Imagining Another World in Post-Hurricane Irma Florida: A Grassroots Response Awakens A Post-Capitalist Dream
(Lewis Wallace is a fellow with the New Economies Reporting Project)
Orlando – I arrive in Orlando on a turbulent flight, descending toward a flat, green expanse, a horizon that’s empty except for the twin towers of a power plant. This piece of the grid that recently left millions in Florida without power for days looks tranquil through the humid air. I turn on my phone to the news from Puerto Rico: body bags and a president who is tossing paper towels into a crowd, bragging about numbers of people dead (they are lower than Katrina, he says, and the people of Puerto Rico should be proud). There’s a soft rain coming down and it feels like the edge of the world, the end.
Later, driving, I see power lines by the highway strung up on a metal pole the shape of a Mickey Mouse head, piles of debris in front of Mediterranean-style mansions, trailer parks built on the shimmering coasts of man-made lakes. I’ve come to Florida weeks after Hurricanes Irma and Maria not to write a post-mortem, but because I heard that here and in the Caribbean, lots of folks are talking about how storms and disaster can lead to new forms of organizing and resistance.
Tampa – I go west into endless strips of shops over filled-in swamps, and I see billowing blue tarps on rooftops, then billboards advertising hurricanelawyers.com. I’m headed to Tampa, where some anarchists set up a recovery center, days before the federal government showed its face. The group, Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, has been preparing for a moment like this one.
MAD Relief Tampa is a low-budget operation where money is rarely exchanged.
Jimmy Dunson and Dezeray Lyn welcome me into a brick ranch house loaned to MAD Relief by the Lutheran church next door. The space is simple: a greeting room with a large fold-out table and plastic chairs, anarchist and socialist pamphlets by the entrance. In the back, a couple rooms deemed the “Really Really Free Market,” are full of dried and canned foods, tea, toys, clothes all for the taking, for anyone in need.
Dez wears all black, showing tattoos under a tank top, and has an air of urgency, edginess. She walks around barefoot as we talk, and when she does sit still her feet keep moving. Jimmy feels like Dez’s opposite: His shoulders are relaxed, and he speaks confidently, but softly. He’s in baggy pink pants, nerd glasses, and a Muhammad Ali t-shirt.
Jimmy and Dez both traveled to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina; Jimmy was part of a grassroots aid group that showed up just days after the storm and started dispatching through the flooding to areas where people were still trapped. They are both White, from Florida originally, and both say New Orleans changed them.
“Everywhere we went, people would say we were the first people that came there,” Jimmy says. “That was eye-opening.”
Dez and Jimmy say they began to see how top-down relief organizations like the Red Cross and the FEMA created bottlenecks, making it harder for people to connect with resources that were already available.
“About three years ago we started crafting and envisioning a permanent network to respond from below to these disasters, and to also connect the dots between movements for climate justice and disaster response,” Jimmy says.
So, they were already organized when they heard Irma was headed their way. Tampa got lucky and didn’t suffer flooding, just the usual wind and mess of a storm.
“As soon as the storm passed, we went out in the streets, cleared debris, set up the free market,” Jimmy says. Since then, the group has been sending aid convoys around the state. They took a canoe to Jacksonville to do search and rescue, took food and water to Immokalee and the Keys.
A windowy room at the end of the hall is set up as a wellness center, with a first aid station, herbal teas, and a chair for massage and acupuncture. The next room over is filled with supplies to send to Puerto Rico, where nine people from their group will fly in about a week. The garage is also full of supplies, and people keep dropping off more.
There’s no count of how many people have been in and out of the space, but the group’s Irma response Facebook page has over 1,400 members. Nobody gets paid or pays for anything.
“People oftentimes come in to get something, and they end up staying and volunteering. That’s the kind of thing we mean by mutual aid,” Jimmy says.
Their idea, which is modeled after groups like the Black Panther Party and the Zapatistas, is that independent, decentralized disaster relief can also raise people’s consciousness about what they call the disaster of capitalism.
“What we are doing now is the world that we want to see,” Dez explains. “It’s the absence of a hierarchical structure that puts profits over people.” She describes a world where communities self-organize, jails and police are abolished, people grow their own food, live off the grid, and have a solidarity economy free of oppression.
And she believes disaster relief work can prefigure that world. “This vision can be activated anywhere, autonomously."
In some ways, that is already happening: MAD Relief joins community organizations around the state and the country that have organized from a transformative or anti-capitalist stance during and after hurricanes. In Miami, the Democratic Socialists of America and the Miami Workers Center were among those to mobilize quickly after Irma hit. In Orlando, a grassroots group called Organize Florida set up Community Emergency Operations Centers before some local governments did; in southern Florida, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the group that has won farmworker agreements with Walmart and McDonald’s, has been a hub for aid distribution.
In Puerto Rico, MAD Relief is working with a feminist organization called Taller Salud, which they say has been feeding 300 people a day in San Juan since Maria. Jorge DÃaz, with a group called AgitArte, says a network of grassroots organizations in Puerto Rico have set up collective kitchens where they are feeding people daily, and working to organize them.
“We have a humanitarian crisis not because we had a hurricane, but because the relief has not come out,” says Jorge by phone. “This is political.”
People trickle in and out of the MAD Relief hub all day—a long-haired White guy gets off the bus to drop off a $20 bill and talks to Jimmy for awhile. A young Black woman and her small son come in and quickly scan the free market for clothes, wander out again smiling and chatting.
A bald 30-something fellow with a black beard comes in, and it turns out this is Gonzalo ValdÃ©s, part of the group headed to Puerto Rico soon. Most of his mom’s family is there, most of them are okay, but word is a distant relative died of a heart attack after Maria, unable to get to medical care.
Gonzalo connected with MAD Relief after Irma, and he’s convinced of the decentralized approach already.
“Scarcity is a gigantic myth in this country. People have so much abundance, they’re just looking for somewhere to give it when they feel the need in their heart,” he says. “We need people to feel that in their heart. We’ve had disaster after disaster, and they might not feel the urgency because this isn’t on the mainland, but people are dying right now.”
Around sunset, a group gathers to plan their convoy to Puerto Rico. A 22-year-old graduate student named Natasha Ocasio, whose family is on the island, tells me she came to MAD Relief a couple days after Maria hit, asking for help getting aid to people she knows. She’d heard reports of supplies sitting in shipping containers at ports on the island. She’s just now started to hear from family members, who say their hometown has been destroyed.
The group is planning to leave in a week. Jimmy is working on getting a techie friend to join the convoy, someone who can help set up internet hotspots. Donna Davis, a 46-year-old Black woman who founded Black Lives Matter Tampa is in charge of the budget. There’s a lot of talk about who will order the tactical backpacks, how to bring food and water purification systems enough for the group, plus checking a bag or two each of supplies for Puerto Ricans, and how much it will all cost.
Someone needs to rent a truck for when they get there; can Dez do it? She only has $113 in her account, she says, but she could move money over from savings. And where will they sleep when they get there? Maybe Gonzalo’s family’s back yard. But it’s still hard to reach people to make arrangements.
Donna shakes her hands and her head at once: “Everything is like that. Question marks everywhere.” It has to be okay not to know yet. They have 18 pallets of stuff to send over to Puerto Rico. But the charter flight they’d been hoping to use fell through.
“You gotta get the right contact, at the right time, to get your shit out,” Donna says.
There is no time to discuss the absurdity of this: that the richest government in the world can’t—or won’t—get clean water to citizens in a disaster zones, and some broke people in Tampa, Florida, with $3,111 in a YouCaring account are sitting around a folding table figuring it out instead. (The group has since gotten closer to its fundraising goal for Puerto Rico.)
After the meeting wraps up, a few people stand outside in the moonlight smoking cigarettes.
Donna tells me she’s trying to get more people of color involved with MAD Relief.
“This is a model for self-reliance that could show the whole community that they don’t have to wait around for help.”
I don’t know if I think mutual aid is all that different from what people do for each other in disasters anyhow: when someone in your community is in need, you help. People have lived like that for eons.
But what mutual aid seems to get at is that many of us struggle to actually have a community. Storms and poverty displace people; segregation divides people; competitive consumer culture and work alienate people; bigotry pushes people out of families. And so it is also true that for eons, people have taken it a step further, set up places of refuge and solidarity beyond the family, kin, neighborhood model. MAD Relief believes that these spaces of refuge are a threat to the powers that be, because of what they reveal about the possibility for an altogether different society.
Mutual Aid in Everyday Life – I’ve heard that Everglades City is the hardest-hit place in Florida, so I book a cabin just north of there, in a cypress forest. Past a gate guarded by a giant plastic panther and painted signs for Eco Tours, a middle-aged White guy named Jack rolls up on an off-road vehicle to greet me. There is standing water covering the gravel path to the cabin, and one of the RVs is still turned on its side from the wind. Others are destroyed. It’s quiet here, just birds and rattling palm leaves.
Jack is smiling, easy, fast-talking. He immediately starts telling me about mutual aid, South Florida style: “The folks down here are the toughest damn folks in the state of Florida, so everybody just came together and got it done.”
They’re tough, he says, because they never had nothin’ anyway. Down here it’s mostly just people helping people while everyone waits on a FEMA payment or insurance to come through.
“It brings people back together,” Jack says, “the way things used to be.”
Ten miles down the road, in Everglades City, things are really bad. It’s an island, the next-to-last stop before the true wilderness of the Everglades, populated with just over 400 people and a lot of palms, mangroves, and cypress trees. Almost the whole town is destroyed. The storm surge came at high tide, and everyone’s stuff spent days sloshing around. It left behind inches of mud, mold and water damage in any structure not on stilts. Now the town’s belongings are sitting on the curbs, rotting. At the center of the little island, an empty lot has been transformed into an impromptu dump, and the whole place smells sour. Most residents evacuated and haven’t returned.
But the Island CafÃ©, one of the main stops here, is bustling with people hauling plywood and marble, washing down tables and chairs. Carol Foss has owned the place for seven years, and now she’s spending down her savings to pay her staff to gut and rebuild. They might be close to reopening. Financially, of course, she’s hurting.
“Let’s just says it’s not easy,” she says. Foss has the same toughness of everyone here, and the same head-shake when I mention FEMA. She says most of the help has been local.
“The more you describe what happened, the more you realize you’re just sitting here with nothing,” she says, her eyes filling with tears. “But it’s all just materialistic. It can all be replaced.”
This kind of loss can change people, turn them into organizers and activists in their own way. In Tampa, I meet Brenda Irizarry, a 46-year-old Puerto Rican woman with bleached blonde hair who put out a call for help a couple days after Hurricane Maria hit the island in September. She has since been overwhelmed by donations and support. Her boyfriend agreed to let volunteers use his company warehouse, which is now a giant donation site, covered from end to end in palettes of supplies. She says the weekend after the storm, they had 500 volunteers on site. There is water, food, baby formula, medicine, diapers, toys, more water. Brenda thinks they’ve sent over two million pounds of supplies to Puerto Rico. She looks at me, trying to focus, but it’s clear she’s tired.
I ask her what she thinks of the political situation, the federal government response, and she shakes her head: even more tired.
Mutual aid also happens on an even smaller scale than Irizarry’s industrial effort, the Everglades towns banding together, or MAD Relief’s extended network. In Orlando, I meet RocÃo Vargas at a beige two-story apartment complex with a pothole-filled parking lot. On top of recovering from Hurricane Irma, I’ve heard RocÃo is facing displacement from her home.
RocÃo, soft-eyed and round, tells me that she and her husband weathered the storm here, with boarded windows. Some family came up from Miami: her mom lost her porch, her aunt the whole house. Here in Orlando, they borrowed a generator and a propane stove and made a lot of food for their neighbors and friends.
But just a week before the storm, her landlord had informed RocÃo that after four years, their lease wouldn’t be renewed. They’ve always paid rent on time, she says, but maybe her complaining about wanting central AC got to the landlord. Or maybe it was her plants: she had dozens, but the landlord didn’t want her to keep them out front.
She shows me the ones she still has: chaya, a Mayan plant that helps with her iron levels and keeps blood pressure down, and a cinnamon plant with leaves that are tough and smell sweet.
RocÃo and her husband have started looking for a place, and she says it feels impossible: people are fleeing from harder-hit areas to Orlando, and rents are upwards of $1,000. Meanwhile, she and her husband, a roofer, applied for assistance from FEMA for the nearly two weeks of work he missed due to the storm. She says she hasn’t heard a word, and she can’t get through to a person when she calls.
“If we don’t find anywhere to go, we’ll be out in the street and sleep in the van,” she says. “I’ve been homeless before. I don’t want to go back to that. But where do we go?”
There is no coordinated state response to the slow trickle of displacement that is being accelerated by storms and floods in the coastal U.S. Rich people and homeowners with decent insurance rebuild, but low-income people and renters go inland, move north. The numbers aren’t yet being tracked, but a 2016 study from the University of Georgia predicted sea level could displace 13 million people within the U.S. in the coming decades. Atlanta, Austin, and Denver will be popular destinations. Some will come here to Orlando, from Puerto Rico or the Keys.
RocÃo and her husband are fleeing rising prices, but it’s all intertwined: as the coasts are chipped away, housing burdens further inland will be exacerbated.
RocÃo has passed her knowledge of plants on to her neighbors, split up and repotted the cinnamon plant for friends, made chaya tea for anyone who could use it. If she becomes homeless, she says, her plants are the thing she will miss most.
Possibility – I’m at the plywood cabin, at the edge of the cypress forest, watching the water in the road and the vultures up above. A lizard regards me silently from a tree trunk. It’s not hard to imagine this place sunken into a swamp, disappeared into an ever-encroaching coast line. This country is strange. Donald Trump is talking about stock markets are up, football players are traitors, and “we are doing a really good job.”
The anarchists have a point: at the edges of the named storms, when the water recedes for now, there are still going to be people living in disaster conditions. Currently, some people are treated as disposable.
The mutual aid dream sees any abjection as unacceptable. Its proponents believe that no one should be drowned by social conditions, washed away by low wages or lack of health care or teetering mental health, that no refugee should be sent back at a border, that in a storm, relief shouldn’t come last to the poorest people, the way it does now. They don’t think this is an impossible dream.
And there are things we know: there will be another hurricane season, and another, and another, each one costlier and more unruly than the last. People and communities will perish. What used to be will wash up on the shore, soaked through. In some places, social conditions will worsen slowly; other places are already experiencing climate catastrophe.
Asking if there is another way shouldn’t—can’t—seem unreasonable to us now. What do we lose by trying?
I keep thinking about something Dez said. “There’s cracks that open up when disaster happens, and we can see each other through those cracks.”
I watch the raindrops make circles in the still water that covers the gravel road. Another storm is coming.