Slow Food USA’s executive director, Richard McCarthy, spoke with Michael Dimock (Slow Food California), Francine Spiering (Slow Food Houston), Sofia Unanue (Slow Food USA board member from Puerto Rico), Camille Collazo (executive director of Visit Rico, a nonprofit that helps small tourist operations and small farmers), Andres Mejides (a Florida farmer), and Rebecca Boone (Slow Food Beaumont) about the recent natural disasters that have occurred across the United States, the impact of community response, and the way forward, especially for food producers. You can watch the call here:
These people shared their observations of the effects of the recent natural disasters. In addition to the physical destruction and loss of life and economic costs, the psychological cost of a disaster is strong and long-lasting. Many people are having trouble sleeping due to the body’s physiological response to a state of danger, and in the case of a natural disaster the sense of danger caused by the uprooting of one’s life can persist for months. Camille reported having received calls every day over the past week from someone having a mental breakdown from worry for their future.
In the aftermath of disaster, rebuilding is a challenge, especially for farmers. Having good insurance is key, but even then, affected people must often work long and hard to get payments for their damaged property. Government programs often do not do enough, as in the case of Andres Mejides, who couldn’t get government support to chainsaw his tipped but still living fruit trees and get them producing within 2-3 years, only to cut them down and plant new trees that would take eight years to begin producing.
The damage done by Hurricane Maria took an especially hard toll in Puerto Rico, which is $72 billion in debt and has been living under a fiscal control board and privatizing all they can for the past year. The devastation caused by the hurricane has instilled a sense of hopelessness, and “[they] don’t really see an end in sight”.
However, where there is destruction and chaos, there is also a sense of solidarity and strong community responses. The “tight-knit food community” in Beaumont, TX, which lost fresh water in Hurricane Harvey but did not flood or lose power, cooked tens of thousands of meals for first responders. Michael described undocumented immigrants and farmworkers helping to rebuild after the California wildfires, restaurants cooking food for first responders and the displaced, and a young farmers’ guild raising money and supplying food. “I’ve been here since 1990,” he said, “and I’ve never felt so much sense of community crossing all lines, both social and political.”
In the wake of Hurricane Maria, Visit Rico sat down right away, developed a plan to help farmers recover, got in touch with other nonprofits in the area, and got right to work with a four part plan of rapid assessment of farms, supplying their immediate needs, getting resources to help them with long-term recovery, and connecting them to legal aid. Part Five: Take advantage of this opportunity to rebuild to push the government to support local farmers and the transition to organic agriculture. But the most important part of all this work was giving farmers hope, and keeping them in agriculture in a country which imports the vast majority of its food. Their efforts were recently recognized by the Puerto Rican Department of Agriculture, who asked to meet with them to discuss their local food initiatives. The key to their success was that right after the disaster, instead of giving in to hopelessness, they rolled up their sleeves and said, “OK, what can we do?” This attitude is all that is needed to make a difference- and while the infrastructure and aid plans are worked out by the government and larger organizations, it is necessary.
Recovery takes years, but in the wake of so many extreme weather events, it is important to consider prevention of future disasters. This may mean investing in infrastructure to prevent floods or understory management to prevent forest fires, or it may mean deciding not to develop in disaster-prone areas. The wildfires struck in a place in California where the local Native Americans never lived because they knew fires always struck there.
It is important to pressure governments to do more to prevent future natural disasters, and to provide adequate assistance to those affected by them. Rebecca, who is also a history teacher, explained that “a flood is not a natural disaster and never has been”. Throughout history, protecting against natural disasters has been one of the main tasks of government. According to Michael, “the problem is the state, the county, and the people are not willing to invest” in infrastructure and risk management. In the case of Puerto Rico, Camille believes that decentralization to organizations more prepared and able to assist than the debt-ridden government is critical for recovery.
In a warmer, more disaster-prone future, construction and infrastructure choices must be made very carefully so that the impact of future disasters is minimized. As Camille put it, “We can’t rebuild like before, or else we’ll have learned nothing.”