In the spring of 1927, after weeks of incessant rains, the Mississippi River flooded levee after levee, inundating thousands of farms and hundreds of towns, killing as many as a thousand people and leaving nearly a million homeless.
The Delta was largely populated by poor black share croppers and who worked the land for white planters who ruled like feudal lords. It was an exploitative system in which white landowners made fortunes and black labourers could barely afford to put food on their tables. One of the towns badly hit was Greenville, where relief supplies to those left homeless by the flood were distributed on the basis of race, with the result that African Americans were often left with nothing. To add insult to injury, black men were rounded up and forced to rebuild the levees. The bitter experience of black people of their treatment by whites during the disaster led to a large migration of sharecroppers to Northern cities.
There were around 30 songs recorded by blues artists about the 1927 flood. Atlanta artist Barbecue Bob, describes losing his woman, who’s washed away in the flood in “Mississippi Heavy Water Blues.” Texas bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson recorded a flood song, which he frequently performed in the Delta, as did Lonnie Johnson, who was based in St. Louis. Bessie Smith had probably the most famous song on the flood, although “Back Water Blues” was recorded before the flood occurred in February 1927. It was released just as the flood came, and as a result, became a big hit.
Perhaps the song most familiar to modern blues fans is Charlie Patton’s “High Water Everywhere,” which was recorded a couple of years after the flood, although given that Patton was from the Delta, it is likely that he had probably composed it earlier. The song tells graphically of the results of the flood and Charlie pointedly says that he wanted to go to the “hilly country,” but “they got me barred,” presumably a reference to the forced labour of black men on repairing the levees.
Here, as is always the case, with disasters, natural or otherwise, it is the poor who suffer the most. The World Bank’s 2014 world development report states that it is the poor who are most vulnerable to drought, pandemic, tsunami, violent crime, or financial meltdown. Natural disasters have the effect of dropping poor people or people living just above the poverty line, deeper into poverty. They destroy crops, healthcare facilities, the infrastructure and schools, resulting in malnutrition and often leading to the spread of preventable diseases.
We’re all aware of the devastating typhoon that hit the Philippines on 10 November. At this stage there are over 5,000 people who are known to have lost their lives, with many more still missing and fears the number of dead could rise to 10,000. In addition, at least four million people have been displaced by the storm. Most of those affected are people whose lives were already on the edge and who now face the most unimaginable struggle to rebuild their lives. If you haven’t already contributed to bringing relief to these people, could I urge you to make a donation to one of the agencies which are working there, such as the Red Cross, Christian Aid, Oxfam or World Vision.
Hours before typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, the head of his country’s national climate commission, a young scientist and diplomat, Naderev Sano, flew out of Manila, bound for the UN climate talks in Warsaw, Poland. As he took the floor to address the delegates of 190 countries the day after the typhoon struck, he was well aware of the devastation and suffering that had occurred back home. His own brother at that point was pulling people out of the rubble. Sano gave an extraordinary, passionate speech in which he clearly linked super typhoon Haiyan to man-made climate change and urged the world to wake up to the reality of what was happening from Latin America to south east Asia and the US. He lambasted the rich countries, and dared climate change deniers to go to his country to see for themselves what was happening. As he sat down, he began to sob and was given a standing ovation.
Sano has now called for a redefinition of “disaster”. “We must stop calling events like these as natural disasters,” he told the UN. “It is not natural when science already tells us that global warming will induce more intense storms. It is not natural when the human species has already profoundly changed the climate.”
The consensus of climate scientists is increasingly that super-storms are becoming more frequent. Haiyan was the third super-storm to strike the Philippines in a year, coming after seven major typhoons in October alone. The Philippine government’s raw statistics suggest that the region’s typhoons are indeed getting stronger. Overall, the evidence is overwhelming that climate change is most adversely affecting developing countries, says Oxfam, which works in most of the world’s most vulnerable nations. “As temperatures warm, many of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens will face increased risks associated with more intense or protracted droughts, extreme rainfall and heat waves,” notes a recent joint report by London-based think-tank, the Overseas Development Institute, Met Office and Risk Management Solutions.
Those of us who live in developed countries generally have the wealth and infrastructure to withstand the worst affects of natural disasters; that’s not the case in poorer countries. It’s a matter of justice that the issue of climate change be addressed in a much more whole-hearted way by wealthy nations. The self-interested, short-term, climate-change-denying foot dragging needs to stop. We all need to take a long, hard look at the horrific images of human suffering coming out of the Philippines and urge our governments to increase their efforts in combating climate change.