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Rev. Barber: North Carolina Has Two Storms—Florence & the Policies That Keep People in Poverty

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As President Trump visits North Carolina, where thousands are evacuating after Hurricane Florence caused record flooding, we go to Raleigh to speak with Rev. Dr. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. Areas devastated by the storm include some of the poorest areas on the Eastern Seaboard. Barber’s recent CNN piece is headlined “In hurricane wind and waves, the poor suffer most.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I wanted to turn right now, Reverend Barber, to what you’re dealing with in North Carolina, to look at how thousands continue to evacuate North Carolina in the wake of Hurricane Florence, now a tropical depression, which has caused record flooding since it made landfall five days ago. President Trump is expected to visit your state, is going to North and South Carolina today. The death toll from the storm has risen to at least 35, including three young children, and in—as well, in South Carolina, two women detainees drowned in a sheriff’s van. More than 10,000 people have already fled to shelters. Nearly 400,000 are without power in North Carolina.

On Tuesday, Governor Roy Cooper said 16 rivers were at major flood stage, and three more rivers could peak in coming days. Massive industrial coal ash landfills and pig and chicken farms have also been engulfed by the floodwaters, and millions of chickens and pigs have drowned. The Associated Press reports at least 45 active farms are located in the floodplain. Crystal Coast Waterkeeper Larry Baldwin flew over eastern North Carolina and described the damage to hog and chicken farms.

LARRY BALDWIN: We did see a couple facilities today that were already in serious trouble. They were surrounded by water. Their lagoons were surrounded by water. Their spray fields were completely covered up. The situation is not good. But it’s not good today, but it’s likely to get much worse throughout the rest of the week as these waters start to get to their flood levels.

AMY GOODMAN: More than 1.4 million people in North Carolina are now without functioning water systems, and even more have been ordered to boil their water. The areas devastated by Hurricane Florence include some of the poorest areas on the Eastern Seaboard. In some counties, nearly one in three people live below the poverty line.

For more, we continue to speak with Reverend Dr. William Barber, who’s co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. He’s in Raleigh, North Carolina, distinguished visiting professor of public theology at Union Theological Seminary, former president of the North Carolina NAACP, and Moral Mondays leader, recently wrote a piece for CNN headlined “In hurricane wind and waves, the poor suffer most.”

So describe what’s happening on the ground, Dr. Barber, in your state.

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: Well, I’m actually—you’re right—in Raleigh and headed back to Goldsboro, where my church, Greenleaf Christian Church, and also Repairers of the Breach were planning to feed children, who many of them are missing meals because the schools are closed, because the rivers, even in my city, have not crested yet. We don’t know the rate—what this flood will cause. In Fayetteville, it’s over—they’re talking about 61 feet, some 15 to 20 feet higher than it was when Mitchell, Hurricane Mitchell, came, that gave us a 500-year flood across the state.

Amy, here’s what we have to help people to understand. And Trump is coming, for instance, to visit today, but his policies—the negative impact of his policies were visited on the poor and low-wealth long before he came. We are in a state, before the hurricane, poor people and low-wealth people had a storm. There are over 4.7 million residents in North Carolina that are poor and low-wealth. There were over a million people in North Carolina, before the storm, that did not have healthcare. The counties that are being hit the hardest, Amy, are Tier I and Tier II. Tier I is the most distressed county in terms of housing, healthcare and poverty, and Tier II is the next level. They are being hit the hardest. In North Carolina, 2 million workers make under $15 an hour. And it would take a person making $7 an hour—they’d have to work some 80-some hours just to afford a two-bedroom apartment. That’s what existed before the hurricane. Forty-eight percent of people in North Carolina are poor or low-income. That’s what existed before the hurricane.

And we have an extremist, Republican-led Legislature that refused to expand Medicaid, which meant 500,000 people in our state could have healthcare right now and they don’t have it. The Republican Congress is talking about cutting SNAP. People need those food stamps now more than ever, after this flood. We refuse a living wage. Many of the people who are flooded, they work hourly jobs. They are not getting paid now. When people—they don’t have the resources. When the governor and others said evacuate, they couldn’t evacuate, because they don’t have the money, they don’t have the cars, they did not have the ability. And when you think about it, the state is now bringing federal money. The president will say he’s going to give federal money. But this state has refused federal money that would have helped the poor prior to the storm, so that they would have buffers against the storm.

So we have two hurricanes—the hurricane of poverty and lack of healthcare and lack of living wages that existed prior to the storm, and then we have the storm, and now everything that was already tough for people has been exacerbated. That’s the story we must keep our eyes on, because some people are looking at what happened on the coast. We actually dodged a bullet on the coast. But if you come inland now and see these rivers that are—where mostly the poor live, along these rivers, in these rural communities, they are being devastated.

And when you add to that, lastly, Amy, the environmental devastation—the coal ash, the hog farms, the bacteria, the poison that’s being put in the water table and put in the rivers—this is a catastrophe, a tremendous catastrophe. But some of it could have been buffered, could have been made better, if our state, particularly people in Congress, would help the poor in advance of this storm, would make sure everybody has healthcare and living wages, and we had cleaned up these coal ashes, and we—coal ash ponds, and we stopped using fossil fuels. If those kinds of things would happen in advance of storms, there wouldn’t be so much damage to the poor and the least of these after the storm.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, speaking of poverty, I wanted to read a letter from a resident of Edenton, North Carolina, who wrote to The New York Times this week, quote, “Unfortunately, my family does not have the resources to put gas in our vehicle. … I, myself, came here to this city to care for my father, who was diagnosed with cancer, with next to nothing to my name. We have no way out, so we are staying. We live together in a double-wide trailer.” That’s one letter.


AMY GOODMAN: And then I want to turn to the small town of Princeville in eastern North Carolina. The first town chartered by freed slaves in the United States, in 1885, originally known as Freedom Hill, sits on an unwanted floodplain along the Tar River, that’s flooded many times. The town’s website notes, quote, “Flooding, like the threat of white supremacy, has plagued Princeville since its settlement. Major floods occurred two years after the community’s founding and again in 1919, 1924, 1928, 1940 and 1958.” The Army Corps of Engineers eventually built a dike that helped reduce the flooding, but in 1999 heavy rains from Hurricane Floyd submerged parts of Princeville under 23 feet of water for more than a week. This is Princeville resident Linda Worsley speaking to The New York Times about how she was displaced from her home by flooding after Hurricane Matthew caused widespread damage in the town in 2016.

LINDA WORSLEY: We did have a dike built up. But the water actually went around the dike, and it came up behind my house and destroyed everything. Then a lot of the water also came up through the sewer systems.

REPORTER: Are you worried about whether or not you’ll be allowed to rebuild on this land?

LINDA WORSLEY: Yes, I am. Trying to do everything I can to make sure I’ll still be able to stay in the same land that my forefathers bought, so that we could have somewhere to live, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: So, that clip from Princeville, a 2016 report, talking about the black community, the first community founded by freed slaves. Can you talk more about this, Reverend Barber?

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: I actually did a rededication of that city this past year, and I know people there. I live not far from Princeville. I live in eastern North Carolina. I was raised in eastern North Carolina. So this is my home that I’m seeing constantly hit. We know about what happened in Matthew and Floyd. It literally devastated. I think something like a 15-foot wall of water came through that area. It actually sat the pews inside of churches all the way up, had them standing up inside of the church. The water was that powerful. And people lost their lives, again.

But since that flood, it was after that that North Carolina’s extremist politicians said, “We don’t need healthcare. We don’t need a living wage. We don’t need to deal with these environmental issues.” If anything, they deregulated. And here we are again. We’re in a state where 56 percent of the children, Amy, 1.3 million, are poor and low-wealth. Sixty-two percent of people of color, 2.3 million, are poor and low-wealth.

But this is something people also don’t know: The majority of the poor people in North Carolina are white. And even in eastern North Carolina, while those counties are the counties with the highest percentages of African Americans, the majority of the people in those counties are white, and the majority of the people who are poor are white. And so it’s a race question and a class question. It’s a denial question.

It’s a question that after these storms normally happen, people go back to business as usual, or we get something like we see the extremism of Trump, where you deny the things that people need. Then, when the storm hits, you come in and you visit and act as though you’re concerned, but your policies prior to the storm created problems for the people in a way that they wouldn’t have some of these problems they have now, if you hadn’t been so vicious and so mean and so regressive in your policies when the days were sunny. We’re going to have to learn how to do this better. People are suffering. People are afraid all over eastern North Carolina.

And think about this, Amy. This is the only glimmer of sunshine in the midst of this. This is what a Category 1 and a tropical storm has done. They thought it would be a Category 4 or 3. If it had been a Category 3 or 4, it is unimaginable what the pain and the travesty would be, what the poisoning to the environment would be, what the need for healthcare would be. Imagine now, people that are getting sick, that could have healthcare, don’t have it. How are they going to be treated? You know, homes—as you said, you talked about a lady living in a mobile home. There are so many mobile homes. We could do so much better with affordable housing in these areas, but that’s not the case. Some people may be off work two and three weeks. They already were in a position before the storm where if they missed one day, they might not be able to pay their rent or afford their medicine or feed their families. We have to talk about the political and social storms that exacerbate the natural storms when they do happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Just last month, former Vice President Al Gore visited you in North Carolina, and you went on a tour of the coal-impacted communities, Gore speaking here in front of the smokestacks of Duke Energy’s Belews Creek Steam Station, which runs on coal.

AL GORE: I want to draw connections between Belews Lake and the coal ash pollution and the gaseous pollution that is threatening to make of our entire planet the kind of mess that they’ve made here. We had to stop for—on the way over here, for—actually, we didn’t stop, but we saw going beside us all these train cars full of coal. On a peak day, this plant over here burns 220 railcars full of coal. And what is left over when they burn it is this toxic coal ash. Now, if you had all these millions of tons of a toxic substance and you just dug a raw gash in the ground and dumped it in there, you would be behaving recklessly. That’s what they’re doing. This is a crime scene!

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Vice President Al Gore speaking outside the Duke Energy plant with you, Reverend Barber. Duke Energy—that was before the storm. Duke Energy now says at least 2,000 cubic yards of coal ash were released amidst Tropical Depression Florence’s massive flooding in North Carolina, enough ash to fill something like 180 dump trucks. As we wrap up, what this means?

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: And one of those areas is in Goldsboro. It’s in the Neuse River. It’s one of the sites that was already leaking, that people have been fighting. And they tell us all the time, “The coal ash is not poison.” And we say, “Well, then, why isn’t it in the rich communities? Why isn’t it in the communities of the politicians?” It is poisonous. It is dangerous. It was already leaking. It was already broken. It was already messed up. The storm has exacerbated this, and it did not have to be this way.

Duke, the very company that’s now having to send people out to help turn on power, is the same company that has negatively impacted poor communities by placing all of these coal ash ponds and coal ash sites in and around poor communities, in and around sources of water. It is a form of hypocrisy, on one hand, to say “we want to help you” after the storm, but then, when—but before the storm, we engage in policies that continually hurt and harm the poor, the low-wealth and the least of us.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you so much, Reverend Dr. William Barber. And also, of course, with President Trump coming to the Carolinas today, he proudly denies climate change, calls it a Chinese hoax. In the last 10 seconds, what would you say to him about this?

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: I would say to him what my son, who is an environmentalist lawyer and also an environmentalist physicist—because of the warming air, it’s messing up the jet streams, therefore what you have is this erratic hurricanes. They twist and turn and stop and move. And that means they dump more water. That means they hold more water. That means they’re more powerful. Anybody who denies climate change is a fool. And it is foolish to do it, because your denial of climate change, your denial of healthcare, your denial of living wages, your denial of environmental protection devastates the poor before storms ever come, and then there is an additional devastation on top of it.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you so much, Reverend Dr. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, joining us from Raleigh, North Carolina. We’ll link to your piece at CNN, “In hurricane wind and waves, the poor suffer most.” And interesting you talked about your son, as Vice President Al Gore brought his daughter Karenna, a well-known environmentalist, also at Union Theological.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, the Trump administration placing the most severe cap on refugees in history. Stay with us.

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