Hurricanes deliver devastating blows to NC communities hollowed out by disasters

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Floodplain communities battered most recently by Hurricane Florence’s epic flooding — but dating back to Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and others in between, including Hurricane Matthew two years ago — are asking themselves just how many more storms they can survive

EASTERN NORTH CAROLINA — Can a hurricane kill a community? It’s a question the residents of Mexico Beach, Florida, were asking after Hurricane Michael roared ashore in October, obliterating a city just a little larger than several in North Carolina that endured the same from Hurricane Florence a few weeks earlier.

Experts caution that the death of a town is complicated and hard to pin on any one event, even one as catastrophic as a hurricane.

But floodplain communities in North Carolina battered most recently by Hurricane Florence’s epic flooding — but dating back to Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and others in between, including Hurricane Matthew two years ago — are asking themselves just how many more storms they can survive. 

The communities all lie along the rivers of eastern North Carolina — the Neuse, the Lumber, the Trent, the Black, the Northeast Cape Fear.

While North Carolina’s population overall has grown by 75 percent from 1980 to 2017, communities like Kinston, Fair Bluff, Trenton, Whiteville, Lumberton and unincorporated areas on the Northeast Cape Fear are going in the opposite direction.

“All I can guess is that in 10, 20, 30 years, they’re just not going to exist, or exist as only the barest little speck, because they can’t sustain themselves,” said Heather Hunt, a researcher with the University of North Carolina School of Law and the North Carolina Poverty Research Fund.

In Kinston, 800 properties were razed in the historically African-American neighborhood of Lincoln City after Floyd and another 208 residents applied after Matthew. That partially explains the population decline of 19 percent from 1980 through last year.

“But there’s still some people here, and they’ll be living here,” said Michelle Anderson, whose Kinston home backs up to the empty grid of city streets.

Added her mother, Catherine W. Anderson, 94, “Because they have no other place to go.”

In the adjacent Jones County, the population has dropped 5.6 percent since 2010, according to U.S. Census figures. In Trenton, the county seat, homes, businesses and roads were underwater for weeks following Florence.

‘Nobody will help me’

Fair Bluff to the east in Columbus County had 1,181 residents in 2000. By 2010 the population had fallen below 1,000.

Only three of that town’s businesses — the post office, a Japanese restaurant and a property management company — reopened on Main Street after Matthew. All three flooded again during Florence.

After Matthew, there was debate whether Fair Bluff could survive, with its dwindling tax base and damaged infrastructure.

In Pender County, emergency management officials estimated that 5,000 buildings had flooded.

Some of these communities have been shrinking for decades, said Jessica Stanford, a demographic analyst with the Carolina Population Center at the UNC-Chapel Hill. In the places that are just barely hanging on, she said, a hurricane “could very well be the last straw.”

That was evident on three gravel lanes named Faith, Hope and Charity. All are in the A. E. & T. Mobile Home Park just outside Trenton, where about 300 residents sustained record flooding from the Trent River. 

This time, the water reached the kitchen countertops in Raymond Tucker’s trailer.

For 30 years, Tucker worked at Warmack Lumber Co. in nearby Cove City. Now 62, he relies upon $773 a month in Social Security. He remained in his waterlogged and moldering mobile home, which he rents for $250 a month. The smell was nauseating, even though he kept the doors open to air out the place.

“Nobody will help me,” he said, not as a complaint, but as an expectation based on life experience. He mentioned an upcoming doctor’s appointment.

“I found out I got some kind of cancer,” he said. He searched for the word the doctors had used. “Pancre… cancer?”

“He shouldn’t even be in there, but he’s not going to go nowhere,” said one of his neighbors, Lola Jordan. “Where can he go?”

Jordan, 59, and her husband still owe $6,000 on their mobile home. The flood buckled their floors but did not intrude on the living space.

They were fortunate that her husband had already returned to his maintenance job with a local school district. She had gone eight days without her heart medicine but said they were better off than others, like Tucker and another neighbor who cared for two sons with special needs and a husband with Parkinson’s disease.

Jordan understood why Tucker predicted he would go it alone. The only outside entity to check on the park’s residents had been a church group from Charlotte, she said.

They were on their own, she said, and she did not know if that would be enough.

“I don’t even know if it’s going to be a community anymore.”

‘It’s the death of a town’

In Fair Bluff, more than a week after Hurricane Florence, a seething stew of logs and lawn chairs, snakes and gators, half-a-million gallons of sewage and who knows how many millions of gallons of water continued to surge through town.

In the aftermath, there was a dire quiet. If Hurricane Matthew had left Fair Bluff on the ropes in 2016, Florence might have been the knockout punch.

Retirees Laura and Archie Carmichael stood at water’s edge looking at the submerged, tiny heart of Fair Bluff and a mural painted on a building wall.

In the painting, the water and sky were bright and blue and full of promise. Even on the best of days, the Lumber River’s water is stained brown, like tea. On this day, half-a-million gallons had been added to it following a failure at a wastewater treatment plant in nearby Fairmont.

Laura Carmichael grew up here.

“Man, this place was booming,” her husband recalled.

That was a long time ago.

After Matthew, Laura Carmichael said, “I walked the streets crying.”

Looking at Fair Bluff after Florence, her manner was funereal.

“Sad,” she said. “It’s the death of a town, somebody said.”

‘Devastating mentally and emotionally’

About 30 miles upstream in Lumberton, the floodwaters clawed through a hastily constructed mountain of sandbags and gravel. Just as it did during Hurricane Matthew, the water poured into the city’s western end with fury enough to float cars and swallow homes to their eaves.

Blackburn, 52, said he loved the neighborhood but lost nearly everything in the 2016 flood, including possessions he’d bought with his share of a class-action court settlement tied to a pain medication that was proven to cause heart attacks.

“It was devastating having to go in and having to literally throw your whole life away,” he said.

Blackburn heeded his mother’s prediction that Matthew’s flooding wouldn’t be the last. He now lives just outside Fayetteville.

“It was very devastating mentally and emotionally,” Blackburn said. “Thank the Lord I listened to momma and I didn’t go back.”

 ‘No more sheet rock’

In Whiteville, the seat of Columbus County, business owners faced the prospect of starting over in a low-lying business district built upon swampland.

“This can’t happen over and over again,” Councilman Timothy Collier said.

But it has. If Ronnie Faulk, 60, were a commercial tenant in the building he owns, he’d have moved by now. Instead, he was replacing the lower half of interior walls with sections of corrugated metal roofing.

“No more sheet rock,” he said. 

In Fair Bluff, Mayor Billy Hammond said the town identified 111 homes damaged by Matthew’s flooding. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had approved 71 of them to be elevated, relocated, or demolished. Work on them had been imminent.

“That process was supposed to start this past Friday,” Hammond said during a break from moving records back into the town hall on Sept. 24.

“We had to put it off due to the storm.”

Slow recovery process

Survivors of those past storms know that it can take years for communities to recover and residents to return. When it comes to natural disasters, slow-motion recovery is not unique to North Carolina.

Thirteen years after Hurricane Katrina caused catastrophic flooding in New Orleans, the population of the hard-hit Lower Ninth Ward is less than half what it was before the storm, according to The Data Center, an independent organization that analyzes data on issues important to the people of southeast Louisiana. What once was a densely populated urban neighborhood is riddled with weedy lots and vacant homes.

Population loss likewise is predicted in Puerto Rico after back-to-back hurricanes last fall. Centro, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at the City University of New York’s Hunter College, estimated that through 2019, Puerto Rico could lose nearly 500,000 residents fleeing the damage wrought by Irma and Maria. That’s equal to the number of people the island lost in the prior decade of economic stagnation, the center said.

Evidence mounts, meanwhile, that natural disasters extract a bigger toll on the people who can least afford it. While those with flood insurance rebuild and those with the means to move do, the poorest residents often stay put.

“Their lives are dealing with emergencies, and here’s another one,” said Heather Hunt, the UNC researcher. “All of it comes to the fore when something like a natural disaster hits, which is just another form of an emergency.”

Katrina highlighted this disparity in New Orleans. The Brookings Institution, a public policy organization based in Washington, D.C., found that 38 of the 47 extreme-poverty census tracts in New Orleans were flooded to some extent during the storm.

In a groundbreaking report released this spring by FEMA, researchers found that low-income homeowners are disproportionately likely to live in flood-prone areas. Of the homeowners in North Carolina flood zones, those who have flood insurance have a median income of $73,051, while those without it have a median income of $34,404. For poorer residents of flood zones, flood insurance may be just another necessity they do without.

In North Carolina’s poorer communities, doing without is day-to-day.

“It’s a sense of, ‘We do this all the time,’ and that’s because it’s another crisis in a life that’s probably been filled with crises,” Hunt said.

Don’t count us out

That statement is not often talked about but a reality nonetheless.

In the publicity blitz before a hurricane, the standard admonition can be counted upon.

Do not ride this one out. Leave now. This storm must be taken seriously.

This warning ignores the reality that some residents would love to flee but due to circumstances cannot. They are in communities such as Kinston and Lumberton, where the poverty rate in 2016 was above 30 percent, more than double the state rate of 17 percent. In Jones County, it’s 40 percent, according to U.S. Census figures. And in the river communities outside Burgaw in Pender County, it’s 27 percent.

In an article published last summer in the journal Scientific American, the authors reported extensive research that backed up the idea, “that the rich may have the resources to move away from areas facing natural disasters, leaving behind a population that is disproportionately poor.”

But residents of these hard-hit towns say they shouldn’t be counted out.

“There is an amazing amount of resilience here,” said Les High, publisher of the local newspaper that covers Whiteville and Fair Bluff.

Evidence of that can be found in Kinston, best known for producing professional basketball players from Cedric Maxwell to Brandon Ingram. Locals call Kinston “basketball heaven.”

Days before the Neuse River would crest, Sa-Quan Jones, 13, stood looking at his neighborhood basketball court. The court was above water, but he was cut off from it by encroaching water deep enough to float a metal trash bin.

“I guess a change of plans,” he said. Sa-Quan plans to leave after high school by joining the Navy or Air Force.

“I want to get out and do something with my life and come back and do something for my community,” he said. “I want to make my mom and family proud of me.”

Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch reporter Theodore Decker and photo journalist Courtney Hergesheimer were among a number of GateHouse Media journalists who deployed to North Carolina in September to help local newsrooms cover the aftermath of Hurricane Florence. While there, they explored the larger story of the devastating cumulative effects of storm after storm hitting the same communities.