Tropical storm Irene hit Vermont hard. Many Vermonters, particularly among our marginalized communities, have endured large-scale destruction and suffering. Yet Vermonters are also showing incredible solidarity, caring and resolve to action.
In the weeks following the storm, Vermont Workers’ Center members have been joining other members of our communities across the state to help with relief efforts and to assess what it would take to rebuild in the long term. It quickly became clear that those Vermonters most affected by the storm were the same people already struggling to meet their fundamental needs. Our communities suffering most from the economic crisis — people with disabilities, people who are homeless, people living in mobile home parks, people with no or low incomes — were hit hardest by this storm. Irene has both exposed and deepened the inequities that people in our communities already face every day.
Vermonters’ response of solidarity has been inspiring, but it is going to take more than a neighbor’s lending hand to rebuild from this crisis. We must not allow this “natural” disaster to be followed by a man-made disaster of inadequate and harmful reactions from state and federal governments. We are already struggling with an economic and human rights crisis that Vermonters face on a daily basis, a crisis of inequity — a crisis of injustice. As we rebuild, we must do so with an awareness of our human rights obligations to each other, obligations based on our human needs.
The force of this storm, like the unusual flooding in late Spring, was likely the result of a man-made crisis: climate change. Our efforts to rebuild must include organizing to change our energy policy and stand up against corporations that profit from polluting our planet and destroying our environment. We must stand up to demand our human right to a healthy environment.
In early 2011, the Vermont Workers’ Center launched the Put People First campaign, an umbrella for grassroots organizing efforts including the People’s Budget Campaign and our incredibly successful Healthcare Is a Human Right Campaign, which, through grassroots organizing, changed what is politically possible and began the process of enacting the country’s first universal healthcare system.
With the historic passage of our universal healthcare law this year, Vermont has recognized that our government has an obligation to ensure people’s human right to live in dignity by protecting their health. Now we must hold our government accountable to its obligation to respect, protect and fulfill all of our human rights. We must hold our state and federal governments accountable for enabling people to build dignified lives in the wake of Irene’s flooding.
THE STORM CRISIS
When tropical storm Irene hit, it caused a lot of destruction. Hundreds of us have suffered severe damage to our homes or lost them completely. We were trapped in towns due to washed out roads — unable to access food, water, healthcare or the medications we need.
In many of our communities, mobile home parks have taken the brunt of the damage. Mobile home parks are often built on flood plains rather than prime real estate — large communities of fragile homes unable to withstand the damage of a flood, located right in the path of danger. They tend to be home to low-income people, the elderly, and people with disabilities. These communities are often marginalized and forgotten before and during times of crisis.
Many people at mobile home parks all over the state were never notified to evacuate and ended up trapped and unable to save a single possession. Hundreds of already disadvantaged people have lost their homes, all possessions and in some cases the community they have lived in for their whole lives.
Many people living in tent cities without access to television or radio were never notified to evacuate. Poor communities remain dangerously invisible in Vermont.
Some people with disabilities were evacuated but not given instructions about where to go.
Due to the flooding of state offices, applications for healthcare and other public programs were destroyed or delayed. As a result, many people may suffer a gap in healthcare coverage and other essential public services.
Weeks later, roads are still cut off, and some of us have been unable to receive our mail, including pay checks — which can be disastrous for the many people living paycheck-to-paycheck in Vermont.
For many people on fixed incomes, even the cost of doing all laundry after the storm is unaffordable — let alone finding a new place to live.
Farmers from every corner of the state have lost their livelihoods and in some cases their ability ever to farm on their land again. Some of these farmers have been dealing with increasingly regular flooding for the past three growing seasons and were already struggling from a late start this year due to spring flooding.
The effects of the storm on the people of Vermont were far-reaching and will be felt deeply into the foreseeable future.
Watch a Vermont Workers’ Center video on how Irene impacted the residents of a mobile home park:
THE EVERYDAY CRISIS
Though the impact of the storm was acute, the daily lives of many Vermonters in already struggling communities were disproportionately affected. Each day, there are people in Vermont who lose their homes, lose their businesses or jobs, cannot get the healthcare they need and do not have enough food to eat. This human rights crisis was felt in our communities long before the storm.
The public services that so many Vermonters rely on have been systematically cut back year after year, and public jobs have been eliminated. This has happened not in the name of the people and our fundamental needs, but in the name of ‘balancing the budget.’ Yet budget deficits are entirely the result of revenue and spending priorities that do not put people first. Vermont fails to adequately tax those who are most able to pay, and it fails to use public money fairly and equitably to meet the needs of all communities. Instead of meeting people’s needs and realizing our rights, Vermont has tried to balance its budget on the backs of the most disadvantaged communities.
Now, our communities are simply not equipped to handle the impact of yet another crisis. Vermonters were already struggling to meet their needs for affordable housing, mental health services, healthcare, and quality education, long before we were confronted with hundreds more people who are now displaced and have lost everything. After our state cut public services and programs to a point that they couldn’t keep up with people’s needs during the economic crisis, how can we handle an even bigger crisis?
Six years ago, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, federal and state politicians not only failed to respond to the needs of people in New Orleans but capitalized on this crisis by imposing a radical new agenda of privatizing public services and government responsibilities. Public housing was demolished, public schools privatized and public hospitals closed. A new form of “disaster capitalism” struck, as a wealthy elite closed its doors on displaced poor residents, excluded them from services they could no longer afford and instead enabled big corporations to profit from the plight of flooded communities. The response in Vermont must be different. Our representatives must step up now and fund the rebuilding of public services and public infrastructure through local workers.
Katrina left tens of thousands suffering displacement, deprivation and indignity as they were abandoned, excluded and forgotten by a ruthless racist, anti-poor, anti-community agenda of privatization and profiteering. Vermonters must not follow down that path; we must rebuild with human rights in order to meet people’s needs.
We have already seen the divisive tactics of our opponents. We are told FEMA does not have enough resources to help Vermont without taking resources away from other places that still need it — or by “offsetting” relief costs through further cuts to other essential public services. We must reject these tactics and demand that our government satisfy its human rights obligation to us.
Katrina revealed that our country has become subsumed by greed and selfishness, leaving behind not only the poor but everyone devastated by the loss of public services, social protections, and jobs. The disastrous direction of national politics drowns people’s voices, neglects our needs and violates our rights. This approach is illustrated by a manufactured “debt crisis” that has led to a careless slashing of public jobs and programs — jobs and programs that had been intended to protect our safety and dignity — while giving bailouts and tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy. Flooding aside, this country has been drowning in the politics of greed.
Vermont can show a different path. After Irene, Vermont can lead the way to a new society of solidarity that puts people first, in times of disaster and beyond.
The community response to Irene reminds us what solidarity feels like. Vermonters have come together to help each other dig out of the thick, toxic mud. We have struggled together to deal with the immediate needs caused by this particular disaster. We are reminded, as we help each other rebuild our lives, that solidarity sometimes feels like struggle.
Vermonters also understand that solidarity means more than lending a hand. It means recognizing our common humanity, our interdependence and our stake in each other’s welfare. It means remembering that we join together in communities because we cannot struggle for survival alone, that we need the company and mutual support of others, that we govern ourselves in order to serve our community’s needs, and that our government is obligated to satisfy the human rights that follow from our needs.
Solidarity also means recognizing that many current crises have common roots. It means understanding that we must carry the relationships we build in these difficult weeks into a long-term struggle to create strong communities that can stand up against policies that cause further hardship. Caring for our communities means demanding that government prioritizes our fundamental needs — demanding a government that puts people first.
ORGANIZING TO REBUILD WITH HUMAN RIGHTS
Just as the imperative after a disaster is to rebuild to meet people’s needs, it is people’s needs that must guide policy decisions long after the disaster has passed. If the flood crisis reminds us of the purpose of government — to protect and ensure the well-being of the people — then the persistent economic crisis shows us how state and federal governments have failed in their jobs to protect our human right to a life with dignity. Instead, state and federal policies have left too many of us without jobs, hungry, sick, homeless and struggling for survival in an economy marked by corporate greed.
In Vermont, we, the people, have put our state on a path toward a healthcare system grounded in human rights principles — after being the first in the country to prohibit slavery, to institute free public education, and to enable marriage equality. Now it is our task to grow the solidarity that has emerged from this storm into a new movement for a society and government that protects its people, meets our needs, and provides crucial public goods for all. Only then will we be able to truly rebuild our communities. A rebuilt Vermont can once again lead our country by demonstrating the power of the human rights values we share, values based on the needs of people living together in communities.
This statement was also published in the VT Digger on September 15.
NEW: Watch a video on mobile home residents getting organized: