made stranger by a certain tiger-loving king and his country music videos

Last week, I spoke with climate reporter Alexander Kaufman about how fossil fuel companies are seeking government assistance in the background of a nationwide struggle to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, they’ve also been working behind the scenes to pass a wishlist of regulatory rollbacks and ways of criminalizing protest (now is the time to read up on Naomi Klein’s ‘shock doctrine,’ because it's happening in real time). 

While Big Oil is taking every opportunity to make hay of this pandemic, the season for climate-driven wildfires, hurricanes, and floods looms near. COVID-19 is making these disasters costlier and more hazardous than ever — and stripping already-vulnerable communities of their ability to prepare.

Take the western U.S., which typically prepares for wildfire season around now. Between the problems social distancing measures pose to firefighting procedures, the postponement of firefighter training, delays in prescribed burns because of coronavirus, and a growing scarcity of resources to fight both fires and COVID-19 at once, the risks are piling up and growing that much harder to mitigate. For communities that don’t have the means to buy their residents’ safety, these threats — and the underlying circumstances that make them worse — are magnified exponentially.

“As extreme events start coinciding, societal disparities will become more apparent,” writes VICE reporter Madeleine Gregory. “In the past, residents fleeing fire have taken residence in overcrowded shelters or pitched tents in parking lots, responses that seem far higher risk now that the prevailing wisdom is to limit all contact with other people. Those with the means can travel farther from the blaze or stay in hotels, while many will be stranded in close quarters.” 

Add the respiratory damage done by wildfire smoke to the mix and you’ve got a disastrous domino effect on your hands.

It’s not just wildfires, of course: for communities bracing for more frequent and severe hurricanes, chronic flooding, and a host of other oncoming climate impacts, COVID-19 makes response and recovery all the more difficult. 

Just this month, the National Weather Service warned that the coming spring could bring significant flooding to a third of the United States, affecting 128 million Americans. This Thursday, a report from the University of Colorado predicted a worse-than-average hurricane season this year, including sixteen named storms — four of which will be major. Yet coronavirus is estimated to be the biggest disaster FEMA has ever encountered and is already pushing the agency to its limits.

So while issues like increasingly hazardous evacuation procedures, underfunded disaster planning and resilience projects, and the widespread health impacts of fossil fuel pollution and climate change might currently be overshadowed by the virus, the risks they pose could soon converge.

Councilman Kevin Birdsall of Sea Bright, New Jersey, says less traffic to the town’s beaches this summer could eat away at the borough’s resources for mitigating flooding and sea-level rise, including elevating homes, replenishing beaches, and replacing and repairing bulkheads and storm valves. Earlier this month, the councilman helped pass a resolution calling on New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy to hold fossil fuel companies financially accountable for some of those impacts.

“We’re doing what we can with the money we have, but one bad season could really hurt us,” says the councilman. “If we’re shut down for the summer, that could hurt us for a couple seasons moving forward, and we might not have the money available.”

The task of confronting these tangled crises will be a challenge like none other. But here’s the real kicker: although the $2 trillion stimulus package passed last week set aside $200 billion for direct local aid, cities and counties with a population of fewer than 500,000 are not eligible. That’s right: most cities and counties will not receive a dime. 

In Florida, the third most populous state and home to some of the costliest and fastest-growing climate threats in the country, only the city of Jacksonville will qualify. Major cities like Miami, Tampa, and St. Petersburg, which face steep bills from sea-level rise and hurricanes, will get nothing.

“I’m on the front lines trying to make difficult decisions and these resources are not going to get through to me and cities like me,” said St. Petersburg Mayor Richard Kriseman, who leads the fifth largest city in the state. “We're struggling to stay open and survive.” 

A study by the Center for Climate Integrity (that’s us) found that the state of Florida would need to spend nearly $76 billion on coastal defenses to protect communities from sea-level rise by 2040. So how will cities like St. Petersburg, and other communities that are already struggling to protect residents from the worst impacts of climate change, possibly manage?

Hurricane Irma debris on Tybee Island, Georgia. Credit: Sharon Dowdy

The fossil fuel industry threw us on a path to destruction, and in the process, remade the world to its unyielding benefit. For the rest of us, the consequences of that world have arrived: too many lives at stake, too many fires to extinguish at once. 

These companies can  — and must — chip in to put out the ones they started. 

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