It’s been two weeks since the historic and deadly flooding event in central Appalachia left 39 people dead and countless homes, businesses and lives destroyed. Naturally, narratives around this disaster have run amuck with some going so far as to name the very people dealing with it as the harbingers of their own destruction. And while this contributor will address that narrative below, there is another narrative that needs clarifying: The flood of July 28, 2022 was not a natural disaster.To imply this flood, along with so many other weather-borne catastrophes plaguing our world, is a natural disaster is to say three things: We don’t know why it happened, we don’t know how it happened and we don’t know how to prevent the next one. But we do know the answers to these questions. We’ve known them for some time. A combination of unfettered capitalism, environmental degradation through extraction economies and government indifference or plain inaction have borne a land in these hills ripe for weather related disasters and left behind communities with little to no defenses against them.
This disaster was man made. Strip mining and mountaintop removal reengineered the land and left communities and towns towards the valley floor exposed to record levels of storm runoff. Then the coal companies left and government officials let them offload their bonds tied to abandoned strip mining operations and their promise to clean up their mess. Logging companies also helped, clear cutting hillsides of trees capable of absorbing large amounts of moisture and holding the ground in place and leaving behind fields of kudzu, an invasive plant ill-suited for the job of mountain integrity. Throw in increased greenhouse gas emissions from the global industrialization of the 20th century and you have all the ingredients needed for continued and more frequent catastrophes.
Not the community’s fault
This disaster is not the fault of those experiencing it. I consider myself an acquaintance of liberals and progressives and strive to abide no hate in the communities I live and work in. But to see folks of the same bent implying the assumed votes of the affected region in 2016 and 2020 and earlier are the reason why this man-made disaster has left them devastated is childish, infuriating and embarrassing.
To these same critical thinkers, I would ask: Will you say the same when the next disaster affects your democratic bulwark (i.e. Chicago, LA, Austin)? Did we not decry Sodom and Gomorrah references from conservatives after Hurricane Katrina? This is dangerously dualistic, incredibly callous and easily exploitable. We can’t be voices addressing climate change and in the same breath fall prey to such unscientific claims.
The science is clear
Finally, the next disaster is coming. The science is clear on this. The warmer our world becomes due to greenhouse gas buildup and environmental degradation, the more moisture will be absorbed into storms and the more volatile they will be, bringing prolonged rains and stronger winds. But when our government let the capitalists destroy these lands for profit and then let them off the hook for repairing them before they left, all while refusing any considerable legislation on addressing climate change, they left these communities vulnerable.
Without serious investments into repairing the land, rebuilding and refortifying infrastructure and providing those affected with free sturdy homes to replace the ones they lost, these man-made disasters will compound one after the other and the most vulnerable amongst us will suffer the consequences.
Charles Calhoun is a member of the Appalachian diaspora living in Columbia, SC but working remotely for an NPO in SEKY. He was present on the day of the floods.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: The Eastern Kentucky flood is no natural disaster. Call it what it is