Floodwaters caused by rain from Hurricane Matthew block NC Highway 41 outside of Lumberton, North Carolina in 2016.
The last storm: Floodwaters caused by rain from Hurricane Matthew block NC Highway 41 outside of Lumberton, North Carolina in 2016. Mike Spencer/AP

Widespread poverty, lack of transportation resources, and poor internet service could complicate emergency response in a region still reeling from Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

When Hurricane Hugo—the last Category 4 storm to strike the Carolinas—roared ashore in 1989, Jack Edwards knew what he had to do. In that storm’s immediate aftermath, he and his wife, Dorothy, went out to help their neighbors in their small town of Marion, South Carolina, about 50 miles from the coast. They connected generators, hung tarps over torn-up roofs, and tried to fill in the in the gaps in the county’s emergency response, which couldn’t get to everyone who needed help in this sparsely populated area.  

The Edwards have been taking on this disaster response after big storms locally and across the country ever since. In 2014, after an ice storm blacked out the power to a dying neighbor’s oxygen unit, the husband-wife team ran over to hook up their generator at 1 a.m., getting up in the middle of the night to make sure it stayed running for five days straight.

This year, personal health issues mean that Edwards, a 72-two-year old retired hospital engineer, won’t be out in the field participating directly in the post-storm response to Hurricane Florence as it bears down on the Carolinas. But he will still be coordinating a team of 22 volunteers across Marion, all from different churches. Edwards does this because, while he has had the financial resources to weather storms, not everyone in his town does. “We live in a small community where everyone knows everyone,” Edwards said. “I think you do what you can when your neighbor is down.”

The rural, often poorer parts of the eastern Carolinas that are anticipated to bear the brunt of Hurricane Florence face a triple threat in the face of this potentially catastrophic storm, which is projected to make landfall as a Category 4 storm on Thursday morning. Florence brings the threat of massive storm surges, rainfall that could top 25 inches, and devastating high winds that threaten human life and structures in the storm’s path. With as much as 10 feet of flooding projected for some areas, about 1.7 million people between South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, are under evacuation orders. Authorities warn residents who’ve weathered historic storms of the past—Hugo in 1989, Hazel in 1954—that comparisons with Florence may not be helpful. ‘‘The waves and the wind this storm may bring is nothing like you’ve ever seen,’’ North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said on Tuesday.

While much of the attention is focused on the storm’s impact on fragile coastal resorts and historic cities like Charleston and Wilmington, many disaster researchers and responders worry more about the more isolated inland regions, where a lack of resources, poor communications infrastructure, and challenging geography can hamper emergency efforts.

“It’s our poor, rural communities that are often hit the hardest in events like this,” said Randy Creamer, a disaster relief coordinator for the South Carolina Baptist Convention.  He spoke on the phone on Tuesday afternoon as he drove west on Interstate 26 through swishing rainfall, having spent the day emailing hundreds of volunteers about what to do if power lines go down in their communities during the event. A majority of the communities represented by the network of churches that he manages are in relatively isolated parts of the state.

North Carolina’s eastern third is also its most impoverished. (Data: U.S. Census. Map: David Montgomery/CityLab)

While rural residents might be more self-sufficient than urban or suburban communities in certain ways, some are also uniquely vulnerable. “If you live in the country, you’re more accustomed to the occasional power outage, because you know no one is coming to help you,” Creamer said. “But when you get to the economically depressed areas… a single mom working three jobs, there is not a lot she can be thinking about how to get over this all by herself.”

Adding to the challenge is the fact that parts of this region have yet to recover from Hurricane Matthew in 2016. The vulnerability is partly a factor of geography—North Carolina’s so-called Coastal Plain is low-lying and obviously closest to the ocean. But it’s also a reflection of historic economic inequity. According to reporting by the Washington Post after Matthew, roughly 50 percent of households in the Coastal Plain live in what’s termed “liquid asset poverty.” These are households that lack the money to cover short-term expenses when properties are destroyed, and couldn’t necessarily move if they wanted to.

“What I’m fearful about is there are a lot of people who are not going to be OK because they don’t have elevated structures,” Susan Cutter, the director of the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina, told the Associated Press. “They’re in low-lying flood-prone areas and they didn’t leave because they had nowhere to go and no resources to get there.”

That is part of the story in Princeville, the oldest town incorporated by African Americans in the United States. Nearly 80 percent of the town in North Carolina’s Edgecombe County was underwater after Matthew, partly due to flawed levee engineering. The inland community has barely rebuilt in the years since: The town hall and elementary school still haven’t been replaced. FEMA relief has only gone so far for many residents there and in nearby Tarboro and Greenville, and the region’s population is much smaller.

Rural poverty also makes it harder to prepare for storms. Roughly 12 percent of households in Edgecombe County do not have access to personal vehicles. There, and other parts of the state, residents are further out of reach of emergency services, transportation, and internet connections during and after the storm. There aren’t many transit options in the Carolinas for those who don’t own vehicles.

Electricity and internet connections are of particular concern to Jim Stritzinger, the director of the Center for Applied Innovation and Advanced Analytics at the University of South Carolina and former executive director of Connect South Carolina, a statewide broadband connectivity initiative. The continued reliance on aging DSL connections in rural parts of the Carolinas worry him in the event of storms like this. Elevated wires are connected to telephone poles and often haven’t been maintained. If power is interrupted during a storm, isolated areas could easily be without the means to communicate or get critical information for days. “Rural communities are absolutely the ones I’m most concerned with,“ he said.

A map of broadband connections in South Carolina. Light purple indicates slower, weaker connections. (University of South Carolina’s Center for Applied Innovation and Advanced Analytics)
A map of broadband connections in North Carolina. Light purple indicates slower, weaker connections. (NC Broadband)

The risk of environmental hazards after the storm also runs high for poor, rural communities, writes Rachel Cleetus, a policy director and lead economist for climate and energy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Florence’s rains could overwhelm the waste lagoons from North Carolina’s 2,300 hog farms, contaminating water bodies with toxic sludge. In Hurricane Matthew, 14 such lagoons overflowed. In addition, coal ash ponds could get washed out, wastewater treatment plants could leak, and sewage could seep into groundwater, tainting the wells that many small towns rely on for drinking water. Black and Hispanic low-income communities are disproportionately located near such sites of industry and agriculture, and all of these associated wastes. “The true test of our disaster response doesn’t just lie in how quickly the lights come back on or flights are restored in major economic hubs, but in how well isolated or marginalized communities fare in the aftermath of storms,” Cleetus wrote.

On Tuesday, Governor Cooper promised the AP that emergency responders wouldn’t forget vulnerable residents. Advanced flood risk maps will keep the state informed about where the water is rising, he said, helping officials advise residents about when and where to flee. “The idea is to have those shelters available to people on higher ground, and no matter what their income, we want to get people out of places that may be flooding,” he said.

In some ways, it may help that the last disaster was so recent. In Robeson County, which has the highest poverty rate in the state and saw some of the worst flooding during Matthew in 2106, emergency managers have brought in extra generators and fuel, and are coordinating communication lines coordinated between the sheriff’s department, EMS, and the highway patrol. School buses and transportation providers are at the ready to shuttle evacuees to shelters in many of the likely affected counties.

Pasquotank County, a finger-shaped area on the northern coast of North Carolina, has four emergency operation centers up and running. The local demand-response transportation agency plans to wind down regular service on Thursday, but will back up county-provided emergency shuttle buses transporting those who don’t have family or friends to rely on to emergency shelters. “We’re a small transit agency and we try to do the best we can,” said Herb Mullen, the director of transportation at the Inter County Public Transportation Authority, which responds to requests in Pasquotank, Perquimans, Camden, Chowan, and Currituck counties.

Though they may be extra vulnerable, rural communities are not the only ones staring down the limitations of poverty in the face of a natural disaster. In Charleston, South Carolina, William Hamilton, a lawyer and political activist, runs a group called Best Friends of Lowcountry Transit. Earlier this year, he critiqued the emergency preparedness manual his state published for barely mentioning public transit resources for those who don’t own vehicles in his city.

Since then, Hamilton says that things have improved—the signs marking the stops for Charleston’s shelter-bound emergency buses are much clearer, for example. But there are still populations at enormous risk in his city, especially those living in homelessness, who have even fewer resources. “We have a better system than we had a year ago,” he wrote via email. “But I still believe far more emphasis needs to be put on evacuating vulnerable populations, as the horror story in New Orleans 13 years ago proved.”

Like many of his neighbors in Marion, Jack Edwards won’t be evacuating today. He’s expecting wind damage, at least, but hopes that his property is elevated enough to stay dry. “This old house has withstood a lot of storms,” he said. But this time, Edwards acknowledged, “we could be the ones that they’re coming to help.”

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