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America’s heartland is expected to flood again — but this time amid coronavirus

In mid-March, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its spring flooding outlook. According to its forecast, about a third of the U.S., 128 million people in 23 states, will be affected by flooding in the next few months, with the Northern Plains and Upper Midwest most at risk.

That prediction comes on the heels of a devastating year of flooding in America’s heartland. Between February 2019 and January of this year, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin experienced their wettest 12-month period on record, and Montana, Nebraska, Wyoming and the Dakotas experienced their second-wettest. Flooding is caused by a combination of factors, but climate change, which spurs warmer air and therefore more moisture, is one of them.

Meanwhile, most of the nation is under lockdown. COVID-19 testing capacity is still limited enough that state and federal officials don’t have a full understanding of how many Americans have been infected so far, but the number of confirmed cases is growing exponentially. Experts say the novel coronavirus could kill between 100,000 and 2.2 million Americans in the coming months, depending on which preventive actions are taken.

The nation has never had to deal with an epidemic and climate change at the same time. The way the federal government has handled both of those threats so far shows that it’s ill equipped to respond to scenarios that deviate from business as usual. Researchers have already determined that climate change acts as a threat multiplier: something that exacerbates existing risks. As we head into the spring and summer months and weather becomes more volatile, coronavirus could become a threat multiplier, too.

“A lot of folks that are focusing on the disaster space are starting to think about what we’re going to do with compounding events,” says Lauren Clay, assistant professor of public health at D’Youville College in Buffalo, New York. “We haven’t experienced a global pandemic in the U.S. on this scale in our lifetimes.”

The Federal Management Emergency Administration (FEMA), the agency that serves Americans affected by extreme weather, has been activated at the highest level to contain the coronavirus and placed in charge of the federal response to the epidemic. But FEMA is still reeling from three consecutive years of particularly catastrophic natural disasters, and it has its own coronavirus outbreak to contend with — seven employees recently tested positive for the virus.

“They were stressed even before the pandemic,” James Kendra, co-director of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware, told Grist. FEMA was still working to resolve a number of disaster declarations from previous years — formal requests from cities, counties, or states for aid — before it was asked to join the effort to combat the coronavirus. To boot, the agency is chronically understaffed, even before President Trump reallocated some of its funding to immigration detention centers last summer.

When it comes to responding to the coronavirus, FEMA is in uncharted territory. If the agency had a plan for this scenario, Kendra isn’t aware of it. FEMA is using traditional tactics to confront this new challenge, announcing plans to distribute large quantities of medical equipment and supplies. But the agency has been light on specifics about what it has actually accomplished so far.

Once flooding and other natural disasters hit, Kendra says coronavirus is likely to hinder FEMA’s work because the social distancing required to keep FEMA staff and the people they interact with safe will affect the agency’s ability to do in-person field work. The agency has already suspended interpersonal fieldwork in Tennessee, where tornadoes killed 25 people in early March, because of the virus. FEMA agents will have to practice social distancing, disinfect facilities, and be far more mindful of disease transmission than normal, which in turn will be a “slowing factor on operations generally,” Kendra says.

At the same time, “the need for FEMA to be on the ground will probably be the same as usual,” Kendra says. The agency will have to adjust to figure out how to serve affected people without exposing them or its workers to coronavirus.

FEMA’s limited capacity to respond to natural disasters isn’t the only reason for Americans to fear flooding during the pandemic. A lot of the crops that go into our food, including as feed for livestock, come from the Midwest. For example, Iowa and Illinois alone supply one-third of the U.S.’s entire corn crop. Grocery stores have already seeing food shortages because of coronavirus. Will flooded farms make food more scarce?

At the moment, “We don’t actually have a disruption in the food supply chain,” Clay said. “There’s nothing stopping farmers from planting food, growing food, and putting food into the supply system.”

The bare shelves you might be seeing are a result of an abrupt spike in demand — people buying up a month’s worth of food instead of a week’s, and eating more meals at home instead of in restaurants. While kinks in the supply system are being worked out, there may be temporary shortages, but Clay says supplies will bounce back over time. The ripples will probably continue for as long as the pandemic does.

As spring unfolds, some specialty crops — aka fruits and vegetables — could be affected by social distancing policies implemented by fieldworkers and other issues brought on by the coronavirus. Strawberries grown in California will be picked more slowly by workers who are forced to spread out instead of crowding together. Apple orchards, which require large crews of workers to plant and prune trees, could see a shortage of labor due to limited availability of work visas (the federal offices that award visas have been closed for weeks). But overall, food will remain plentiful as long as the system adapts.

The addition of spring flooding and summer storms to the mix will require some adaptation, Clay said, but natural disasters have regional, rather than national, effects. “We might have some disruptions to some farms or some supply chains in different areas,” she said. But grocers will still be able to find suppliers in unaffected parts of the country. “The likelihood of us having flooding cause widespread disruptions would be minimal because we grow and produce foods in lots of different ways across the country.”

In the past few years, it has sometimes felt like Americans couldn’t catch a break from natural disasters. Floods in the Midwest in spring and summer were followed by West Coast wildfires and the Atlantic hurricane season in the late summer and fall. (The 2020 hurricane season, by the way, is expected to be “above normal.”) Now, the staggered nature of those events and their regionality is part of what’s preventing entire supply systems from collapsing during the coronavirus pandemic. In coming years, climate change could make those events far less staggered, extending the range of devastating floods across most of the country, spurring year-round fire seasons, and exacerbating the frequency of major hurricanes. If coronavirus has taught us anything, it’s that we need to start dividing some of our threat multipliers or risk confronting a challenge we can’t adapt our way out of.

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America’s heartland is expected to flood again — but this time amid coronavirus

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Air pollution in some national parks is as bad as Los Angeles

This summer, millions of families will flock to national parks like Yosemite, Joshua Tree, and Yellowstone to enjoy the great outdoors and have their kids breathe in some fresh country air.

The only problem: A whopping 96 percent of national parks in the U.S. are plagued by “significant air pollution,” according to a new study by the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA). In fact, 33 of America’s most-visited national parks are as polluted as our 20 largest cities, the report said.

“The poor air quality in our national parks is both disturbing and unacceptable,” said Theresa Pierno, president and CEO for National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), in a statement. “Nearly every single one of our more than 400 national parks is plagued by air pollution. If we don’t take immediate action to combat this, the results will be devastating and irreversible.”

The culprits? Extracting and burning fossil fuels (specifically coal — surprising, we know), car exhaust, and side effects of climate change like wildfire smoke. The report notes that the large majority of polluted air doesn’t originate in the parks, but gets blown in from elsewhere.

Last year, the most popular parks — like Sequoia, Mojave, and Joshua Tree — recorded up to two months of dangerous ozone levels, mostly in the summer when the parks are always busiest. While bad air quality causes some people to stop visiting national parks, according to the NPCA’s report, there has still been an overall impact on visitors’ health: People are getting allergy and asthma attacks in the parks more often.

Air pollution is actively damaging sensitive species and habitats in 88 percent of national parks — like alpine flowers in Rocky Mountain National Park which, apart from being pretty, provide essential habitat for some of the animals there, like elk.

In 89 percent of all parks, particulate matter in the air creates a visible haze, clouding views as well as lungs. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, for example, is even smokier than its name suggests. The name is supposed to refer to the bluish mist that naturally hangs over the mountains, not the white or yellowish haze of pollution that is now often seen at the park.

What’s the solution? The NPCA urges a swift transition to clean energy sources, a reduction in air pollution for areas neighboring national parks, and for states to stay in compliance with the Clean Air Act despite the loosened federal regulations under the Trump administration. Just last week, as the Guardian pointed out, the Bureau of Land Management moved forward with a plan that would open more than 1.6 million acres of land near national parks in California to fracking.

“At a time when the climate crisis facing the planet is irrefutable, the laws that protect our climate and the air we breathe are being challenged like never before as this administration continues to prioritize polluters’ interests over the health of our people and parks,” said Stephanie Kodish, Clean Air Program Director for NPCA, in a statement.

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Insurance experts rank climate change as top risk for 2019

It’s no secret that climate change comes at a cost — so much so that even the insurance industry has flagged it as a priority. According to a new industry survey, actuaries (the people who calculate insurance risks and premiums based on available data) ranked climate change as the top risk for 2019, beating out concerns over cyber damages, financial instability, and terrorism.

When actuaries correctly measure and manage climate risks, they can help nudge societies away from poor planning — such as overbuilding in high-risk coastal flood zones — and towards better choices — like building more resilient infrastructure designed to withstand anticipated sea level rise.

“The survey shows actuaries are engaged and tackling this risk frontier,” Steve Kolk, actuary and climate data scientist, told Grist. “It thrills me to see actuaries join the effort and help us all build a sustainable planet more quickly.”

The survey, published by the Joint Risk Management Section and two other organizations that represent professional actuaries, found that out of 267 actuaries surveyed, 22 percent identified climate change as their top emerging risk. It was also the top-ranked choice for combination risk and tied with cyber/interconnectedness of infrastructure for top current risk. It’s a dramatic shift from previous years, when climate change lagged well behind other dangers to people and property. In last year’s survey, only 7 percent of respondents rated climate change as the top emerging risk.

The survey results align with several current and future projections of climate change’s impact on the global economy. According to one estimate, natural disasters caused about $340 billion in damage across the world in 2017, with insurers paying out a record $138 billion. The insurance industry plays a huge role in the U.S. economy at $5 trillion (Insurance spending in 2017 made up about 11 percent of America’s GDP). Climate change can make a sizable dent on economic growth by disrupting supply chains and demand for products, and creating harsh working conditions, among other issues.

“Actuaries, on the whole, are recognizing not only the magnitude of rising climate-related risks but, more importantly, that they can play a positive role in helping society actively manage those risks,” said Robert Erhardt, associate professor of statistics at Wake Forest University.

While the report could signal a potential change in risk awareness, it may also have come down to timing: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report was released in October 2018, a few weeks before the survey.

“The effects of climate change became a common front-page story in the past year — and risk managers are taking notice,” Max Rudolph, a fellow with the Society of Actuaries who prepared the report, told E&E News.

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‘Historic breakthrough’: Norway’s giant oil fund dives into renewables

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This story was originally published by the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Norway’s $1 trillion oil fund, the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, is to plunge billions of dollars into wind and solar power projects. The decision follows Saudi Arabia’s oil fund selling off its last oil and gas assets.

Other national funds built up from oil profits are also thought to be ramping up their investments in renewables. The moves show that countries that got rich on fossil fuels are diversifying their investments and seeking future profits in the clean energy needed to combat climate change. Analysts say the investments are likely to power faster growth of green energy.

Norway’s government gave the go-ahead on Friday for its fund to invest in renewable energy projects that are not listed on stock markets. Unlisted projects make up more than two-thirds of the whole renewable infrastructure market, which is worth trillions of dollars.

Previously, it had warned that such investments could be at risk from political interference. But now the sum the fund can invest in green projects has been doubled to $14 billion. “Even a fund built on oil is seeing that the future is green,” said Jan Erik Saugestad, CEO of Storebrand Asset Management.

In March, Norway’s sovereign wealth fund said it would dispose of its investments in 134 companies that explore for oil and gas, worth almost $8 billion. But it is retaining stakes in oil firms such as Shell and BP that have renewable energy divisions.

Norway also announced on Friday that the fund would sell off its stakes in more coal companies, having set a new limit for them of 20 million tons of reserves. This may see its investments in giants Glencore and RWE dumped. The fund divested $6.5 billion of coal-related investments in 2015.

Across the world, almost 1,000 institutional investors, managing more than $6 trillion, have now committed to fossil fuel divestment, driven by concerns about global warming and financial losses if climate action cuts the value of coal, oil, and gas investments.

“Unlisted renewable energy is a growth industry,” said Tom Sanzillo at IEEFA. “Investments by Norway’s fund now allow it to take advantage of this growth and to use its resources to develop the market for decades. This is a strong step for the health of the fund and the planet.”

Sverre Thornes, CEO of Norwegian pension fund KLP, said: “This move will most likely expand the market further and faster. Our overall renewables infrastructure rate of return was around 11 percent last year. Clean energy is what will move us away from the dangerous and devastating pathway we are currently on.”

Per Kristian Sbertoli, at the Norwegian climate think tank Zero, said the decision on unlisted renewable infrastructure was a “historic breakthrough” and welcomed the further divestment from coal: “These actions by the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund are noticed and contribute to reducing the cost for renewables, whilst accelerating the global shift away from coal.”

Charlie Kronick, at Greenpeace U.K., said such moves were “genuinely good news” but that all investors would have to follow suit to beat climate change.

Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund sold its last investment linked to oil and gas last week, with the sale of its $69 billion stake in Saudi Basic Industries Corporation to the nation’s oil company, Aramco.

Other Middle East oil funds are moving to diversify into renewable energy, according to Reuters, but are stopping short of following Norway in shedding oil and gas investments.

Individual sovereign wealth funds make little information public about their investments, but data on total private equity investments involving such funds suggests a strong shift from fossil fuels to renewables.

In 2018, $6.4 billion went into hydrocarbons, compared with $5.8 billion in renewable energy, according to the data firm PitchBook. In 2017, $18.8 billion went into fossil fuel investments, compared with just $0.4 billion into renewables.

Mark Lewis, at BNP Paribas Asset Management, said: “Renewables are the new rust for the oil-and-gas industry, and if the industry does not adapt to this new reality they will corrode its future profits just like rust corrodes oil rigs.”

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‘Historic breakthrough’: Norway’s giant oil fund dives into renewables

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Trump’s border wall may cost Texas and Puerto Rico a chunk of their disaster aid

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President Trump seems determined to find a way to fund a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico — even if it means diverting billions of dollars of aid originally earmarked for Puerto Rico and other communities recovering from disasters.

Now 21 days into the partial government shutdown (tied for the longest ever in U.S. history), it’s crunch time for Trump. Democrats remain unwilling to approve the $5 billion in wall funding that the president has requested to build a wall. One way around that political roadblock could be for Trump to declare a national emergency, which would allow him to use unspent Defense Department disaster recovery and military construction funds to start construction.

Construction of a 315-mile border wall would eat up a significant chunk of the nearly $14 billion worth of emergency funds, which had been set aside for numerous disaster relief projects including reconstruction in post-hurricane Puerto Rico, flood management along the hurricane-affected coastline in Texas, and wildfire management n California. The funding was allocated to the Army Corps of Engineers back in a February 2018 but never spent.

Considering that The Federal Emergency Management Agency has suspended disaster relief contracts thanks to the shutdown, it looks like it’ll be some time before these areas will see those dollars.

Representative Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y), said in a statement that it would be “beyond appalling for the president to take money from places like Puerto Rico that have suffered enormous catastrophes, costing thousands of American citizens’ lives, in order to pay for Donald Trump’s foolish, offensive and hateful wall.”

“Siphoning funding from real disasters to pay for a crisis manufactured by the president is wholly unacceptable and the American people won’t fall for it,” she wrote.

While it’s unclear whether Trump will indeed declare a national emergency, he told Fox News host Sean Hannity on Thursday that without a deal with Congress, “most likely I will do that. I would actually say I would.”

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North Carolina to Trump: End the shutdown so we can use our hurricane aid

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North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper addressed the president in a letter today, explaining that the ongoing partial government shutdown (now on its 19th day) is holding up key disaster relief for the state. North Carolina needs to repair flood damage from Hurricane Florence last year and 2016’s Hurricane Matthew, and prepare itself for future storms.

Cooper writes: “Our critical long-term work to rebuild stronger and smarter is delayed with every day that federal funds are held in Washington.…Please work with Congressional leaders to end this shutdown so our communities can rebuild quickly and effectively.”

Last April, North Carolina was allocated $168 million for disaster recovery from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). And in September, HUD allotted an additional $1.68 billion to be shared between North Carolina and other states affected by 2018 storms. But states can’t access those funds until they are given guidance from HUD and the Federal Register, both of which are closed during the shutdown.

The shutdown is making things worse for disaster-affected communities across the board, but there was already a backlog in undisbursed funds. Bloomberg reported last week that the Trump administration has been sitting on $16 billion earmarked for storm protection while HUD delays the release of instructions for how states can apply for those funds.

Trump is more explicitly blocking disaster relief to disaster survivors in drier (and blue-er) parts of the U.S. In 2018, wildfires took the lives of nearly 100 people and completely leveled the town of Paradise, California. This morning he tweeted (then deleted, then retweeted after correcting some spelling errors): “Billions of dollars are sent to the State of California for Forest fires that, with proper Forest Management, would never happen. Unless they get their act together, which is unlikely, I have ordered FEMA to send no more money.”

Whether or not Trump’s California-centered threats have teeth remains up in the air. Such a move would be without precedent, and The Washington Post reported this afternoon that it’s unclear whether the Federal Emergency Management Agency is taking steps to comply. To add to the confusion, much of California’s forests are federally managed — so Trump can ask feds can rake their own leaves once they’re back on the job.

Despite states’ pleas, signs do not look good for a resolution to the shutdown. President Trump stormed out of a meeting with Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday, tweeting that it had been “a total waste of time.”

He ended the tweet by saying, “Nancy said, NO. I said bye-bye, nothing else works!”

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North Carolina to Trump: End the shutdown so we can use our hurricane aid

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Here’s how anti-immigrant policies hurt hurricane recovery

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This week, President Trump hinted at an upcoming executive order that would end the long-standing Constitutional guarantee of birthright citizenship. The announcement had its (likely intended) effect of gumming up the news cycle less than a week before the midterm elections. For communities recovering from natural disasters, it introduced a different kind of complication — a potential loss of Federal Emergency Management Agency funds.

Like many other government-run assistance programs, FEMA relief is available to individuals whose children are U.S. citizens, regardless of their own immigration status. By nullifying birthright citizenship guarantees, the Trump administration would remove protections available to many victims of current and future superstorms. And it’s only the latest potential policy blow to immigrant communities.

The anticipated executive order also comes as people are still reeling from the Trump administration’s proposal earlier this fall to make it harder for individuals who accept federal housing assistance, food stamps, and Medicaid to qualify for a green card. Those moves, advocates say, would force parents to choose between becoming a legal permanent resident, or getting support to keep their families healthy.

Even though the policies are not yet law, they are already complicating recovery efforts in areas of the U.S. affected by climate change. Advocates say anti-immigrant efforts could limit many residents’ access to housing, healthy food, and disaster relief.

Rachna Khare is the executive director of Daya, a Houston-based organization that provides counseling and services to South Asian survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. It’s well documented that gender-based violence increases after disasters like hurricanes — there was a 45 percent increase in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, for example. Khare says that after the Hurricane Harvey, many domestic violence shelters in Houston were either full or flooded. “To say low-cost housing became a challenge is an understatement,” Khare told Grist. “That’s why public benefits became incredibly important.”

Although President Trump’s next executive order is currently dominating the news cycle, advocates say his administration’s quieter moves that complicate the path to citizenship are already having a chilling effect. The Department of Homeland Security published a proposal in October that would change its definition of “public charge.” Currently, “public charge” is a term used to mean someone who is likely to become dependent on government help, such as cash welfare, for survival. Being designated a public charge can make it harder to get an application for permanent residency approved.

The proposed rule change would expand the “public charge” criteria so that accepting food stamps, Medicaid, or Section 8 Housing vouchers would also be considered a strike against you. And earlier this year, a leaked draft of the proposed policy stated that applying for benefits for your dependents could be included in the new definition of public charge. The idea that adults might be penalized for seeking resources for their eligible children sparked outrage, and by the time the final language came out in October, the language regarding aid for family members had been removed.

Lost yet? The back and forth was hard for pretty much anyone to follow. And advocates say that misinformation, fear, and anti-immigrant rhetoric are leading families to drop out of benefits regardless of whether or not it would actually harm their immigration status.

“It doesn’t matter what it says in the rule. What matters are the choices people make based on the rhetoric and the swirl of information of that is out there, which is less nuanced and less precise than it should be,” says Kate Vickery, executive director of the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative. “The collateral damage to this is people dropping out of programs that help stabilize their families.” Vickery’s organization helps provide cash assistance to families still recovering from Harvey. She has been hearing reports of some families refusing help even from faith-based organizations over fears of it affecting their immigration status.

The draft proposal of the changes to the definition of “public charge” is open to public comment until December. Khare says keeping abreast of changing immigration policies and managing clients’ fears has placed an extra workload on advocates.

“We want to make sure survivors know nothing has changed yet, please don’t unenroll from benefits that are keeping you alive,” says Khare. “Our biggest fear is that people would — without these benefits — go back to abusive partners and unsafe homes, and that can result in life-ending consequences.”

The stakes can be even higher for domestic violence survivors who are immigrants with U.S.-born children. For them, the decision becomes a choice between getting help for their families or being able to stay in the country with their children.

“Pia” is one of the women that Khare’s organization, Daya, has helped with housing. (Her name has been changed to protect her identity.) She is waiting for the Department of Homeland Security to reissue her a green card that she says was misplaced by one of the shelters she lived in after fleeing her husband in 2015. Because her children are U.S. citizens, she’s been able to get food stamps and Medicare for them.

“If my kids are not insured, then I have no idea where I’m going to go for a doctor. It’s a big help. And also food, food is like an everyday need. It’s been very helpful,” she says.

Despite how much Pia values the assistance, and although she’s confident she’ll be issued a new green card, she says that if she was forced to choose, “I’m going to choose a green card over anything because I need to stay with my kids.” If she had to return to her home country, she says, it would be easy for her husband and his family to take away her children without recourse. And her son, who has autism, wouldn’t have access to the same supports he gets in the U.S.

Pia’s children have access to many of those benefits because they were born in the United States. If there were no birthright citizenship guarantee, families like Pia’s would not be eligible for services like disaster aid. That kind of change would have huge implications for a diverse city like Houston. Almost half of all children in the Houston area are the children of immigrants. And a study found that immigrant communities were more likely to suffer a loss of income and say they needed help getting medical care after Hurricane Harvey. In disaster-affected areas across the U.S., immigrant families have had to rebuild in the midst of a flurry of policies and political rhetoric aimed at displacing them again. In 2017, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office in Houston arrested more noncitizens than anywhere else in the U.S. except for Dallas.

At least for now, it’s unclear how the proposed policies would impact individuals who already have their U.S. citizenship via birthright. When the Dominican Republic revoked birthright citizenship in 2013, it required citizens to file for “re-naturalization.” Stripping children of citizenship could have effects across generations, says Randy Capps, director of research at the Migration Policy Institute. “It’s about the long-term well-being and functioning of these children — if they get hungry, if they get sick, and also if their parents are more stressed, that could result in more problems,” he said.

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Here’s how anti-immigrant policies hurt hurricane recovery

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Fuming residents are fighting back against a neighboring oil refinery

Nestled between two major highways, the Houston ship channel, and a Valero refinery, the neighborhood of Manchester stews in a witches’ brew of toxic chemicals. Houston, known as the Petro Metro, is home to a quarter of the petroleum refining capacity in the United States. An elementary school next to a chemical plant; a public park next to a refinery. These are the kinds of places that exist in Manchester.

The southeastern Houston community is brimming with industrial facilities — over a dozen, including oil refineries, chemical facilities, and a metal recycling plant. Like most of Houston, many of these hazardous facilities make up a large part of the local economy. And as many locals see it, they may also account for many of the community’s health problems.

Yvette Arellano, a community organizer for the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, told Grist they’ve heard local mothers give tear-filled accounts of their children suffering from constantly red eyes and unable to eat because of nausea from the fumes. Manchester residents are actually at a 22 percent higher risk of cancer than the overall Houston urban area, according to a 2016 report.

“The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has two goals: economic health and public health,” said Arellano, “public [health] coming second.”

Manchester is not the only community bombarded with potentially harmful chemicals. According to a new report by the Environmental Justice Health Alliance, nearly 40 percent of the country lives within three miles of at least one of the 12,500 high-risk chemical facilities (federally regulated by the EPA’s Risk Management Plan Rule) in the United States. This area is what is known to some activists as the “fenceline” zone.

People of color and people at or near poverty levels tend to make up a higher number of these communities, facing disparate levels of exposure to toxic chemicals. And location matters when it comes to exposure — there are 11,000 medical facilities and 125,000 schools — which 24 million children attend — within “fenceline” zones.

“These communities have been paying with their health and well being,” said Michele Roberts, co-coordinator at the Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform and a contributor to the report.

Residents of Manchester, Texas, line up to speak at a public forum about hydrogen cyanide emissions from the nearby Valero Refinery.Courtesy of t.e.j.a.s.

Back in Manchester, concerned residents are pushing for change. Over the past several months, residents and environmental justice advocates have been facing an uphill battle against the nearby Valero refinery. Local residents’ latest grievance is the company’s request to amend a permit that would allow the refinery to emit 452 tons of hydrogen cyanide, a known neurotoxin historically used as a chemical warfare agent, yearly into the community’s air. Though the poisonous chemical compound is illegal to store and illegal to produce, it is not illegal to emit.

Local exposure to the chemical is not new. The refinery has always emitted hydrogen cyanide, but activists say the new permit will allow for emissions of almost nine times the amount that is currently being released. Valero did not respond to Grist’s request for comment.

The refinery originally sought a permit that would allow for 512 tons of hydrogen cyanide emissions per year — a number they lowered after a public uproar at the first permit hearing back in June. But concerned residents say that’s still not good enough.

“It’s a slap in the face,” Yvette Arellano, a community organizer for the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, told Grist. “This should not be permitted at all.”

As Manchester residents grapple with a plethora of health concerns, momentum in the community is growing. Several undocumented mothers are spearheading a coalition against Valero behind the scenes, teaming up with environmental justice groups like t.e.j.a.s. Other Manchester residents are voicing their concerns at public hearings — around 50 residents and advocates were present at the first meeting earlier this summer.

To address the toxic air that may already be wafting into residents’ spaces. T.e.j.a.s. and members of the Manchester community are working together to roll out an air quality monitoring app, giving them the vital information they can use to push hazardous facilities to clean up their act. T.e.j.a.s. and many community members are also supporting the Toxic Alert Bill, which would set up an emergency alert system for residences near chemical plants in the case of a spill or an explosion.

“Communities are taking their narrative into their own hands,” Roberts said. “They’re speaking for themselves and being supported by environmental justice collectives that can help them get what it is that they actually want and need for their community.”

According to Arellano, in the current fight over hydrogen cyanide emissions, Valero might seek an exception so that they do not have to report that they’re even emitting the chemical. Manchester residents are now calling for more information in order to keep refineries, as well as chemical and storage facilities, accountable. Arellano says that though some residents want to leave the community, others simply want the plants to close.

“The residents were here first,” Arellano said. “This is their community.”

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Kirstjen Nielsen and Brock Long visited Puerto Rico, and it was really weird

Kirstjen Nielsen, Secretary of Homeland Security, and Brock Long, head of FEMA, went on tour in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands Friday. Their mission, nearly a year after Hurricane Maria devastated both territories? To “meet with and thank Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel working on hurricane recovery and preparedness efforts,” according to a news release.

Local media on the islands reported that Long and Nielsen aren’t making themselves available to press during their visits and are limiting public appearances. But we sure got a sense of what’s happening on social media:

Twitter quickly responded to Nielsen’s tweet with a chorus of “too little, too late.”

Last month, FEMA — which is part of Department of Homeland Security — released a report admitting to some of its blunders during the response to Hurricane Maria. That included not having enough qualified staff, food, water, or other supplies on hand to deal with the disaster.

Outrage over the federal response to Maria is still simmering. Now it’s compounded by the frustration of Maria survivors — some of who still face uncertain housing prospects, even as we go deeper into this year’s hurricane season. After several extensions, FEMA plans to end its transitional shelter assistance again at the end of the month, but advocates say that a longer-term plan to help people get back into homes is needed.

And because tossing out paper towels just isn’t enough these days, Nielsen spent time handing out school supplies to children in San Juan before visiting a school in St. Croix.

Nielsen has been facing a lot of kid-related criticism lately. Her department forcibly separated families at the U.S.-Mexico border, lost track of who belongs with who, and has now missed deadlines to reunite them. Some members of Congress, including Senators Dick Durbin and Kamala Harris, have called for her to leave office over the policy.

So, of course, photos of Nielsen handing out backpacks on DHS’ Twitter account didn’t sit well with everyone.

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Kirstjen Nielsen and Brock Long visited Puerto Rico, and it was really weird

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Hurricane Maria evacuees worry about jobs, housing, and if they’ll ever go home

In the wake of Hurricane Maria, 1,700 evacuees from Puerto Rico have received housing assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. This past week, those Puerto Ricans faced being displaced again as a deadline approached that would have forced them to move out of hotel rooms, mostly in Florida, that were being paid for by the U.S. government.

Temporary Shelter Assistance (TSA) for those affected by Maria was scheduled to end on June 30. But advocates rallied for an extension, as well as a plan to provide more long-term housing to those who were forced to flee Puerto Rico.

After levying a lawsuit against FEMA, the effort was successful in achieving a brief reprieve. On Tuesday, a federal judge ruled that evacuees could retain occupancy of their hotel rooms until July 23. While it’s a momentary relief, these displaced Puerto Ricans still face several hurdles in setting up a new life post-Maria.

Grist spoke with three TSA recipients who moved to the Orlando area after the hurricane. All of them expressed uncertainty about the futures of them and their families. And the new deadline now looms large as they work to find jobs, more permanent housing, or a way back to their island home. (The sources’ accounts have been edited for clarity and concision.)

Ariana Colon, 20

Colon was a nursing student when Hurricane Maria hit. She and her boyfriend have a one-year-old son and another baby on the way. They’re staying at a Holiday Inn in Kissimmee, Florida.

I moved in December. My boyfriend came in October to make sure he was going to have a job first before we actually came here. It’s been really hard because I’ve never been to Florida before, so it’s kind of like trying to learn how everything goes here.

When we were in Puerto Rico, the governor of Florida was saying that there would be a lot of assistance. But once we came here it was the opposite. We did get the assistance from the TSA program, but other than that, there was nothing. We had to do everything ourselves, even though we came with just a suitcase with some clothes with it. We didn’t come with money. It was more like we came here by force after everything that happened.

We didn’t lose our home, it was more everything that happened after the hurricane: no electricity, no water, no food. I spent a lot of days trying to find one can of formula for my baby. He was actually getting sick because of the smell of the generators. He got a lung infection.

In Puerto Rico, there was tropical weather. It was so hot inside that he couldn’t sleep, so I would have to sleep outside or sleep on roof so he could. It was more for my son that we decided to come because he was suffering a lot. He was five months old at the time, so he was really small.

At first I couldn’t work because I didn’t have daycare. Daycare is really expensive. So my boyfriend was working by himself, and I wasn’t receiving any benefits from the government, like food stamps or WIC (a food program, specifically aimed at women, infants, and children). I started receiving those later on, after maybe three months. Everything was coming out of our pockets, so we couldn’t save a lot in that time.

Then I was trying to get assistance from the state that helps you pay for daycare. I got it in April, and that’s when I started working in a fast food restaurant and trying to save more. But even with that, I spend like maybe half of what I make on daycare — and that only covers five hours Monday through Friday, so I can’t really have a full-time job.

It’s been really stressful, not knowing if you’re going to have a roof over your head or not, and having a baby makes it 10 times worse. I was freaking out about this — like, “Oh my god, I have to move everything again.” Because we have actually moved; we’ve been in four different hotels.

People say, “You’re staying in a hotel. It must be nice.” But it’s really not, staying in a hotel room for such a long time and having [hotel staff] coming in and out. You never know when someone’s going to open the door. Having everything stuck together in a small room is really uncomfortable. We can’t cook, because there’s no kitchen. You’re not comfortable at all. It is a roof and a bed, but it’s not how people think.

Pregnancy is really hard, and it obviously wasn’t planned so it’s kind of hard having to think about all this stress with the FEMA situation and then dealing with my baby. I feel like I have a lot of pressure on me. But I’m managing to fight through it.

Right now, we do have a plan. My boyfriend has a car in Puerto Rico that he’s trying to get here. With that car, he can do Uber. And we’re going to hope that doing that we can probably make more and get an apartment sooner.

So this [TSA extension] gave us a little more time. Instead of wasting money on a room that we’re going to be forced to rent — because obviously we can’t just stay in the street with my son — we can use that money to bring the car and start making more and see if that works out. I don’t think we have any more options.

Victor Oliveras, 26

Oliveras ran a small construction business in Las Marias, Puerto Rico, before Hurricane Maria destroyed his home. On June 30, the day TSA was originally scheduled to end, he moved out of a Super 8 motel and in with a Florida resident who had offered a room in his house to Victor and his girlfriend. He’s now working as a canvasser for the local nonprofit Organize Florida, where he’s helping to register Puerto Ricans to vote. (He spoke to Grist via a translator.)

Last month and this month, I had anxiety and depression. I went to bed every night without knowing what I can do. When you don’t have your own place, it’s horrible. It’s a nightmare.

I don’t want to stay in the hotel anymore. FEMA extended the program, but at any time you can end up on the street and be homeless. So I didn’t apply for the extension. I would rather stay in the bedroom that I rent because I feel safe. Now I don’t live with anxiety anymore because I have my own bedroom, I feel comfortable.

Here I’m alone. I’m with my girlfriend, but I don’t have family here. In Puerto Rico, I had my own company and built houses. I’m saving money to begin my small business in Puerto Rico again — and so I can stay with my family.

I want to move to Puerto Rico in December, but I need to find a house or an apartment there. The rent in Puerto Rico is cheaper than here by far, but I need money so I am working here to save up.

María Báez Claudio, 53

Claudia is a grandmother living with her five-year-old grandson, who has a disability that affects his motor skills, as well as his ability to talk. They are staying together at a Super 8 motel in Kissimmee, Florida. She applied for more permanent housing assistance through the Methodist Church, but is still on a waiting list. (She spoke to Grist via a translator.)

After the hurricane, with my grandson’s condition and few medical resources, I decided that the best thing to do was to come to Florida. Being alone and staying in a hotel with my grandson with a disability can be complicated. It’s a bit tough to go through sometimes. I’m grateful with him being able to go to therapy and go to school. I feel that he has gotten better because of those things. I’m thankful for that.

I’ve been anxious, worried, desperate, not knowing what’s going to happen [with TSA]. Today, I have a little bit of piece of mind, but overall it has been a hard experience. I’m hoping they can give me at least another month [beyond the July 23 deadline], because I have to figure things out.

I hope I have an apartment to live in and a job to sustain us and to be able to give my grandson stability and a good life. What keeps me going is the love that I have for my grandson — every time I look at him I find the strength to keep going.

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Hurricane Maria evacuees worry about jobs, housing, and if they’ll ever go home

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