As Hurricane Florence bears down on North and South Carolina, officials have ordered more than one million residents to evacuate across more than 300 miles of coastline. But as the storm rapidly approaches, and as preparations are under way to protect buildings and land, thousands of people will be unable to leave.
In low-lying rural areas likely to be most impacted by the storm, many low-income residents don’t have the money to flee. Still others, like hundreds of prisoners in South Carolina, are simply not given the option.
It is perhaps in times of disaster that inequality best manifests itself, because the richest and most-privileged have the resources to ensure their own safety. The story repeats itself whenever we see another “storm of the century”—which seems to happen more and more frequently.
For residents of the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, it’s a familiar pattern. When Hurricane Katrina smashed into southern Louisiana in August 2005, more than 100,000 people were unable to follow the government’s mandatory evacuation orders. Instead, many swam through floodwaters to the Superdome seeking shelter, while others died from exposure on rooftops while they waited for help to arrive. Similarly, since last year’s devastating Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans need no reminder of the inequality of disaster relief.
Now, as Florence targets the Carolinas, mandatory evacuations were ordered in several counties most vulnerable to the storm, but not everyone will be able to leave. Many of the areas expected to be hit hardest by Florence are rural areas that are more isolated, low-lying, and poor.
When asked about what poor people should do if they cannot evacuate, Jeff Byard, the associate administrator for the Office of Response and Recovery at FEMA, told reporters that those people should turn to their friends. “It’s neighbor-helping-neighbor in this situation,” he said. Sure, that’s common in poor communities, especially rural communities where resources, shops, and people are all spread out. And there are already lots of heartwarming stories about people helping one another in advance of the storm. But in times of imminent disaster, relying on your community is not a fail-safe solution.
“Some people are getting out of town, but that’s not an option for me. I have no money, no job, no connections,” Tony Clower, a Kinston, North Carolina, resident who is currently homeless, told the Asheville Citizen-Times.
But there are also people whose only option is … whatever the higher-ups say. Prisoners, too, are in the way of Florence. But some, like the 650 inmates at South Carolina’s MacDougall Correctional Facility, will have no way out as the storm makes landfall. Despite its location in low-lying Dorchester County, well within the state’s evacuation zone, state officials have announced that prisoners will not be relocated. The announcement came just one day after South Carolina’s Republican Governor Henry McMaster declared, “[W]e are not gonna gamble with the lives of the people of South Carolina. Not one.” Asked about the decision, South Carolina Department of Corrections spokesperson Dexter Lee told VICE, “Previously, it’s been safer to stay in place with the inmates rather than move to another location.”
Safer for whom?
Such orders are commonplace during evacuations for natural disasters. Last hurricane season, I reported on Texas prisoners who had faced Hurricane Harvey, some who reported that floodwaters had seeped into their cells and that toilets were overflowing. Prison officials, predictably, said that these reports were false—as they did when accusations came that prisoners had died during Hurricane Katrina. An ACLU report, which includes interviews with both guards and those who were imprisoned, suggests that many prisoners died as a result of the storm, but officials deny this.
“There were definitely deaths at that prison," a guard who was there told VICE. "I don't know how they covered that up.”
Law enforcement tends to refute what prisoners say, like those who denied any reports of strikes at prisons across the country over the past few weeks. It’s so easy to refute what prisoners say when you see them as less than human—when they don’t count as, say, “people of South Carolina.”
On Wednesday, some protesters went to South Carolina’s state emergency operations center to demonstrate against the decision to leave prisoners in the path of the storm. One sign read, “MCMASTER, DON’T CREATE ANOTHER KATRINA: EVACUATE THE PRISONS.”
“I don’t know if [the governor] doesn’t consider prisoners people,” prison advocate Stephanie Serna told the Anderson Independent Mail. “But they are.”
The official national prison strike ended this past weekend, but a number of prisons are still reportedly undertaking boycotts and work stoppages, in an attempt to win policies that “recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.” Unfortunately, for prison officials in the path of the storm, that argument has apparently been a tough sell.
We’re seeing inequality made tangible, and this is all just before the storm. What happens after could well be worse.