Flotsam by Jeff Ninety

“Flotsam.” The crap the tide washes up. The trash and filth that piles up along the high-water mark. You wanna get formal? Here’s a definition: “People or things that have been rejected or are considered worthless.” Back and forth, the water washes up more, more flotsam. With every surge, the heap gets bigger. Underline the word, “people” in that definition. Flotsam. That’s us, that’s what they call us. Our fellow Americans. We’re the shit nobody wants. We’re the discarded ones people try to ignore.

And we number in the millions.

We in our millions, lived on the Gulf: we lived on the beach or near the beach, even in some cases, miles inland. We worked hard, but we felt privileged. We had the sun and the water. We were perched on the edge of the continent and could look out over the ocean. We could breathe the salt air. Sure, there were storms, floods sometimes, hurricanes now and then. But it seemed like a reasonable price to pay.

My family had a little house. There was a nice, airy verandah with a porch swing, white clapboard siding covered the house, white plantation shutters shaded the windows, a gray steel roof kept out the rain. Pink and white oleander bushes in the garden scented the air. Pink and green, gray and white, that’s what I remember of the house. A house perched precariously up on stilts, like a shore bird at the water’s edge. We’d weathered three generations of hurricanes in that house. Shared meals and holidays, Celebrated births and mourned deaths. We’d take stock of the storm damage, then replace or restore. We’d always return things to the way they’d always been. We took pride in the process and called it “healing.” Mother Nature was nothing to fear! We were called “resilient,” “tough,” “prime examples of American strength in the face of adversity.”

“We will rebuild! Better than before!” That was our rallying cry. We cheered each other on. It was hard work, but we loved our homes, our towns. We loved our neighbors. And the government was always there to help. We voted, so the politicians made sure we were covered

We had the NFIP, flood insurance, subsidized and expensive. Flood insurance allowed developers to build on the flood plains or along the rivers, at the beaches, on the barrier islands. The government let the contractors develop land we all knew was at risk, but if a once-in-a-hundred-year event happened, not to worry, we could always rebuild our homes, our lives. And we did rebuild. Over and over and over again.

Everybody talked about building mega-engineering projects, levees, or dams, or barriers against sea level rise. And it was always about Houston, New York City, or Boston, or one of the other big cities. They’d protect the important people, the rich people. What about Biloxi, or Mobile? New Orleans got a lot of press, but what about Brownsville or Corpus Christi? What about Pensacola? Savannah and Charleston? Still, the storms got bigger. A category five could blow up out of nowhere, it seemed. And the new, bigger storms moved slower. They seemed to just stall. Pumping out rain, sucking up higher and higher storm surges. So, in the end it wasn’t sea level rise that got us, it was repeated storm surges, flood after flood. Twelve feet of water here, fifteen feet there. Twenty feet…

It was death by a thousand drops of water. Rebuilding became almost non-stop, until a tipping point was reached. The country got tired of helping cover the damage. There was another push to cut taxes. The politicians withdrew support for subsidized flood insurance. The programs went bankrupt, because the majority, the people in the dry interior, refused to continue to pay for the subsidy. And with the coverage gone, entire swathes of land, known flood zones, were red-lined. No insurance would be available. Without coverage, we couldn’t re-build. We couldn’t sell, because without coverage, banks wouldn’t lend money for buyers dumb enough to… People lost everything. People had to walk away. Abandoned, damaged property became a common sight.

And then Texas City met hurricane Jada

Texas City’s was home to British Petroleum’s Texas City Chemicals, Marathon Petroleum, Valero Texas City Refinery… and more. We had to evacuate as Jada approached, closer and closer. It wasn’t to be quite a direct hit, and Jada didn’t quite come on shore. She did something much worse. She stalled. Jada, stayed and raged, Jada dropped an insane twenty-four inches of rain in twelve hours. Jada’s low pressure raised a storm surge of twenty-two feet. What was the elevation of Texas City? Three feet? Five? The loss was almost complete. The failed tank farms’ crude oil, refined petrochemical on tankers, agricultural chemicals in warehouses, all of it flooded the Gulf from Houston to Pensacola, then south towards Tampa, then farther. And it washed inland. Biloxi, Mobile were drowned and poisoned at the same time.

So, we became the largest migration in American history. Larger than the Oakies of the 30s. FEMA supplied us with these RVs, Recreational Vehicles. But because nobody wants the Flotsam in their towns, we live in caravans. We cruise the highways, always on the move. We’re thrown out of towns. We’re shot or beaten if it looks like we’re putting down roots. And why? How do you find jobs for three million displaced people? Where’s the housing? What about food and water? Medical care?

Some of us try to head out, head towards border wall. Like me and my family. We aim to leave the past behind. There’s opportunity on the other side of The Wall. There’s hope. Get across The Wall and here’s work. There’s maybe a future for some of us or for our kids. It’s field labor, sure. But it’s food and shelter. And who cares if the Canadians don’t want the Flotsam. We don’t have a choice.