U.S. social fabric – torn, frayed, unraveled by 2017’s hurricanes. But how badly?

Social fabric? Quite a bit of texture in what people mean by the term:

social fabric: The composite demographics of a defined area, which consists of its ethnic composition, wealth, education level, employment rate and regional values.businessdictionary.com

social fabric: … a metaphor for how well the community members interact amongst themselves. If you consider all the individual members as threads, the “social fabric” is made by having those members interact, thus weaving the threads together. The tighter the weave (the more frequently and positively the members interact with each other), the stronger the fabric is; the looser the weave, the weaker the fabric, and the more likely to tear (have conflicts that pit one group against another), fray (lose members), develop loose threads (criminals), and otherwise suffer. – from the English Language Learners website.

But whatever your definition or measure, 2017 was hard on the Nation’s social fabric. Partisan differences on the Affordable Care Act and the new tax plan provided bookends on the year. In between we found time to decry and at the same time exacerbate rifts based on race, gender, country of origin, and much more. Every dimension of life from local to national invited polarization.

Far too many of those invitations were accepted! And finally, feeling the need to remove any lingering doubt, this month America once again made it clear to the rest of the world that we come first.

2017 was the year the warp and the weft of the world’s weave went to war.

Some argue that the politics of the year tattered, even tore the fabric; others make a good case that the year merely revealed pre-existing weaknesses that had rotted the fabric for many years. Both interpretations have merit. Examples of the latter abound. The ACA is itself a partisan product from eight years ago. Abuses at the intersection of gender and power go back decades (make that millennia). And so on.

Speaking of stresses to the social fabric, 2017 also saw natural hazards – most notably the fall’s hurricanes and wildfires – pile on. The season revealed myriad limits to national resiliency. Today we look at three:

At the community level. For decades if not centuries, Americans in county after county and state after state across the land have been feeling lucky and rolling the dice, cutting corners with respect to land use, building codes, flimsy infrastructure in a quest for short-term economic gains. 2017 has been one of those years where we paid the price. Over the past few months hundreds of billions of dollars in lost property and business disruption have literally gone down the drain or up in smoke. Dozens of lives were lost on the mainland; in Puerto Rico, the death toll may have approached 1000.

With more forethought, much of this loss could have been avoided. What’s more, on every geographic and social scale, the pain and suffering have been inflicted unequally. Those of us living in the north or inland have seen the news reports as a mere backdrop to our daily lives. Texans not living along the coast or in Houston proper are more aware but only slightly so. But for those living along the Texas coast, in the Houston area proper, anywhere on the entire length of the Florida peninsula, or on the Caribbean U.S. territories, the experience has proved a nightmare – an enduring one. A December 21 CNN report (worth the read) reminds us that “nearly 5 million Americans have registered for federal aid since Labor Day; more victims than Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma and Superstorm Sandy combined.” According to Vox, The Center for Puerto Rican Studies at the City University of New York estimates that Puerto Rico will lose up 470,335 residents by the end of 2019 — about 14 percent of the population.

These are just two of hundreds of posts on articles in news media on the wrenching scale, agonizingly slow pace, and inequities in recovery, throughout the areas affected. The contrasts extend almost to the individual level – house to house – to those living in the direct path of these hurricanes. Take Florida. Marketplace contrasts the situation between Marco Island and nearby Immokalee. (The contrast is typical, extending to Texas and the Caribbean as well.) On Marco Island, an affluent area south of Naples on the Gulf Coast, beachfront hotels and housing developments took the brunt of Hurricane Irma as the storm came ashore. Exterior damage to buildings, downed trees and yard flooding was extensive, said Dianna Dohm, executive director of the local Chamber of Commerce.

“But there were only a couple of homes on the island that had damage that would make the house uninhabitable,” Dohm said. “And I think that goes to our building codes, to everyone doing great preparation, having all our storm shutters.”

About 40 miles inland from Marco Island is Immokalee, Florida, population 25,000. It’s a mostly low-income immigrant community surrounded by tomato fields and citrus groves. The streets are lined with discount stores, packing plants and rundown trailer parks. “Immokalee is a community mostly made up of immigrant farmworkers from Mexico, Guatemala and Haiti,” said Julia Perkins, an organizer for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an advocacy group. On a drive around town, Perkins pointed out a mobile home listing sharply to one side, part of its siding missing.

“This area is called ‘La Rata’ — ‘The Rat’ — and that’s one of the trailers that got blown off its foundations,” Perkins said. “This is almost all rental housing — trailer parks that were already in disrepair. A good bit of the housing in town was damaged by Irma, and there are lots of people who don’t have anywhere to live that is secure right now.” Some of the most severely damaged mobile homes were abandoned; many others had tarps covering roofs and windows, and were still occupied.

The demographic differences are reflected in the California wildfire experience. Most of the vineyards proper survived intact. A few owners saw valuable homes destroyed. But most of those losing their households were the area’s poorer workers, many of whom also lost their jobs. (Take your pick of articles documenting this.)

At FEMA. The season’s hurricanes and wildfires have also shown the limits to FEMA’s capacity. Earlier this month several hundred FEMA employees were informed that they might have to return much of the overtime compensation that they thought they’d been paid for working double-digit days for weeks at a stretch at the series of fire and storm disasters spanning the country.

In a CNN interview, Brock Long, FEMA administrator, joined other Americans in a plea for help. Some excerpts:

“I haven’t even been here for six months yet, and what I hope to do is inform Americans about how complex this mission is,” Long says. “I didn’t come up here to do status quo, I’m ready to change the face of emergency management.”…

…”I identify with [one survivor’s] frustrations. When you and your neighbors have lost everything you’ve worked for, it’s an incredibly tough situation,” Long says. “But you have to understand — we don’t have the houses. We don’t have tens of thousands of manufactured homes and travel trailers just stored somewhere ready to go.”

He explains how FEMA has to order, build, install and inspect each manufactured home at a cost of $200,000 to $300,000 before they go to a family for a temporary lease of 18 months. “And then when it’s done, I’m not allowed to reuse that trailer. I can’t refurbish it and reuse it. We have to dispose of it,” Long says and describes his desire to streamline the cumbersome inspection process while passing housing and reconstruction responsibilities down to states and counties…

While Brock Long preaches pre-storm planning and mitigation, he does not agree with the vast majority of climate scientists who predict the summer of ’17 is just a preview of a hotter planet with bigger, more frequent disasters. “A lot of this could be that the climate is changing,” he says. “But it also could be other things that are cyclical in nature.”

But he firmly believes that millions of Americans are destined to live through a future disaster. And he wants neighborhoods to prepare for them the way our grandparents prepared for war. “Americans are the true first responders,” he says. “We’ve gotta get back to the basics, and teach people tangible skills, not only how to do CPR and first aid but to shut off your house gas lines or water lines after a disaster. We’ve gotta get people to save money. They need their own rainy day account.”

At the Congress. Congress too reached its limits, its breaking point. Throughout the tax bill slog, Congress reassured Americans and themselves they’d also be able to avoid a government shutdown, and provide the next, sorely-needed tranche of federal support for rebuilding from the hurricane and fire season. But in the end, although they kept the government running, they weren’t quite able to get the $80B disaster relief bill done before adjourning for the Christmas break.

Are Americans in it together? Is our social fabric – extending from the Congress across a great span of geography, ethnic composition, wealth, and incomes and values down to the community level – still whole?

Reality will provide the new data points on the social fabric, thread by thread, shortly after the turn of the year.

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