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How Biden’s Goal to ‘Electrify Everything’ Contributed to a Flooding Crisis

A rural Alabama highway expanded for industrial companies is harming Black residents, civil rights complains says

Since Alabama raised and expanded Interstate 84 in 2017, virtually every time it rains in the rural region of Coffee County, water rolls down the highway and from drains beneath the highway, engorging several homes. (Courtesy of Timothy Williams)

Sometimes, even when it’s not raining, 78-year-old widower Willie Horstead Jr. thinks he hears the floodwaters seeping beneath his home, sucking the metal box deeper into Alabama’s rich soil. 

When it does rain – which is often in Coffee County, Alabama – the U.S. Army veteran is afraid he’ll fall through the floor of his mobile home as his cries for help go unheard. 

For years, Horstead watched as industrial companies lobbied for a new, four-lane paved highway to put the region in the fast lane of economic development. All it did for the area’s historically rural Black unincorporated community known as Shiloh was create a flooding and housing crisis. 

Since the state raised and expanded the highway from two lanes to four lanes in 2017, virtually every time it rains in the rural region of Coffee County – which sees nearly two feet more rain annually than the U.S. average – water rolls down the highway and from drains beneath the highway, engorging several homes. 

Horstead is among a dozen Black households who say the man-made crisis only became a priority after a civil rights complaint was filed with the Federal Highway Administration last fall. Since then, the flooding has attracted the attention of county, state, and federal officials, yet the issue has remained, residents said, as no concrete solutions have been offered for Shiloh.

The flooding underscores a larger issue around the unintended consequences of seemingly positive industrial investments that have historically harmed Black Americans. 

Ironically, the community’s new emergency was intensified by the Biden administration’s environmental justice goal to electrify the U.S. – and it’s threatening to erase generations of Black history. 

While the underlying goal to shift the country from fossil fuels to renewable energy is a boon for the climate as it limits transportation-related pollution – the country’s largest source of greenhouse gas – it requires a tremendous amount of new infrastructure and is pushing the nation’s manufacturing, trucking, and warehousing industries to the brink. 

In Black communities, where the nation’s pollution and industrial operations are often concentrated, it potentially means an increase in poor health and life outcomes

The newly expanded highway – U.S. Highway 84 – connects several warehouses and distribution centers to Alabama’s capital, Montgomery. Some of the most prominent facilities off the highway include Inzi Controls, a major supplier for Hyundai’s electric vehicle facility in Montgomery; a new solar panel manufacturing plant, which is estimated to reach half a billion dollars in annual sales; and a company that manufactures electrical transformers for light poles across the country, which recently received $250,000 in state subsidies after moving from Florida following Hurricane Ian.   

Similar examples of the country’s push to “electrify everything” harming Black communities have been seen nationwide. In Detroit, a new hybrid and electric vehicle plant ramped up air pollution in the nation’s asthma capital, and in Memphis, land was taken from Black residents through eminent domain to construct a new Ford electric vehicle plant. 

In response to Capital B, the Federal Highway Administration acknowledged the civil rights complaint, but did not comment on the ongoing investigation. 

Read More: How Low-Emission Vehicles are Perpetuating ‘Systemic Environmental Racism’ in Detroit

For Shiloh residents, it represents an all-too-familiar feeling of erasure and displacement. Once former Elba Mayor Mickey Murdock set his sights on selling land on Highway 84 in the early 2010s, and the state made roughly $20 million available for the project, residents were put on the back burner, says Timothy Williams, a pastor and local business owner.

The highway’s drain system is pointed directly at residents’ homes. Shiloh business owner Timothy Williams   believes it’s an attempt to flood out the Black community. (Courtesy of Timothy Williams)

The drain system from the expanded highway is pointed directly at their homes. Williams believes it’s an attempt to flood the Black community out of town. 

“What they did was they came in here and to take the community and the land over here on the African American side; they tried to flood us out,” said Timothy Williams., a resident of Coffee County’s unincorporated rural area.

In a written response to Capital B, Coffee County officials said they were aware of the community’s flooding issue and “feel that the drainage issue may be due, at least in part, to the four-laning of Highway 84,” but it “does not appear” the Alabama Department of Transportation deliberately “altered the drainage pattern from its previous iteration.” 

The statement contradicted a response given to Capital B from the state, which said while they were aware of “flooding concerns” brought by residents, “the widening of US-84 has not contributed to the flooding within the Shiloh community.” 

‘Because we’re Black, they are making it hard on us’

Without government help, Horstead, who lives on a fixed income, fears he’ll have to move.  The land he lives on has been in his family for two generations and he wouldn’t have enough money to move anywhere else. 

Since the road was paved and elevated, property values in the area have risen by 52%, and property taxes have reached an all-time high, jumping roughly 20% between 2021 and 2022. 

On top of the new living fees because of the area’s quick ascension as an industrial haven, it’s caused Shiloh residents to shell out thousands of dollars in attempts to protect their property and then in damages when the protections regularly fail. 

Horstead already spent “more money than he can count” on attempts to protect his home, but nothing has stuck. Not to mention the damage it’s caused to his septic tank, which could cost upward of $20,000 to replace. When it rains, feces and floodwaters regularly mix to create black sludge throughout the neighborhood. 

The cost would be burdensome for most Americans, but it’s life-threatening in a region where jobs traditionally afforded to Black folks, such as farming and agriculture, have waned as the Black poverty rate has ballooned to more than 40%. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Living Wage calculator estimates the average Coffee County household needs $72,000 annually to support itself; the average household in Horstead’s area makes just $40,000.

“Because we’re Black, they are making it hard on us. And so I know now, they want the property,” said Williams., who mentioned how residents have previously faced racism.

 In 2015, Williams led a group of residents in filing a claim against the city of Elba after alleging that the city’s former Parks and Recreation director, Ricky Mularz, referred to Black children attending summer camp as “zoo animals.” 

Read More: Alabama Discriminated Against Black Residents, Feds Confirm

“I had to pay a civil engineer to come in here with my own money. And he told [the local government] what they could do to help remedy the situation, but they don’t even want to do that,” Williams, the local business owner said. 

The issue, Coffee County Administrator Rod Morgan told Capital B, is that it’s a state project, so local government officials have no authority to remedy the situation on their own. 

Since the civil rights complaint was brought by Williams, county, state, and federal officials have surveyed the land. (Courtesy of Timothy Williams)

Electrifying Everything 

The Inflation Reduction Act, advertised as the country’s largest-ever investment in combating climate change, accelerated an astronomical rise in U.S.-based electric vehicle production. In 2022, investments in U.S. electric vehicle manufacturing jumped from $24 billion to $74 billion, carried intensely by Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee, which account for roughly 40% of the nation’s electric vehicle and supply chain investments.

More than $5 billion of the increase is a product of Hyundai’s multi-billion investment in Montgomery to “produce future EVs, enhance production facilities, and further invest in smart mobility solutions.” 

Hyundai’s only U.S.-based plant is in Montgomery, Alabama, and it’s one of the largest electric vehicle manufactures in the country. (Courtesy of Hyundai)

But the increase in private car production calls for an increase in infrastructure like charging stations and roads, explained Justin Davis, an activist and community organizer focused on building equitable transit options in Black communities. It also requires massive energy and water usage to manufacture products and ramps up pollution as warehouses expand and products are trucked and shipped across the country. 

Coffee County residents also noted that these new companies sometimes operate in bad faith. Hyundai’s Coffee County-based supplier, Inzi Controls, is one of Alabama’s most habitual workplace rights violators, fined roughly $130,000 for safety violations and retaliation practices over the past few years.  

“People that are already deprived of a lot of resources are overlooked when we use public money to develop around the car,” said Davis. “The guiding question of developers and consultants shifts from public good to how do we cater to the needs of folks who have the means.

“There’s a long history of working-class Black communities calling out these effects of infrastructure,” he added, noting how the expansion of the nation’s highway system destroyed several Black communities and created toxic pollution corridors.  

In Alabama, the expansion of Highway 84 for these businesses has also increased the likelihood of poor health outcomes, including traffic collisions and air pollution from big rig trucks, said residents. 

“It can get really politically complicated where all these new electric plants end up,” said Davis. “Not to mention the amount of pollution and environmental issues from all the different parts of the assembly process, even if we are sort of pushing for it to be ‘climate-friendly.'”

‘Turning people’s whole lives upside down’

While the wiregrass region of Alabama has been home to some of the country’s worst floods over the last century, Shiloh historically evaded damage because of its elevation and distance from the area’s network of rivers. 

Now, every time it rains, Horstead has to rush to attempt to evacuate to his sibling’s house, but sometimes he just can’t make it out in time. 

Coffee County residents have attempted to mitigate the situation for years, but solutions have failed to stick. (Courtesy of Timothy Williams)

“The rain is causing my mobile home to drop, and with the water rushing under my home, I’m afraid I’ll fall through the floor,” the retiree said. “No one would know to come for me.”

The flooding is “turning people’s whole lives upside down,” explained Williams, who has spent weeks on his own piecemeal solution, attempting to dig out a ditch to protect his property. He says the flooding almost took his great-nephew’s life earlier this year after he almost jumped into a newly dug ditch by the Alabama Department of Transportation. 

“Had he jumped in it, he would have drowned and died or busted his head on the concrete, but because it was full with water, he couldn’t tell,” Williams said.

“We are owners, and we’re African Americans, so we know not to sell. They’re trying to find a way,” he said.

This story has been updated.