“The gift of the Earth with its fruits belongs to everyone.” — Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, paragraph 71.
There were many kind people, including some Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) employees, who thanked me or had supportive things to say during the 18 days that I fasted on water only in front of FERC with 11 other sisters and brothers from Sept. 8 - 25. But there are three people whose words I doubt I’ll ever forget.
In Washington, DC, 12 people that fasted and other supporters set up camp in front of FERC on the sidewalk every work day from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.
There was the young black woman whose job was to staff a small booth by the entrance to an underground parking lot just across from the main employee entrance to FERC. She was friendly and over the three weeks that I stood across from her during the work week, holding signs and distributing leaflets to FERC employees going into or leaving work, we often exchanged small talk and smiles. About a week before it ended she commended us on our courage. Then, on the 15th day, she told me, “Some women came by yesterday, asking me, ‘What are they doing here?’ and I told them, ‘They are taking action for all of us.’ Some of us have jobs and have to pay bills and can’t do what you’re doing, but I think what you are doing is important.”
Then there was the Homeland Security Federal Protective Services policeman, a tall, tough-looking, white guy, who came by to talk to me on day 18, asking how I was doing, clearly impacted by our willingness to suffer for what we believed in. After a couple of minutes he said, “I’ve seen lots of groups demonstrating on issues, but yours is the most persistent one I’ve ever seen.”
But the most profound interaction I had was with a woman who might not have known I was fasting. She was an old white woman, on crutches, looking like she was homeless, a beggar on the DC Metro subway. I had seen her earlier in the 18-day ordeal; she had come up to me asking for money. On day 16, the day the Pope was in town meeting with President Obama, on my way home from FERC in the evening to the church where we stayed every night, I saw her again. We were both standing on the Metro platform and I had a mounted, blown-up picture of the Pope holding a sign which said, “No al Fracking.”
She came over to me, our eyes connected and she said, to paraphrase, “You know, I know all about Jesus Christ and everything, but I just want to say that if it’s not about unity, it doesn’t mean crap.” I had listened carefully and what she said rang true, was genuine and deep, and I responded, “Yes, you’re right. That is absolutely true.”
The Beyond Extreme Energy-organized “Fast for No New Permits” was not explicitly about “unity.” It was the latest in a now-over-a-year campaign focused on what we call “the most dangerous federal agency most people have never heard of.” We are doing everything we can think of to throw a nonviolent wrench into the gears of the FERC machinery. This semi-independent agency has just kept grinding out permit after permit for the expansion of fracked gas infrastructure, with virtually no rejections of gas industry proposals, from what we’re able to tell, for many, many years.
The idea of doing a serious fast emerged a few months ago as some of us realized that the Pope was going to be in DC in late September, the Pope who has been outspoken about the need for action on the climate crisis and who, yes, had no problem being photographed a couple years ago with that “No al Fracking” sign.
And so on Sept. 8, the day after Labor Day, 12 of us, from ages 19 to 72, began a diet that consisted of water, salt and potassium. Ten of us continued on that diet until the 25th, the day after the Pope’s speech to the U.S. Congress. One faster had to end it around day 10 because of serious physical difficulties he was encountering; the other did so after about 14 days because of her need to build back some strength before joining a 900-mile walk from Rome to Paris beginning next week in connection with the early December UN Climate Conference.
There were at least 100 other people who fasted around the country, including several who fasted for 18 days also, as I understand it, in Oak Flat, Arizona, protesting federal plans to take land in Tonto National Forest sacred to local Apache nations and give it to multinational copper companies to mine.
In DC we 12 fasters and other supporters set up camp in front of FERC on the sidewalk every work day from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. We passed out many thousands of leaflets and had hundreds of conversations with FERC employees and people passing by. Dutch TV came by and did interviews, as did a dozen or more other press outlets. We found a great deal of support and almost no overt hostility. One of the more interesting conversations we had was with Norman Bay, chair of FERC. I was able to talk with for a few minutes when he was spotted coming out of the FERC building while most of us on this very hot, sunny day were across the street in the shade of a 30-foot high stone wall. Little of direct substance came out of that discussion, though you never know.
On the 17th day, the day the Pope spoke to Congress, we had a breakthrough with the Washington Post when a reporter interviewed me on the mall and posted a blog about it that morning. The next day that blog post became a substantial part of a good and prominent article in the first section of the paper, taking up 2/3rds of a page and with a big picture. It was helpful to see that Post article reporting that our fast was “to protest what he said was the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s support for the use of fossil fuels and pipelines.”
I would expect lots of FERC employees, including Commissioners, as well as DC judges who will be hearing appeals of FERC’s rubber-stamping ways, see that article and smile.
There is no question this was an effective action. But it was more than that. In significant part because it was a fast—what Gandhi called “the most sincere form of prayer”—and connected to the visit of the people’s Pope, it was also, indeed, about unity, about what the wise, old, beggar woman on the Metro platform had said to me on day 16.
Yes, “the gift of the earth with its fruits belongs to everyone.” And yes, “a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach, it musts integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor.” (paragraph 49).
And more directly, to amplify the wise woman, “Everything is connected. Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society.” (paragraph 91).
I lost 30 pounds over those 18 days. It is good to be eating again, slowly returning to normal eating habits. It is good to have energy to work, feel my strength beginning to return, to taste the delicious flavors of fruits and vegetables, the only things I am eating these first two days of my back-to-normal-eating, nine-day plan. It is good to be home after three weeks away. And it is good to know that the memories of those 18 days and the wonderful community of sister and brother fasters and supporters will be with me always, nourishing my commitment to keep taking action for a stable climate and a transformed world until the day I die.
YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE
Maryland will become the first state in the nation Thursday to implement a ban on foam takeout containers.
- New Jersey Legislature Passes 'Most Comprehensive' Plastics Ban ... ›
- Canada to Announce Ban on Single-Use Plastics - EcoWatch ›
- The Complex and Frustrating Reality of Recycling Plastic - EcoWatch ›
- Dunkin' Says Bye to Foam Cups (But Bring Your Own Thermos ... ›
- Maine and Vermont Pass Plastic Bag Bans on the Same Day ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Ajit Niranjan
Leaders from across the world have promised to turn environmental degradation around and put nature on the path to recovery within a decade.
- Destruction of Nature Is Triggering Pandemics, Say Leaders of WWF ... ›
- The UN Wants to Protect 30% of the Planet by 2030 - EcoWatch ›
- New WWF Report Calls for Protecting Nature to Prevent Future ... ›
Just days after a new report detailed the "unequivocal and pervasive role" climate change plays in the increased frequency and intensity of wildfires, new fires burned 10,000 acres on Sunday as a "dome" of hot, dry air over Northern California created ideal fire conditions over the weekend.
- California's Iconic Redwoods Threatened by Wildfires - EcoWatch ›
- California Wildfires Destroy Condor Sanctuary, at Least 4 Birds Still ... ›
- 7 Devastating Photos of Wildfires in California, Oregon and ... ›
- David Attenborough Calls For Ban on Deep-Sea Mining - EcoWatch ›
- Sir David Attenborough Set to Present BBC Documentary on ... ›
- David Attenborough Gives Stark Warning in New BBC Climate ... ›
Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
- Overlooked Flood Risk Endangers Homeowners - EcoWatch ›
- Florida Coastal Flooding Maps: Residents Deny Predicted Risks to ... ›
- Flooding Risk for U.S. Homes: Millions More Are Vulnerable Than ... ›