Once again, I am really feeling for the people in harm’s way due to a natural disaster that’s sure to render thousands homeless. Hurricane Florence could be a category 3 or 4 when it comes ashore on the central to southeast US coast in the next couple of days and a million people are under evacuation orders to avoid risking their lives in the storm which is expected to produce devastating winds, up to 13 feet or more of storm surge, and 25 inches of rain. After losing my apartment in Hurricane Sandy and having to swim out of my apartment building in chest deep water at midnight, and having to live through the aftermath on a devastated and destroyed island, I can attest to the extreme damage and long-term effects produced by hurricanes, tropical storms and widespread coastal flooding. And Hurricane Flo is shaping up to be, potentially, a hell of a storm with winds and rain far worse than what Sandy offered as a category 1 and then a “mere” tropical storm by the time it made landfall in the northeastern United States. The devastation that can reasonably be expected from Flo is, in a word, extreme.
Much like chronic illness it seems, unless and until someone has experienced this for themselves people are simply unable to imagine or comprehend the full effects of this kind of storm damage, like gasoline rationing and shortages (and outages), being rendered homeless or otherwise without power, clean water, heat or access to shopping, bathing, cooking and laundry facilities for weeks if not months at a time, and extreme widespread pollution and environmental contamination from the displaced contents of storm-damaged sewers, septic tanks and water treatment plants; gas stations and petroleum storage facilities; commercial and industrial parks; commercial agriculture and factory farms; hospitals and research facilities; cemeteries and bio-hazardous waste facilities; landfills and garbage dumps; hazardous including nuclear waste storage and disposal sites; and power plants including nuclear power plants and more. Literally everything you can imagine, and many things you can’t, will become airborne, will seep into the soil and groundwater, or will end up floating in/on the floodwaters, leaving a toxic slick covering the landscape for miles once the filthy water recedes.
Of course, this type and degree of pollution is impossible to clean up and affected communities will remain polluted and toxic forever although this is rarely discussed. When Hurricane Harvey devastated east Texas, already one of the most industrially polluted areas in the world and the nation’s “largest energy corridor” literally billions of gallons of toxic industrial waste were released into the floodwaters, a half a billion of those were from just one facility — one out of 500 such sites in the area. Also during Hurricane Harvey, there was an explosion at a so-called “chemical plant” that was initially reported but quickly covered up at the time, an explosion which I suspect could’ve actually been a detonation from the area’s nuclear power plant instead.
Does anyone really believe the nuclear lobby’s account that “The two nuclear reactors at the South Texas Project plant near Houston were operating at full capacity [throughout the storm and its aftermath] despite wind gusts that peaked at 130 mph as the Hurricane made landfall”? Because I don’t. Especially when they follow that up with this: “Nuclear is the only energy source immune to all extreme weather events – by design.” I guess Fukushima never happened then! Or is this just a case of a weasel using weasel words — perhaps the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami that caused multiple nuclear meltdowns and explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant don’t count as weather events, despite creating conditions and damage identical to those which occur during extreme weather events like hurricanes including widespread power outages and flooding, catastrophic structural damage and inability to access damaged areas quickly or at all.
That the owners of the chemical plant have now been indicted — and that never happens — for their alleged recklessness in allowing the explosion to happen only makes me more suspicious that the source of and fallout from the explosion were actually nuclear, not “chemical” and that the chemical-plant explosion was a ruse. Or, you know, they both happened. Either way, east Texas, the Gulf of Mexico and Gulf states including Florida and areas even beyond are probably heavily and permanently contaminated from the massive industrial pollution caused by Hurricane Harvey which will have devastating health consequences to everyone and every thing living in those areas now and forever, including the already-chronically ill.
And in the case of hurricane damage and widespread coastal flooding, shops and businesses (and places of work and benefits offices) will sustain the same damage as residences do, and your geographically-close friends and relatives will be in the same position you are so there will literally be no one to turn to and nowhere to go when you are caught in the middle of this type and degree of damage. Damaged properties including residences are often un- or underinsured but in any case can take months or years to repair or rebuild, if they are repaired or rebuilt at all. That means that in places that were experiencing shortages of affordable housing even before the storm, thousands if not tens of thousands or more individuals and families will predictably become displaced or left in unstable living situations for years following a widespread catastrophic weather (or other) event if they are ever able to recover at all. Some communities never fully recover where local shops and businesses close long term or permanently or are relocated, or where the businesses remain but the residential areas are lost and the residents themselves leave and do not return.
Exactly as it sounds, surviving the aftermath of this kind of devastation is daunting under the best of circumstances, but what of the chronically ill whose health, sanity and perhaps very lives were hanging by a thread even before the storm? What are house- or bed-bound patients supposed to do when they no longer have a house or a bed to call their own? At the time I lost my apartment in the storm, I was becoming seriously chronically ill and I can tell you that the extreme stress and hardship of being displaced and ill at the same time are simply not to be believed. I was left homeless, and not having any family or unaffected friends and neighbors close by, had to move in with my ex-partner’s mother where I slept on a couch or a toddler bed for months, a physically and emotionally unbearable situation on anyone’s best day — and I ended up being there for nearly 3 years due to the resulting housing crisis coupled with my increasingly failing health. For the nearly 2 weeks we were without power or other services immediately following the storm, I was unable to follow any dietary restrictions at all, despite having been strictly gluten-free out of medical necessity for a decade by then, was unable to control my climate, and unable to practice basic hygiene, as were everyone around me.
Clearly, immunocompromised and other patients will fare poorly under these conditions and in fact, from the time the storm hit my health only and steadily declined. Before Hurricane Sandy I was already getting progressively ill, but after I lost my home and had to deal with the aftermath of the storm I was never healthy again and in fact my health deteriorated at a terrifying pace — within 2 years I was contemplating medically assisted suicide for relief from the relentless, hellish symptoms of Crohn’s disease which, despite my accepting and fully complying with Western medical treatment, were only getting worse, and where Crohn’s under any circumstance is both incurable and progressive, and known to be exceptionally resistant to conventional medical care.
And for the chronically ill, even if their homes or neighborhoods do not sustain damage, the physical, mental and emotional act of preparing for a storm — or evacuating — are extremely challenging if not impossible. Reinforcing a home with boards, sandbags and the like is physically grueling work and getting to the store to purchase supplies can be physically and mentally taxing, expensive or even impossible for the chronically ill on their best days, especially if they have little or no family or social support and they often don’t. Meanwhile, conditions in public storm shelters may implicitly exclude the chronically ill, preventing them from accessing shelter and related services if the shelters cannot offer privacy or will not allow therapy animals or alternative treatments such as medical marijuana to be brought on site.
And public shelters including storm shelters are known to be unsafe for vulnerable people anyway, including women, children, the very old, or the acutely or chronically ill, where everyone except able-bodied men are in exceptional physical, emotional and sexual danger at shelters and everyone knows it. Honestly, while horrific under even normal circumstances, the thought of being raped while displaced and suffering from Crohn’s disease which often includes immunocompromise as well as severe abdominal and pelvic pain and inflammation; intestinal adhesions, abscesses and infections; uncontrollable diarrhea, painful bloating, and prolonged constipation; delicate and painful medical appliances like drain tubes, picc lines, ostomies and ostomy bags and the like; fresh or healing surgical or other wounds; anal fissures and rectovaginal fistulas; and dangerous, potentially life-threatening complications like bowel obstructions, perforations and so-called Toxic Megacolon is the stuff of nightmares but rape and other assaults cannot be reliably avoided in shelter conditions or once a sick woman is forced out of her home.
“Why not simply evacuate the area altogether?” one might reasonably wonder if they have never been in this situation themselves. Well, in my own case, where we lived on an island with limited ingress and egress as well as gas and lodging shortages along evacuation routes, evacuating was just not an option because we had nowhere to go. Everyone we knew was either geographically close and therefore facing the same threats we were or were too far away to get to safely or at all. Coastal areas at most risk for hurricane damage often have only one route or direction to escape, especially on islands like Long Island, New York and peninsulas like the state of Florida and experience parking-lot like conditions on the roads which can last for hours or days.
Imagine being seriously ill with limited or no amenities and having to sit in gridlocked traffic for 4, 8, 12 or more hours in order to flee along with everyone else, where the sick person or any traveler could easily and foreseeably experience car trouble including mechanical failure, running out of gas, lack of climate control including air conditioning (in the middle of late-summer heat on concrete and asphalt no less) or even a car accident that leaves them vulnerable to the elements, additional accidents and injuries, and violent crime, and unable to continue on their journey out of the danger zone. Gas, lodging, medical care and other services wherever they end up could well be nonexistent or they could be left stranded away from the comforts and amenities of home but still in the path of the incoming storm. Can you imagine?
For patients traveling with medical marijuana or other illicit substances, they, their families and traveling companions could face serious consequences including criminal charges for traveling with the much-needed medicine, even where it was purchased legally, if they have “stocked up” for the emergency and exceeded extremely low legal carrying limits, or if they have to medicate in public or travel out-of-state. Seriously chronically ill patients, their carers and dependents could all end up in jail during their already stressful ordeal and face related legal, financial and social consequences that go on for years or forever, all for the “crime” of being or caring for a chronically ill person during a dangerous natural or man-made disaster, even where the evacuation orders were mandatory or where the sick person’s home was rendered uninhabitable or destroyed.
And of course, the seriously chronically ill are not immune from being injured or further sickened from their ordeal, nor is one experience of being displaced following extreme weather a guarantee that it won’t happen again, or again and again and again. I am more than aware that I could become displaced again at any time, perhaps particularly since moving into a poorly maintained, dilapidated property that floods when it rains. And while the chronically ill experience is in some ways unique to them/us, they/we are still subject to the same general consequences as everyone when faced with the uncertainty and danger of extreme weather and of life, including falling victim to violent and other crime, industrial pollution and accidents, acute illness and injury, unforeseen consequences and just plain old bad luck, just as healthy people are. But the chronically ill may be exceptionally unequipped physically, emotionally, mentally or financially to deal with the fallout of “life” under late-stage capitalism and patriarchy and often have no one there to help them when things, as bad as they already were, go sideways due to circumstances beyond their control.
As climate chaos seems to be worsening over recent time, and more and more people are forced out of their homes and rendered homeless and/or relegated to shelters, unstable or transient housing and even abusive or exploitative living arrangements due to catastrophic property damage from wind, rain and widespread flooding, more and more chronically ill people are going to be affected too. As a seriously chronically ill person myself, I cannot help but feel for these people, and fear for their futures, just as I fear for — and have come to frankly dread — my own.