Social justice advocate Lea Campbell started her organizing journey in 2015, pushing for the removal of the Confederate emblem from Mississippi’s state flag. She founded the Mississippi Rising Coalition and quickly pivoted to environmental issues in 2016 as a series of major storms and other crises rocked the state.
Now, her work to build mutual aid and other community networks is one example of the ways Southerners are working to improve the region’s resilience in the face of disaster.
Mississippi’s recent woes began with several major hurricanes and tropical storms that pounded the Gulf Coast in 2016.
The capital city, Jackson, suffered hundreds of millions of dollars in damages and, in 2022, experienced a water crisis that left over 150,000 residents without drinking water. Last year, unprecedented extreme heat and tornadoes left dozens injured and over 300 homes destroyed.
Enter Mississippi Rising, a multiracial, intergenerational grassroots organization that is working with the Unitarian Universalist Church of Jackson to transform some facilities in the city into disaster-safe zones. They have been retrofitting a large warehouse owned by the church with solar panels and independent drinking water reserves and wells, creating a space for people to go in the event of severe weather, extreme heat, power outages, or future water treatment crises. This expansive resilience hub project is just one of six that the group is working on with communities across the state.
In 2020, the coalition developed the Mississippi Gulf Coast Mutual Aid Collective, a network that provides rapid response following hurricanes and extreme winter weather. So far, the collective has coordinated to provide direct cash aid and necessities like personal hygiene supplies to those impacted by a winter ice storm, Hurricane Ida in 2021, the Jackson water crisis, and the 2023 tornadoes in northern, Mississippi and coastal Moss Point. The network also trains volunteers as a part of community emergency response teams that respond quickly during disasters and who can then work with FEMA or the American Red Cross when they arrive later.
Mississippi Rising’s job is as a convener for vulnerable Mississippians, partnering with organizations that are distributing air purifiers to people affected by air pollution as well as those developing heat maps to help municipalities prepare for extreme summer weather. Despite the specificity of each community’s issues, the organization, through monthly strategy sessions, has connected many of these other grassroots groups to the funding, expertise, and capacity necessary to push forward.
“We’re really learning the value of building coalitions, building networks, and sharing resources because we know we have to do this together,” Campbell said.
The Mississippi Rising Coalition’s work and that of numerous other organizations across several states in the U.S. South is made possible in part by the facilitation power of the Gulf South for a Green New Deal network, created in 2019 by the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy (now Taproot Earth).
“The Southeast is the most vulnerable region in the country and the least resourced — in terms of philanthropic dollars and federal funding. That’s a structural problem,” said Alex Easdale, executive director of the Southeast Climate and Energy Network, one of Gulf South for a Green New Deal’s founding hub members. The group works with organizers from across the region, with members representing 11 Southeastern states.
The Gulf South network’s climate justice activists are helping groups in various communities develop mutual aid networks, fortify community infrastructure like greenhouses and community centers, and conduct “asset mapping” to improve distribution of local resources. Climate justice is a concept and movement that is based on the understanding that the impacts of climate change are not felt equitably and often compound upon already disinvested communities.
The network’s activists are helping groups in various communities develop mutual aid networks, fortify community infrastructure like greenhouses and community centers, and conduct “asset mapping” to improve the distribution of local resources.
The South is uniquely vulnerable
“As the South goes, so goes the nation,” said Abigail Franks, membership and policy manager for the Southeast Climate and Energy Network, quoting W.E.B. DuBois. “Our infrastructure was already unstable without the climate crisis.” She noted that the extractive economies in the region from oil and gas drilling to logging “are the same industries and the same extractive economies that put us into the climate crisis to begin with.”
Climate change has worsened heavy rain, extreme heat, and hurricanes throughout the South, and the region has also experienced the wildfires, drought, and extreme cold seen in other parts of the country. Historic flooding once again hit Kentucky and Tennessee in July 2023, breaking a 24-hour rainfall record in Kentucky originally set in 1997. This past year ranked fourth for the most-named severe storms on record, including hurricane Idalia which hit Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina in August and resulted in massive flooding, tree damage, and power outages. Droughts have left many farmers struggling while also fueling wildfires across the Gulf and in Virginia and North Carolina.
“The droughts in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia in particular, have destroyed and decimated a lot of small farms and a lot of agriculture,” Franks said. “In Mississippi, when I was visiting, I had a farmer tell me that he has been scared to plant his winter crops because he doesn’t see a point in losing all of his money and resources.”
Though Southern wildfires are not as large as the ones that have leveled many forests in the West, they are serious nonetheless. Amy Adams, deputy and programs director for the Southeast Climate and Energy Network, said that a fire she witnessed in North Carolina formed underground, making it extremely difficult to put out. Southern fires also produce debilitating levels of air pollution, she noted, preventing farmers and those with respiratory sensitivity from going outside and requiring people to wear their N95 masks.
The network and its partner organizations are using the power of community to prepare for the next wave of climate disasters.
“Relationships are our currency in the South,” Adams said, highlighting that the creation of these climate networks has allowed a wide variety of organizations to support each other through shows of solidarity and policy advocacy, direct financial support in the face of disaster, and creation of training programs to pass on knowledge learned during disaster recovery.
For instance, the Mississippi Rising Coalition is a facilitator for the Mississippi People’s Movement, formerly Mississippi for a Green New Deal, a Gulf South for a Green New Deal subgroup. This coalition has allowed Campbell to support as well as learn from the direct action and research efforts of smaller groups.
At the Mississippi People’s Movement, “Our priorities are advancing access to clean water, advancing local food systems, stopping the petrochemical build-out in Mississippi, stopping false climate solutions in Mississippi, and advancing access to safe, sustainable, and affordable housing,” Campbell said.
Another local organization, the Mississippi chapter of American Descendents of Slavery, has also been working through the Mississippi People’s Movement and the People’s Response Network in Chicago to develop a heat map of the region as a form of rapid response to extreme heat.
“When we do see natural disasters, tornadoes, hurricanes, and extreme heat, the fatalities that we’re seeing are coming after the disasters. We’re trying to get better research,” said Leo Carney with American Descendants of Slavery. He noted that heat-related deaths are often underreported and improperly recorded as something else, so the group hopes the heat maps can help identify priority areas while encouraging municipalities to build more cooling stations and address some heat disparities across Mississippi that are exacerbated by poverty.
Funding remains a major issue. Many communities have only just started to create climate disaster relief funds and mutual aid networks in the last couple of years. An even greater number of organizations have trouble getting federal disaster relief because in poorer Southern communities where water, housing, and disaster-resilient infrastructure is often already underinvested, damages are less likely to meet financial thresholds for federal relief, leaving municipalities to fend for themselves.
“I think the philanthropic community and nonprofit communities have been eyeballing this and recognizing [climate disasters] as a need. It’s just been a matter of the need outpacing the resources. And so even nonprofits and networks have been struggling to make funds available,” Adams explained.
Even as the Inflation Reduction Act has made unprecedented federal funding available along with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill and the Environmental Protection Agency, many communities are still waiting to get their share.
“The money hasn’t flowed out yet,” Adams said. “We’re all sort of on the brink of this promise of money, and I think there is some apprehension given the history of federal agencies about whether this is actually going to get to the right people this time.”
These programs are more critical than ever. The year 2023 was the hottest on record worldwide, and the United States experienced the most billion-dollar climate disasters since 1980, according to NOAA. A new climate vulnerability map from the Environmental Defense Fund and Texas A&M University forecast that the South will see the brunt of future U.S. climate impacts.
“Communities are not really prepared right now,” Campbell said. “It’s going to take a whole statewide community caring for each other, planning together, strategizing together, fundraising together, and sharing resources in order for us to do what needs to be done.”
Whether in Mississippi or other Southern states, these climate resiliency hubs across the region are determined to do more collaborative fundraising and capacity-building to help communities respond to the climate crisis.
“I think what you’re seeing throughout the South is that folks aren’t waiting for government. Everyday citizens and grassroots leaders are stepping into positions of leadership and advocacy for their communities. Folks are doing it them-damn-selves,” Adams said.
Learn more and get involved
The organizations featured in this piece as well as many others in the South are gearing up for yet another year of extreme weather, extreme heat, and extreme climate impacts. Many communities are still recovering from 2023’s season of unnatural disasters; others are attempting to implement projects and infrastructure that will take years to execute.