Deconstructing Dangerous “Hurricane Karma” Rhetoric about the South

Saying that the South “deserves” what it gets because of its policy preferences and climate denial ignores the complexity of the region

Annie Eisenberg
Assistant Professor of Law
University of South Carolina School of Law

This fall and last have seen a series of historic hurricanes pummel southern states and Caribbean islands.  The 2017 hurricane season in particular was “record-shattering.”  In August 2017, Hurricane Harvey killed more than 60 people, flooded Houston, and swamped coastal towns when it hit Texas.  Hurricanes Irma and Maria followed that same month, with Maria devastating Puerto Rico and killing thousands.  Hurricane Nate then also hit the southern United States and Mexico, killing dozens.

The 2018 season to date has also had a severe impact on the southeast.  Dozens died shortly after Florence made landfall near the border of North and South Carolina on September 14.  Millions lost power for days, and many were displaced from their homes.  Three weeks later, Hurricane Michael slammed Florida and moved through the Carolinas.  Michael’s death toll as of this writing is estimated at 45 people.

The environmental and public health damage caused by Florence and Michael is just starting to be understood.  In September and October 2018, North Carolina has seen flooded hog farms, electricity substations, and pits of toxic waste.  Lagoons of pig feces and coal ash have spilled or overflowed.  More than a dozen rivers have had mass fish kills.  South Carolina, too, continues to deal with flooding, much of which stems from water flowing from North Carolina.  Residents of Cheraw, SC were asked to leave their homes after Florence spread industrial toxins from a Superfund cleanup site near their residences.  Hurricane Michael has overwhelmed Florida, bringing “untold years of misery”; as of this writing, thousands are still without power or living in emergency shelters.

These events themselves and their aftermath have proven tragic and challenging.  Some of those challenges may be an inevitable part of disaster recovery; with new levels of severity in hurricanes, hurricane paths and ramifications may be difficult to predict.  While people prepared for Florence days and even weeks in advance, Michael seemed to come out of nowhere.  Other challenges are not so inevitable, however.  Many agree that the Trump administration’s response to Puerto Rico’s recovery from Irma and Maria continues to be nothing short of unconscionable.

One aspect of the hurricanes’ aftermath remains under-discussed: a troubling tendency for some commentators to suggest that southern, “red” states “deserve” natural disasters because of conservative voting patterns and a culture of climate denialism.  This line of thinking did receive ample news coverage last year when a University of Tampa professor, referring to Hurricane Harvey, tweeted, “I don’t believe in instant Karma but this kinda feels like it for Texas.  Hopefully this will help them realize the GOP doesn’t care about them.”  While the professor was fired for the remarks—a response some have suggested was disproportionate to the offense—it would appear that he was not alone in thinking that majority-republican states are simply reaping what they’ve sown when it comes to extreme weather events.

Twitter and Facebook are replete with posters expressing the idea that southern states deserve what they get when natural disasters hit.  The morning that Michael passed over South Carolina as a tropical storm on October 11, posts had already popped up.  The first Tweet, accompanied by a news story about Michael’s increasing intensity, said, “Having elected #RickScott, Florida deserves every climate calamity coming down the road.”  A second post said, “Im not saying #florida deserves it but florida most definitely deserves it #HurricaneMichael.”

After Hurricane Florence, one Twitter user posted, “I was hoping Florence would do twice as much damage to So. Carolina than Maria did to Puerto Rico.  The racist trumpanzees that infest that swamp deserve nothing less.”  Another said, “Hurricane Florence should turn south and beat the [heck] out of South Carolina.  They literally flew a rebel flag over their state capital until like 6yrs ago.  They deserve that shit.  I don’t even feel bad wishing this storm on them.”  Another poster, who included a link to a news story about Florence’s heightened risk of spreading hog feces in North Carolina, posted, “The cruel bastards deserve all that comes their way.”  Another said, “The really snarky part of me wants to tell North and South Carolina they’re getting what they voted for and deserve w/Hurricane Florence.”  Many others had similar ideas.

The same feelings came out on social media about Texas after Harvey.  One Facebook user posted, sharing the link to the story about the Tampa professor, “This professor is pretty stupid.  They [Texans] didn’t deserve the hurricane; they don’t deserve any HELP!  There is a big difference.”  Some posts were responding to these sentiments.  One Twitter user posted, “I can’t describe the anger I felt watching other liberals, sitting in blue states, point and laugh at my state of Texas while we were drowning in the floodwaters of Harvey.  Telling us we got what we deserved for voting for Trump.”  Another posted, “[R]emember when hurricane Harvey happened and there were a lot of hot takes about how we actually deserved it because [T]exas is a red state? :)”  Another responded, “This is sooooo true!  I live in Texas and I had ppl on FB from out of state say that us Texans deserved Harvey for voting Trump.”

One might be tempted to dismiss these posts as the typical symptoms of a hostile internet, where anonymity and distance generally allow vitriol to flow freely.  Or perhaps the posters are Russian bots, designed to spew divisive opinions in order to undermine the fabric of U.S. democracy.  I might be inclined to say that too, if people I know—my fellow northern liberals—had not said things like this to me directly.  After a quick survey of others I know living in the South, who agree that they regularly hear opinions like these, it seems safe to conclude that these sentiments may not be the norm, but they are not necessarily uncommon.

The following three points attempt to illustrate why this line of thinking is both misinformed and dangerous.  This is not an appeal to civility politics, nor is it a suggestion that conservatives or southerners as a population are uniquely victimized, as many right-wing commentators would surely love to suggest.  The crux of these arguments is not that anger is not warranted in our current political climate.  It is that anger toward “the South,” “red states,” or rural communities is at best misdirected, and at worst causing real harm to the most vulnerable people in these places.

Problem #1: By equating “the South,” “red states,” or “rural areas” with conservative whites, commentators erase the existence of large populations of racial minorities and political progressives who live in these regions.

As a liberal of northern origin myself, I think I understand what’s happening when this demographic takes to social media to wish harm upon the red states for a culture of conservatism or climate denialism.  First, we’re raised on a narrative about the Civil War that divides the country into the good, tolerant, savior northern states, and the bad, racist, rebellious southern states.  Then when we see state-level electoral maps and the divisions of red and blue, the colors line up with the good and bad states.  Thus, the narrative follows, that red states are bad, they brought us Trump, and since they are getting in the way of effective climate action, they deserve to learn their lesson when they feel the effects of climate change.  Of course, ongoing, high-profile political disputes do little to alleviate these tensions and perceptions.

As Blake Hudson’s previous post on this blog illustrates, though, state-level electoral maps and high-profile controversies really don’t tell the full story of our national political landscape.  County-level results in South Carolina, for example, reveal that the state is almost evenly divided between blue and red.  As Professor Hudson’s post articulates, “Persistent, but sometimes relatively slight, majorities are what make regions ‘reliably’ red or blue.”  He concludes that “[d]rawing stark conclusions about a region’s policy preferences based upon its status as red or blue is risky . . . and can result in oversimplification of the true state of affairs.”  When one factors in the South’s high rates of gerrymandering and voter suppression, a different picture emerges: the South, in fact, has many liberal residents, but many are held hostage by government officials who can hardly be said to represent the population adequately.

Perhaps more troublingly, when people characterize the entire South as racist or conservative, they are defining the South by reference only to white southerners (in addition to unfairly treating white southerners as both monolithic and bad).  While the South of course has many problems, the wholesale rhetorical erasure of the black South, the rapidly growing Latinx South, and the other pluralistic communities in the region also seems problematic from a racial justice standpoint.  The non-white South is an integral part of the regional fabric.  The majority of self-identified black or African American people live in southern states, and southern states including Florida, Georgia, and Texas have the largest black populations in the country.  According to Forbes, nine out of the ten “best cities to be black” in are southern cities.

The rhetorical erasure of southern minority communities is particularly concerning when wishing ill will upon a region for its perceived white conservatism in the context of natural disasters.  One of the hardest-hit areas in South Carolina’s 2018 hurricane season has been the Pee Dee, which is 40% black and generally low-income.  Florence caused severe damage to affordable housing complexes in the Carolinas, of the type which are often built in floodplains and under-insured because of cheaper costs.  The Pee Dee’s Waccamaw River remained at major flood levels for more than two weeks.  Only in October, two weeks after Florence hit, were residents able to start returning home as the flooding subsided; yet, flooding in some areas is expected to continue and Michael has exacerbated recovery conditions.  The commentator wishing to spread hog waste across North Carolina might be interested to know that it is rural, non-white North Carolinians who suffer the most from industrial hog farms, and who are still assessing the hazards they have been exposed to after Florence caused at least 21 pig-feces lagoons to spill.

The Florida residents hurt the most by Hurricane Michael have also been from disadvantaged populations, including white ones.  The worst damage has been in “low-income counties with high proportions of older adults, and many people with disabilities and chronic illnesses.”  One researcher described these areas as “some of the most socially vulnerable places in the entire country.”

Problem #2: Hurricane-karma rhetoric draws attention away from needed reforms in floodplain management, disaster recovery schemes, and rural environmental injustice, ultimately rendering vulnerable populations more vulnerable in disaster preparation and recovery.

The thread of the hurricane discourse that focuses on punishing conservative whites serves to mask the suffering described above.  It also masks vulnerable residents’ serious need for more robust support in disaster preparation and recovery.

As mentioned above, one of the problems that needs to be addressed is the widespread tendency to build affordable housing in floodplains.  In North Carolina, 3,863 public housing units—approximately ten percent of the state’s public units—are located in floodplains.  Nationally, nine percent of U.S. public housing units and eight percent of private, subsidized housing units sit in a floodplain.

Developers locate public housing complexes in lower-lying areas because “[l]and in the floodplain is cheaper and more available, suffering from a history of disinvestment.”  Harvey, Florence, and Michael have “decimated key portions of an already limited housing stock for financially vulnerable people.”  Hazardous industrial and agricultural land uses of the types described above are also “often located in these intermittent waterways.”  This renders residents vulnerable not only to direct dangers from flooding and housing insecurity, but exposure to life-threatening toxic waste at the same time.  An EPA official turned environmental justice advocate described this land as “the cheapest land and the most undesirable land, and usually that’s the most dangerous land.”

What are the legal apparatuses that allow this to happen?  One glaring problem is the weakness of federal floodplain management policy.  FEMA publishes and maintains Flood Insurance Rate Maps to administer the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which Congress created in 1968.  The NFIP has three goals: “to provide flood insurance, to improve floodplain management and to develop maps of flood hazard zones.”  These maps divide the United States into two zones: the 100-year floodplain and 500-year floodplain.  These terms, utilized by FEMA, do not indicate that a place is likely to flood every 100 or 500 years, but indicate differing degrees of risk.  But the misleading terminology may lead people to believe they are safer than they are.

Several problems keep the NFIP from protecting people’s lives and housing from flooding, however.  First, to participate in the NFIP, local governments must adopt a floodplain management ordinance.  Many jurisdictions, especially those with more limited capacity, simply do not participate.  Second, floodplain maps are outdated, failing to keep up with or predict increasing extremes in weather patterns.  Thus, many older buildings have already been built in floodplains, and new ones continue to be built in vulnerable areas despite the clear dangers this practice poses.

Rural areas—which the South has more of, as a region—may be particularly vulnerable to poorly-planned housing, housing near hazardous land uses, and housing insecurity.  Rural areas have a weaker history of and capacity for local land use planning, often lack local regulations such as zoning ordinances, and have more limited access to services, such as homeless shelters.  Even if communities have planning tools like zoning ordinances, discriminatory practices such as redlining and exclusionary zoning have served to drive vulnerable minority communities to less desirable land with fewer protections from environmental hazards.

FEMA technically has a disaster housing assistance program.  The program “provides direct rental assistance and case managers for low-income residents displaced by disasters.”  However, President Trump did not activate it after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.  Some measures have been implemented post-Michael.  Other FEMA programs, like its transitional housing program, are particularly difficult to navigate for storm victims living in poverty.  The vast majority of claims for FEMA assistance are denied.

As a general matter, rural environmental injustice—like most rural problems—remains largely invisible.  Environmental injustice tends to be associated with places like Flint, Michigan, which do indeed face profound challenges.  Rural environmental justice—the siting of hazardous land uses with little local input, and a history of disinvestment in needed infrastructure—warrants more discussion.

The invisibility of rural environmental injustice again raises the issue of what happens when people whitewash entire regions in their minds: many don’t know that rural minorities exist, and therefore don’t know that some of the worst living conditions, literally, in the developed world, are experienced by rural people of color in the United States.  Those conditions are exacerbated all the more by natural disasters.

Problem #3: Celebrating death and destruction, especially based on misperceptions about an entire region, likely drives people away from supporting liberal causes like climate-preparedness, and also fails to recognize certain aspects of structural inequality.

This argument may be more of an appeal to civility politics, but these concerns are just as pragmatic as they are ethical.  When the Tampa professor posted his ill-advised Tweet about Harvey-karma, right-wing media outlets had a field day.  Sean Hannity, for instance, painted the incident as a “hateful liberal” sneering from his ivory tower as Texans struggled to survive and recover.  Unfortunately, this type of moment can be used to fuel conservative rhetoric demonizing liberals.  It seems unlikely that these moments ultimately serve the national interest in pursuing more effective climate policy.

Yet, even some liberals are alienated by these attitudes.  One Twitter user posted on a thread about Harvey-karma comments, “Each and every day, I move closer and closer to changing my party affiliation to independent because of the ridiculous levels of ignorance and bigotry within my own party.  I don’t wanna be associated with all of that, and, as a black woman in a red state, I often feel unwelcome.”  She added, “I know that conversations like these aren’t the ones that members of the Democratic Party (mostly the white members) want to have, because ‘We’re supposed to be resisting Trump!  There are more important fights to be fighting!’  I don’t care though, lol.”

This type of incident also raises the question of what it means to be liberal.  Is it part of liberalism to wish death upon one’s enemies?  What if some of those perceived enemies are people with an eighth-grade education who honestly believe that Hillary Clinton runs a child prostitution ring out of a pizza restaurant in Washington, DC?  Is there not a case to be made that even if certain people deny the existence of climate change, at least some of them should be pitied rather than reviled, and perhaps their ignorance should be blamed on our collective failure to ensure that everyone receives an adequate education?

This latter point speaks to the fact that the average people who deny climate change are not inherently evil.  Many have fallen prey to a well-funded, longstanding public relations campaign pursued by fossil fuel interests.  It is not clear that vilification and condemnation are the answer to this troubling reality.

In sum, commentators should think twice before condemning entire regions and populations based on perceptions about those regions’ politics.  Not only are such broad generalizations bound to be inaccurate, but they cause real harm by masking the region’s most vulnerable.  More attention is needed to the profound challenges natural disasters in the South pose to low-income and minority populations, who need better frameworks to prepare and more robust, sustainable assistance in recovery.

– Annie Eisenberg

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