Plagued by Floods and Kept in the Dark, a Black Alabama Community Turns to a Hometown Hero for Help

Robert Bullard is on a mission to bring environmental justice to his hometown of Elba, Alabama.

The distinguished professor at Texas Southern University has made a name for himself as a pioneer of the environmental justice movement. He’s won prestigious awards for his decades of work examining and unveiling the nation’s persistent racial disparities and has written more than a dozen books on the topic. In 1976, he moved to Houston, where a couple of years later he would help his wife file the first lawsuit in U.S. history to use civil rights law to challenge environmental discrimination.

Before moving to Texas, however, Bullard lived in Elba. He grew up in Shiloh, Elba’s historic Black neighborhood where many of the homes have stayed within families for generations. In fact, Bullard’s family still owns 240 acres of land in Elba that was acquired by his great grandparents in 1875—only ten years after Congress abolished slavery by passing the 13th Amendment.

Today, he said, his old stomping grounds have become a “textbook” case of “environmental racism.”

Earlier this month, Bullard launched a new campaign after people in Shiloh reached out to him for help. About five years ago, the neighborhood started seeing major flooding anytime it rained hard. Bullard’s “fact-finding-tour” seeks to get to the bottom of what’s causing those floods and pressure the state government to do something about it.

Residents of Shiloh, however, are confident they know the cause. The inundations began around the same time the Alabama Department of Transportation—or ALDOT—finished widening a two-lane section of Highway 84 that runs through Elba. The new four-lane highway, completed in 2018, now sits at a higher elevation than before, and residents say the road’s drainage system funnels stormwater onto their properties, essentially turning their community into a lake during heavy rainfall.

Community members say state officials have largely dismissed their concerns, even as the flooding continues to get worse. It’s also unclear exactly what—if anything—the state of Alabama is currently doing to mitigate the floods and the financial headaches they’ve caused in Shiloh. During a series of interviews Bullard held with residents during a two-day visit this month, he said he heard “horror stories” of flooded yards, homes and businesses; of sewage oozing up from drains due to overfilled septic tanks; and of residents getting little help from public officials.

“What’s happening in the Shiloh community of Elba, Alabama—my hometown, a place I left in 1968, 55 years ago—is textbook environmental racism,” Bullard told me. “All of the longtime residents we interviewed and those who made comments at the community forum meeting say the Shiloh community did not flood before ALDOT built the four-lane elevated highway in 2018.”

A request for comment to the state’s transportation department didn’t receive a response in time for this report.

But the agency has cited an “independent evaluation” conducted by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management that concluded the highway’s expansion isn’t contributing to the area’s flooding problem. ALDOT said in a statement to local media that the agency is “aware of the flooding concerns” and “will continue to monitor the situation and remain in communication with local residents.”

Residents remain skeptical. Bullard, too, still believes the newly constructed highway is to blame. It rained both days of his mid-July visit, so he saw the floodwaters pouring from the highway’s drain systems firsthand, he told me. “All along the stretch of the elevated highway in Shiloh, the road’s drainage system pipes channels stormwater downhill into the Black community,” he said.

Highway expansions are a common practice in the United States. At least 15 states across the country are currently expanding highways that run through them, with at least a dozen more weighing similar proposals. The projects have also received growing pushback from local residents and environmental activists, who say highway expansions often lead to more pollution for low-income families, immigrants and communities of color, which studies show disproportionately live near highways and other major thoroughfares.

In Elba’s case, the widening of Highway 84 is also intersecting with the consequences of climate change, which research has shown disproportionately impacts people of color. 

Annual precipitation in Alabama has increased 5 to 10 percent since the first half of the 20th century, with more rain arriving in heavy downpours, according to a 2016 report from the Environmental Protection Agency. The problem is especially severe in the southeastern part of the state, where Elba is located. “Since 1958, the amount of precipitation during heavy rainstorms has increased by 27 percent in the (state’s) southeast, and the trend toward increasingly heavy rainstorms is likely to continue,” the report said.

Earlier this month, Shiloh residents requested to see Alabama’s evaluation that concluded the ongoing flooding in their town has nothing to do with Highway 84’s expansion. Just how the state is considering climate impacts could offer a clue to how the report came to that conclusion. But ALDOT hasn’t provided the report to the community. Instead, the agency suggested residents officially request a copy of the report through the state’s records request law—a process that can often take months, even years, to fulfill.

Bullard saw the exchange as another example of Alabama’s government dismissing Shiloh. “That cold response typifies how ALDOT officials have responded to flooding in this Black community,” he said. “If ALDOT was sincere in carrying out community outreach in good faith, it seems to me it would have not only voluntarily shared the report … but would have held a public meeting in the Shiloh community explaining the results.”

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That’s roughly how many climate-related lawsuits have been filed across 65 jurisdictions in the last five years, according to the joint report by the United Nations and New York’s Columbia University. That means such cases have more than doubled in that time period.