Residents of historically Black Alabama community take flooding concerns to USDOT: 'Emergency situation'

The meeting follows an ABC News investigation into environmental justice issues.

March 1, 2024, 3:54 PM

Senior U.S. transportation officials met with Black Alabama residents this week over claims that a highway widening project near their homes caused repeated flooding, but those residents say that more action is still needed at the federal level.

Tuesday's meeting at the U.S. Department of Transportation's Washington headquarters, which was closed to the media, came four months after an ABC News investigation uncovered claims of environmental racism and legal maneuvers by Alabama's government that some advocates called "unethical" and "highway robbery."

Timothy Williams, his daughter Melissa Williams and their neighbor Willie Horstead traveled to tell Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy Christopher Coes, Civil Rights Director Irene Marion and other agency leaders that the flooding has made them live in fear.

"We need expedient help," Timothy Williams told ABC News. "Time is of the essence."

PHOTO: Shiloh residents meet with USDOT officials in Washington
Willie Horstead, Dr. Robert Bullard, Melissa Williams and Timothy Williams are seen here in the lobby of the U.S. Department of Transportation's Washington, D.C. headquarters on Feb. 27, 2024 ahead of their meeting with agency officials regarding flooding in Alabama.
Courtesy of the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice.

Timothy Williams' family and Horstead live in Coffee County's historically Black Shiloh community. Shiloh has experienced flooding ever since the state highway project began in 2017, they told ABC News, and they worry that the flood damage is threatening their neighborhood's 150-year legacy of Black homeownership.

"We're losing everything," Timothy Williams said last year. "We've taken our savings to fix everything, and we don't have any more money."

The project also led to a natural gas pipeline moving closer to the Williams' home.

In 2022, Shiloh residents filed a complaint with USDOT, triggering a civil rights investigation.

Although USDOT is not required to complete investigations in a specific timeframe, it strives to finish them within just 180 days, according to its website. It has been over 500 days since the agency opened its Shiloh investigation.

"[US]DOT cannot comment on the specifics of the ongoing investigation but will use its authority to ensure any necessary corrective actions are taken based on the results," the department told ABC News.

A USDOT spokesperson said meeting attendees "heard deeply moving testimony about the experience of residents and concerning allegations of improper conduct by state and local authorities and stakeholders."

USDOT says its leaders will visit Shiloh to see the flooding firsthand.

The Alabama Department of Transportation did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday, though it previously denied the project's engineering had anything to do with race, or that it caused flooding in Shiloh.

However, documents obtained by ABC News showed ALDOT knew of concerns stemming from the widening project for years.

During construction, Alabama's Department of Environmental Management warned that the project could be violating the Alabama Water Pollution Control Act. ALDOT forms noted that best management practices "have not been properly maintained."

Settlement agreements revealed by ABC News showed that after Shiloh residents complained about flooding, ALDOT paid three Black homeowners $5,000 or less to "release, remise, acquit and forever discharge" ALDOT from responsibility for past and future flood damage.

"Our inheritance is just being washed away," Timothy Williams told ABC News.

In the nearby town of Elba, a daycare owned by a white family experienced severe flooding after the highway was widened. ALDOT bought part of the property for $165,000. The daycare owners also signed away their rights to sue for flood damages.

Still, ALDOT maintained that no unfair treatment occurred in Shiloh.

PHOTO: Shiloh residents meet with USDOT officials in Washington
Timothy Williams, Dr. Robert Bullard, Willie Horstead and Melissa Williams outside of the United States Department of Transportation's headquarters in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 27, 2024.
Courtesy of the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice.

"In the settlements involving ALDOT, there were restrictive covenants to prevent future owners from filing claims because ALDOT maintains that it has not increased the volume of stormwater runoff being placed on the Shiloh Community," the agency stated last year.

But to Coffee County native Dr. Robert Bullard, a professor who coined the term environmental injustice, the highway project and settlements represented "a textbook case" of environmental racism.

After ABC's investigation aired last year, Bullard took non-profits on tours of Shiloh to spread awareness of the flooding.

Bullard also helped coordinate Tuesday's USDOT meeting, which he said required "some arm twisting."

"We were able to make a few calls and apply some pressure to speed this up because this is an emergency," he said, adding that he doesn't think top officials "understood or appreciated the urgency of getting this Shiloh case elevated to the highest level."

At the meeting, USDOT committed to helping Shiloh residents "to identify and access federal resources that could help the community," a spokesperson told ABC News, noting that other leaders including Secretary Pete Buttigieg will receive a briefing.

But to those in the meeting hoping for concrete action, the next steps seemed too broadly focused.

USDOT officials discussed using Shiloh as an example worldwide, Timothy Williams said.

"We didn't come for that," he added. "We wanted a solution to the emergency situation."

"We tried to steer them in the direction of solutions and programs and monies," Bullard said, explaining that the officials wanted Shiloh's advocates to first find other communities facing similar problems. "If a man is drowning, would you ask him to find other people that's drowning before you help him?"

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