My beloved Eastern Kentucky has been ravaged by floods that have killed at least 37 people, destroyed homes and businesses, and left entire communities in ruins. In the midst of chaos and mudslides, let me be crystal clear: There is nothing natural about this disaster.
This devastation is the direct result of climate change: Hundred-year floods are now occurring on a yearly basis in Kentucky. Children have been washed away from their parents because decades of extractive coal mining in Appalachia has stripped topsoil off our mountains, leaving rainfall with nowhere to naturally drain. Elderly people are waiting in rising waters, praying to be rescued, because infrastructure in this entire region has been left to rot. People are going without their insulin and medications because for generations, corporations have been stealing our labor, our land, and our lives.
There’s a reason you don’t see mansions flooded — they’re not here. Coal barons build on the mountaintop or take their money and leave. And politicians like Senator Rand Paul, who claim to represent us, have funneled our tax dollars to billionaires instead of investing it in climate mitigation that might give us a chance of us surviving this mess.
As the waters continued to rise, so did the vitriol coming our way on social media. Many people, many of whom claim to be progressive, are laying the blame for this situation at our feet — even suggesting that we deserve it — “These people got what they voted for.” “It’s so sad so many people there don’t even believe in climate change and don’t want any sustainable energy.” “The reps they overwhelmingly elected routinely vote against aid when disasters hit blue states … At some point, compassion fatigue sets in.”
I mean, we are just a “basket of deplorables,” right?
As the contempt comes at us, so does the possibility of white supremacists. The pairing of climate change with decades of divestment in our infrastructure leaves a vacuum that white supremacists and militia groups try to use as a recruitment tool. They try to tell us to blame Black people and immigrants if long-term recovery plans are stalled while they come with offers of food, shelter, and volunteer labor.
We’re seeing it in California. As wildfires are raging, a white militia group in Mariposa is dressed in military-style garb and handing out pancakes, steak sandwiches, and business cards with QR codes sharing instructions on how to join their militia to evacuees of the Oak Fire. We’ve seen these kinds of tactics before during natural disasters. People who are not deputized nor accountable to any elected body have threatened to shoot residents and set up blockades. As a nation committed to democracy, we must not accept armed militia as an acceptable response to our very real need for equitable and accountable relief.
The floods in Eastern Kentucky are laying bare the wreckage of a more than 50-year Southern strategy by the right to systematically dismantle the social safety net of this country by convincing poor and working class white people — my people — that we have more in common with millionaires and billionaires than our Black and brown and immigrant brothers and sisters.
Tucker Carlson and the like come through our televisions screens and radios to circulate lies about immigrants taking our jobs but not one word about how the Green New Deal could bring good jobs and better infrastructure right here to Eastern Kentucky and to disinvested communities across the nation. Dunking on working-class people who just lost everything — including loved ones — is not a hot take. The political and economic decisions that created this mess are caused by those who will likely never have to cling to a tree as their home is ripped away.
But in the midst of all of this, my people are beautiful, fierce, resilient, and loving. They are swimming through swirling waters bringing supplies to their neighbors, rescuing stranded people and pets in their kayaks and fishing boats, carrying molding furniture out of homes, coordinating emergency triages. As a dear friend who is leading recovery efforts in Perry County told me, “the juxtaposition between the devastation and community response could only be described as having your heart break and be put back together all at the same time.” We have to take care of each other because usually no one else gives a damn. This is what we do in Kentucky and Appalachia. It’s the kind of grit and togetherness that comes from living in a place that has been exploited, dismissed, degraded, and left to suffer for generations.
So my people know there’s no hate in our hollers. We got each other no matter what. We can show up for each other and reject the lies that white nationalists militia groups try to pass off in exchange for water and sandwiches. Democrats, especially white Democrats: Stay on your phone, but log off Twitter. Call us. Connect with us. Join an organization that’s actually engaging with working-class people in Appalachia and the South. Give a damn about us. We know solidarity as a practice and, to survive the climate and political crises we are faced with, we need solidarity as a practice at a grand scale.
Beth Howard is the Rural Kentucky campaign director for Showing Up for Racial Justice.