Eastern Kentucky deserves better leaders
Editor's note: While Mr. Pitts is away, Mr. Jackson is filling in.
The extreme weather that is savaging various parts of America hit Eastern Kentucky last week when unprecedented flash floods wiped out homes and devastated communities, taking at least 37 lives, with hundreds still missing." The region was hit by 8 to 10 inches of rainfall in a 24-hour period, what experts called a one in a thousand-year rain event. Those who escaped now struggle to survive in high heat and humidity, with roads and bridges washed out, and food and clean water hard to find. And the region is under another flood watch as this is written.
The people of Eastern Kentucky aren't wealthy. The median household income for communities like hard-hit Jackson, Kentucky, is about half the national average. The scars from coal mining accelerate the floods. Under-resourced local governments have difficulty responding to the emergency, must less rebuilding thereafter.
In the crisis, neighbor came to rescue neighbor. Reporters were stunned by the descriptions of incredible rescue missions, heroic efforts to save families, remarkable generosity and valor among those afflicted. Amid the pain and weeping, there was justified pride for the way the communities came together, with neighbors who lost everything helping others escape. And now volunteers from across Appalachia are joining in to get the mud out of buildings and sweep up the debris.
Gov. Andy Beshear rushed to the region to assess damage and organize the response. President Biden declared a national emergency, opening the resources of the federal government, and came to assess the damage.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), up for re-election this fall, hasn't bothered to make the trip. He even blasted his challenger, Charles Booker, for joining in helping the survivors. "We don't want to get in the way," Paul said, from the safety of Louisville.
But Sen. Paul and his ilk have been "in the way" for many years, opposing federal investment in infrastructure, and in programs to mitigate and to counter catastrophic climate change.
This year, Paul even voted against the bipartisan infrastructure bill that his fellow Republican, Sen. Mitch McConnell, ended up supporting. Paul ripped the bill for investing in climate change programs, and for costing too much. "The Biden plan is not just about roads and bridges and clean water," he said, "it's step one of the Green New Deal."
According to McConnell's office, the infrastructure bill that Rand Paul opposed includes $4.6 billion for Kentucky infrastructure, $438 million for repair and replacement of bridges, $391 million for public transportation, $100 million for broadband that might help with early warning, and $418 million over five years for clean water and drinking water programs in the state. If Rand Paul had his way, none of that would be available.
Rand Paul may never understand, but in Eastern Kentucky, on the ground, community leaders get the need for federal assistance. Letcher Fire Chief Wallace Bolling Jr. almost died in the floods trying to save one of his fire departments. He says the people are strong and will come back, but he understands how much has been destroyed. "Our infrastructure needs help from Washington, from Frankfort. We're going to have to have a lot of help."
Although politicians like Rand are still in denial about climate change, scientists have no doubt that global warming is contributing to the extreme flooding. Jonathan Overpeck, an earth and environmental sciences professor at the University of Michigan, explained that because human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels have significantly warmed the atmosphere in recent years, the atmosphere now holds more moisture than it used to. As a result, whenever rainfall occurs, it is more drastic.
"This means the risk of flooding is going up dramatically over much of the planet where people live, and Kentucky is one of those places. The evidence is clear that climate change is a growing problem for Kentucky and the surrounding region -- more floods like this week, and more floods when wetter tropical storms track north over the state," Overpeck told Inside Climate News. In addition, Kentucky, he predicted, is also likely to experience more tornado risks in the future. Last December, Kentucky was struck by its deadliest tornado outbreak, which killed 80 people.
The people of Eastern Kentucky deserve leaders who have the common sense and the common decency to act in their interests. That means championing the investments needed to both make communities more resilient, to modernize and strengthen bridges and water systems, and to invest in measures to combat climate change. Ideologues like Rand Paul were once an amusing curiosity. Now they are simply in the way of what needs to be done -- and a clear and present danger to the people they claim to represent.
(You can write to the Rev. Jesse Jackson in care of this newspaper or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @RevJJackson.)
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