Communities devastated by natural disasters call for immediate aid

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Alexis Underwood was one of many people who came to Washington, D.C., on May 1 to call on Congress to pass legislation to provide disaster relief funding. A coalition of advocacy groups, including the AFT, took part in a “day of action” to give people from states devastated by natural disasters an opportunity to meet with their congressional representatives to ask them to support disaster aid for all communities in need.

Alexis Underwood

In the last year, destructive floods in Missouri; wildfires in California; and hurricanes in Florida, Puerto Rico, Texas and the Carolinas have left communities struggling. Weather and climate disasters resulted in nearly $91 billion in economic losses in 2018. But in spite of the damage, disaster relief bills continue to languish in Congress, jeopardizing local economies, public health and the well-being of communities in need of aid.

Underwood, who is the president of the Association of Bay County Educators in Florida, spoke for the members of the Panama City and Bay County communities who were hit hard by Hurricane Michael last October. The community is still rebuilding, and the damage is not just physical—the emotional and psychological well-being of those affected is in peril as well. Since reopening schools last fall, more than 100 children have needed mental health assistance, and students in the Bay District Schools, where Underwood is a seventh-grade teacher, are receiving two free meals a day because of the disaster.

“We are seeing students with PTSD, depression and anxiety,” said Underwood. “As teachers, our first priority is the health of the children in front of us, so even though I’m teaching, if a child starts to cry because it’s raining, I’m going to stop what I’m doing to help them.”

When Underwood met with her senators, she asked them to vote for disaster aid for all communities in need.

“I don’t care about the political opposition to what’s in the bill. Disaster teaches us that political walls don’t matter; the day after the storm, none of those walls existed for us in Bay County,” Underwood said. “I’m here to fight for the children and adults in my community who can’t fight for themselves. As a classroom teacher, I see my students and their families with ongoing housing, nutrition and mental health needs as a result of this disaster. As we continue to struggle to repair our property and our lives, we desperately need financial help from the federal government to do so.”

[Adrienne Coles]