In Alabama Visit, Buttigieg Strays Off The Beaten Path. Will It Help Shiloh, a Flooded Black Community?

COFFEE COUNTY, Ala.—By now, Pastor Timothy Williams could lead the tour blindfolded. 

It begins at his own home, its roof nearly level with the highway a stone’s throw away. For years, following the road’s elevation and expansion to four lanes in 2018, U.S. Highway 84 has flooded Shiloh, a historically Black community in rural south Alabama. 

Since then, Williams has told anyone willing to listen about the residents’ plight. Again and again, he’s shown folks from house to house, pointing out the damage as he goes along. After his home, there’s Otis’ house, where mold has started taking over. There’s Aretha’s, where the garage could double as a marina when there’s heavy rain. Then, there’s Willie’s—a mobile home owned by a 79-year-old veteran—that’s been slowly sinking in place since the flooding began. 

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But tour after tour, Williams’ optimism has begun to fade. No matter who he’s shown around Shiloh—no matter how well connected or how good their intentions—the water still comes. 

On Wednesday, Williams led U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and other federal officials on what the pastor said he hopes will be the last flood tour he’ll ever have to give. 

Buttigieg, who also visited Birmingham and Montgomery during his Alabama trip, would not comment on an ongoing civil rights investigation into the flooding, but the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor and former Democratic presidential candidate said the Biden administration is committed to righting the wrongs of the past, including infrastructure decisions that have harmed communities of color. 

Pastor Timothy Williams explains the conditions in Shiloh to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg as part of a Wednesday tour. Credit: Lee Hedgepeth/Inside Climate News

A day before the secretary’s visit, state transportation officials announced they would offer “protesting” residents a choice: a buyout of their properties or having the agency “implement a project to retain additional water on state right of way.”

Residents said they have no intentions of leaving and no trust that ALDOT, whom they view as having caused the problem, has the ability or willingness to implement a meaningful fix.

“That’s crazy,” Williams said of the offer, which he learned of through members of the press. “Why not just come here, fix the road, and make us whole?”

Drains Like Cannons

Dr. Robert Bullard knows a man-made environmental disaster when he sees one. Decades before his advocacy in Shiloh, Bullard was pioneering the field of environmental justice by encouraging Houston residents to “look up,” documenting any elevated land on the flat Texas terrain that could be indicative of landfills. Before long, Bullard proved without question: Local officials were disproportionately locating landfills in communities of color. 

Decades later, Bullard is still at it. When he received news that residents of the historically Black Shiloh community near his hometown of Elba were facing repeated flooding due to a highway expansion, Bullard came back to investigate. What he found, Bullard said, left him dumbfounded. 

“Water goes downhill, and it doesn’t take a Ph.D. to understand that,” said Bullard, a distinguished professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University in Houston and founding director of the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice at the university. “This was done on purpose. This wasn’t an accidental ‘oops.’ ALDOT cared more about not flooding the highway than they did about flooding the community. That is unacceptable.”

Dr. Robert Bullard visits Shiloh for another tour of the community on Feb. 5. Credit: Lee Hedgepeth/Inside Climate News
Dr. Robert Bullard visits Shiloh for another tour of the community on Feb. 5. Credit: Lee Hedgepeth/Inside Climate News

After engaging with community members, Bullard, who is also a member of the White House Environmental Justice Committee, began advocating with federal officials for solutions in Shiloh. 

In March, Bullard and members of the community traveled to Washington to meet with federal transportation officials to discuss Shiloh’s situation, but the delegation left the nation’s capital frustrated. Citing an ongoing civil rights investigation, officials were reluctant to discuss in detail ways in which the administration could act immediately to address residents’ urgent concerns, the group said. Bullard, Williams, and other residents did get one commitment during the DOT meeting, however: Federal officials would visit the Shiloh community to see the issues themselves. 

Choppers Over Coffee County

On Wednesday, it was all muscle memory for Williams. He began by bringing the secretary to his own home, military helicopters regularly droning overhead as he explained the cracks beginning to wind their way down his home’s foundation, a result of the structure settling on soggy ground. 

“We’re in a bowl,” he told officials including Buttigieg. “But we deserve to live, too.”

Williams then led Buttigieg and others along the elevated highway, showing them the drainage pipes installed as part of the highway expansion. The pipes, sometimes more than a foot in diameter, channel water from the road surface, the median, and the other side of the highway into Shiloh, leaving residents inundated anytime it rains for more than a few minutes. 

They visited the home of Aretha Wright, where she told those gathered about the methods she’s developed to protect her home from continued damage. 

“I bought water-resistant towels to put over my floors when it rains,” she said. “That way my floors don’t get ruined again.”

Aretha Wright stands in front of her Shiloh home. At one point, Wright was temporarily displaced because of constant flooding. Now she uses water-resistant towels to help stop water from entering her home. Credit: Lee Hedgepeth/Inside Climate News
Aretha Wright stands in front of her Shiloh home. At one point, Wright was temporarily displaced because of constant flooding. Credit: Lee Hedgepeth/Inside Climate News

After speaking with Wright, the group headed onto and across Highway 84—law enforcement temporarily holding traffic to make way. 

From there, Buttigieg and the tour group could see the extent of Shiloh below.

“This is the bowl situation,” Williams said, pointing out over the detention pond that often overflows onto his property. 

“You can definitely see it from here,” Buttigieg replied. 

Later, Buttigieg heard from Willie Horstead Jr., an Army veteran who spent years watching as his mobile home has slowly sunk into the soggy ground. 

“All where we’re standing right now, there is nothing but water here when there’s a good rain,” Horstead told Buttigieg. “I’ll tell you—I just want to be made whole.”

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks with Willie Horstead, an Army veteran, about the flooding impacting his home. Credit: Lee Hedgepeth/Inside Climate News
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks with Willie Horstead, an Army veteran, about the flooding impacting his home. Credit: Lee Hedgepeth/Inside Climate News

After the tour, Williams thanked Buttigieg and other federal officials for making the trip to Shiloh. Nearly a year earlier, the pastor had posted a video on social media asking that the transportation secretary visit the community to witness their problems firsthand. As the tour concluded, Williams became emotional. 

“Help is on the way,” he said, Bullard and Buttigieg at his side. “We thank God for that. We thank everybody—we thank the community for sticking together.”

With members of the community watching on, Bullard told Buttigieg that he would like to see rapid government action to correct the problems in Shiloh. 

“I don’t speak for this community but I am of this community, and I’m speaking from the heart,” Bullard said. “Every time I come and see what’s happening to this community, it hurts me. This is not natural, and it needs to be corrected.”

Buttigieg said he felt it was necessary to visit Shiloh to see what residents are facing. 

“There is no way I’m going to forget what I just heard,” Buttigieg said. 

The issues facing Shiloh are being worked on “at the highest levels of our department,” the secretary told community members. 

“I don’t claim to have a magic wand on me, but I have a lot of tools,” he said. That can involve both tools to ensure state officials “treat people well” and tools that allow federal officials to channel funds directly to communities, he said. 

Addressing the issues in Shiloh, like those across the country, will also involve recognizing the compounding impact of increasingly frequent rain events fueled by climate change, Buttigieg said. 

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and other federal officials tour the Shiloh community in rural south Alabama. Credit: Lee Hedgepeth/Inside Climate News

“We have to recognize that every decision is a climate decision,” he said. “Climate change is upon us. It is here and now, and our transportation systems are vulnerable. That means every time we make a decision about a road, a bridge, a highway, an airport—you name it—that has to be done with the knowledge that 2050 is not going to look like 1950.”

In the past, he said, federal dollars have been used in ways that have harmed communities of color like Shiloh, he said. But the future can be different. 

“We are not going to let that happen again,” Buttigieg said. 

What Comes Next

The day before Buttigieg’s visit to Shiloh, officials with ALDOT confirmed in a statement a plan to offer a buyout to “protesting” homeowners in the historically Black community but emphasized that the state agency believes that no unfair treatment or discrimination took place. If owners choose not to sell, ALDOT will “implement a project to retain additional water” on-site, the statement said. 

“The choice will be theirs,” the statement said. “In addition, ALDOT is cooperating with the Federal Highway Administration’s review of the facts and is committed to working to address the concerns of the Shiloh community.”

It was unclear to residents, who had yet to be directly informed of the offer as of Wednesday’s tour, what a plan to “retain additional water” would actually amount to. An existing detention pond in Shiloh regularly overflows onto nearby residences, doing little to mitigate the significant stormwater generated by the highway’s elevation, grade, and drainage. Then there are questions about who specifically will be offered buyouts and at what price, residents said. Will property values be determined by market value before or after flooding began? State officials have not yet responded to questions about the specifics of the options given to residents. 

Residents in the Shiloh community said that since the highway elevation was completed, they've lived in a bowl. Credit: Lee Hedgepeth/Inside Climate News
Residents in the Shiloh community said that since the highway elevation was completed, they’ve lived in a bowl. Credit: Lee Hedgepeth/Inside Climate News

Members of the Shiloh community interviewed by Inside Climate News on Wednesday said they hadn’t been aware of the proposed offer until notified by the media. Every resident who spoke to ICN said they are committed to remaining in their family homes. 

Bullard said the offer is an insult. 

“ALDOT is saying ‘I don’t respect you. I don’t respect your property. I don’t respect your history, your legacy, your inheritance, and what I will do is buy you out and forget about it,’” he said. 

Residents in Shiloh have lived on the land there for years, Bullard explained, passing down property that was hard-won decades ago in the Reconstruction South. 

“I think it’s disrespectful. I think it’s callous, and I think it’s tone-deaf,” he said. 

Asked about the buyout offer, Buttigieg echoed the sentiments of community members. 

“You can feel how deeply rooted people are in this community,” he said. “These are families that trace back generations, and in my conversations with them just now, have no interest in being forced to leave.”

Community members should be given viable options for how to move forward, he said, not just be forced into decisions they may not want to make. 

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Buttigieg said federal officials have a “significant and substantial concern about the impact of the highway” on Shiloh residents but stopped short of blaming the flooding on poor engineering or other design decisions. 

“What I know for sure is that nobody here is responsible for the flooding issues they are facing,” he said.

Buttigieg also pointed to an ongoing civil rights investigation into whether state and local transportation officials violated residents’ civil rights by refusing to address flooding concerns. 

“I can’t speak to the details of that, but that should demonstrate how seriously we take what this community is going through and our own responsibilities to have the back of any American who is potentially facing this kind of problem,” he said. 

After the secretary left, Shiloh residents lingered behind, wondering whether the official’s visit would amount to meaningful change for the community. 

Melissa Williams, the pastor’s 22-year-old daughter, said she isn’t so sure. 

Melissa Williams said state officials' offer to buy out her family home was a slap in the face. Credit: Lee Hedgepeth/Inside Climate News
Melissa Williams said state officials’ offer to buy out her family home was a slap in the face. Credit: Lee Hedgepeth/Inside Climate News

She couldn’t stop thinking about the offer from Alabama officials: sell your homes or trust us to solve the problem. She couldn’t think of anyone she trusts less. Even federal officials who toured alongside Buttigieg seemed somewhat skeptical of residents’ concerns, Williams said, asking questions about how much it had rained in the lead-up to the sunny Wednesday tour. 

Long after those officials have left, she said, her family will go back to reality. On Wednesday night, after the military aircraft had stopped buzzing overhead, Williams would once again do what she had to do to get things done. 

Because of constant inundation by stormwater, many Shiloh residents, including Williams’ family, are forced to pump out their septic tanks multiple times a year. For some, it’s too high a cost to pay. So, later Wednesday night, after all was quiet again in Shiloh, Williams would have to shower in her home and watch as the water pooled at her feet, unable to drain because her septic tank was full. Then, after she’s showered and dried, Williams would have to get out the wet-dry vacuum, sucking up the water pooled in the tub and dumping it outside, bucket by bucket. It gets the job done. 

It’s a hardship public officials simply don’t have to face, Williams said. 

“They get to go home to their nice houses at the end of the day,” Williams said. “We get to go home and vacuum up our shower.”

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