Why we need to expand our circle of care during hurricanes

Only through direct action and standing up for our environment can we truly protect where we live from being destroyed.
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Someone asked me the other day what do birds do during hurricanes? How don’t they get blown away? I had never thought of this important question that has crossed the minds of many birds over the years. Like most humans, I was more concerned about where the people would go during hurricanes. 

Living in Florida, hurricanes are a fact of life. We check the weather with growing anxiety as the summer changes into autumn. But in the wake of Hurricane Ian devastating the southwest Florida coast, the question of where do birds go during hurricanes led me down a rabbit hole of the often overlooked impacts of hurricanes. 

Birds, as well as many native species to Florida, are used to hurricanes. Their evolution has prepared them for the storms and given them tools they need to not just survive, but sometimes even thrive in the aftermath. Birds will leave their nests and generally hunker down on the ground in shrubs or thickets (the denser, the better) or downwind of trees in roots or trunks to break the breeze. I doubt it is an enjoyable few hours for them, as the worst of the storm passes, but they muddle through. 

Florida’s state mammal is the beloved manatee. For the last few years there have been huge die offs of our sea cows. In 2021 over 1,100 manatees died, many of them starving to death. 2022 seems on track to be another terrible year for them. Part of the issue here is the loss of sea grass, which manatees eat. (And boy, do manatees eat. The average manatee can eat up to 100 pounds of aquatic vegetation. daily!) However, during storms things can get even more difficult. Think about manatees swimming along under the water during serious flooding, not even realizing they are swimming down a flooded street and soon that water could recede, perhaps faster than the manatee can swim. 

Manatees are not alone. All sorts of aquatic creatures get caught up in storm surges and flooding, then get cut off from their homes as the flood waters recede. Other creatures like frogs or lizards can enjoy the new wet wild areas for their daily tasks and diet and birds will enjoy a smorgasbord inside temporary ponds. 

So much of Florida is being developed (over 1,000 people move to Florida each day) and thus the habitat for our animals is diminishing. People are the biggest threat to nature and the constant development and urbanization of the wilderness is impacting animals ability to bounce back from large storms. There has been some movement in funding the Florida Wildlife Corridor, which seeks habitat connections to sustain our best wild places to allow animals to move around.

Another issue we’re grappling with in Florida, even when there are no hurricanes coming, is nutrient loading in our water. Be it the Tampa Bay, the Everglades, or the Indian River Lagoon, Florida’s water is imperiled. There is too much nitrogen and phosphorus in our water. A major cause of this pollution is septic tanks, which leech out into our waterway polluting them with human sewage. 

When a storm like Ian comes through, sewage treatment plants are stressed beyond capacity and so they tend to release the pressure and polluted sewage water. This doesn’t take into account power failure related issues, either. These spills adds not only nitrogen and phosphorus from our toilets, but prescription drugs, bleach, harmful bacteria and more from our wastewater to our water resources. 

During Hurricane Ian, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, or FDEP, said that at least a dozen wastewater treatment facilities discharged either partially treated or raw waste into the surrounding environment. And this was an early number, I looked and was not able to yet find a final total from FDEP. There was also concern that this could happen in South Carolina when Hurricane Ian made landfall the second time. 

Many experts are predicting algae blooms in the short-term due to this excess pollution. Warm water plus sunlight plus nutrients allows algae to go wild. It covers our waterways in a thick green guacamole-like covering. Some of this has been shown to potentially cause ailments in people such as Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s, and other Neurodegenerative Diseases just from breathing the air nearby the blooms. Several pets have been killed from bathing in this kind of putrid water. 

One final Florida environmental issue we’ll touch on is related to the Piney Point disaster in 2021. Recall the headlines when 300 homes needed to be evacuated when an open-air wastewater pond associated with Florida’s phosphate mining operations leaked 215 million gallons sending partially radioactive mining waste down towards the Tampa Bay. There are many such facilities in Southwest Florida. Hurricane Ian seemed to have spared these sites so far, however, a more direct hit on one of these ponds could cause a terrible ecological toll. 

All of this is to say that even though the images we see of ruined towns and destroyed homes in the news are terrible, there’s a lot of issues that you can’t see so easily. Water quality all over the world has been going down since industrialization began. There was a recent headline that no where on Earth is the rainwater safely drinkable due to forever chemicals. Microplastics are in animals and people and everywhere, difficult to filter from our drinking water. 

We extract too much water from the ground and aquifers and do not give it enough time to recharge. Humans are the problem when it comes to most (if not all) of the environmental issues that we’ll deal with in the next few decades, and this is not even touching on climate change, which many people still pretend is not an issue. Hurricanes are made worse due to the warmer water allowing them to get stronger. Stronger hurricanes damage the environment, human and natural, more and more. The world is burning and we’re destroying the water resources we’d need to put the fire out. With enough pollution, even rivers can catch fire, after all. 

Everyone should care about our natural resources. If we don’t fight for the environment, if we don’t have clean air and clean water, many of our other rights are moot. Look at Flint, Michigan and Jackson, Mississippi for how this is working out.

The special interests control the water quality debate in Florida. Big Sugar buys politicians so they can pollute as much as they want. Industry does this everywhere. Only through direct action and standing up for our environment, as we do our other rights, can we truly protect where we live from being destroyed or paved over. Look into local environmental groups, they exist almost everywhere. And if they don’t, start one! Talk to your city council, county commissioners, state house, governors, or anyone in power. Make your voice heard. Each one of us can play a role in helping to build a greener and cleaner community for future generations. 

This story was produced by Metta Center for Nonviolence

We provide educational resources on the safe and effective use of nonviolence, with the recognition that it’s not about putting the right person in power but awakening the right kind of power in people. We advance a higher image of humankind while empowering people to explore the question: How does nonviolence work, and how can I actively contribute to a happier, more peaceful society?

Waging Nonviolence partners with other organizations and publishes their work.