Coping with a “disaster diaspora” in Robeson County
A conversation with residents seeking to preserve and rebuild their poor and storm-ravaged communities
Flood waters isolate homes in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence Sept. 19, 2018 in Robeson County. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
This story is the latest in a series of reports that NC Newsline is publishing about environmental justice issues and cumulative pollution impacts in Robeson County. Funding for this project comes from Kozik Environmental Justice Reporting Grants funded by the National Press Foundation and the National Press Club Journalism Institute.
On Nevada Street, less than 50 yards from the Gum Swamp Canal, a homeowner sat on their porch, stirring a paintbrush.
This home is in the strategic buyout zone of south Lumberton, a neighborhood that is 90% nonwhite and two-thirds low-income. With west Lumberton, this is one of the hardest-hit areas by Hurricanes Matthew and Florence, historic storms that displaced thousands of residents and permanently closed an elementary school. More than 90% of residents in the census block group containing the buyout zone are nonwhite and more than 70% are low-income.
“I’ve lived here 30 years and I’m not going anywhere,” the homeowner said.
As of May 16, 49 homes in south and west Lumberton were in some phase of the voluntary buyout program, administered by the North Carolina Office of Resiliency and Recovery, also known as ReBuild NC. An NC Newsline analysis of homeownership on average, is less than 50%. That means when and if the owners of those properties accept the buyout, the renters will have to leave.
The Homeowner Disaster Recovery Project of the Robeson County Cooperative for Sustainable Development conducted a street-by-street analysis of two census tracts, 9608.01 and 9608.02 in Lumberton. Organizers found that 630 of the 2,022 homes — 31% — are vacant and dilapidated.
When natural disasters hit, the first response is to survive. But in the storm’s aftermath, a community must try to find a way to sustain itself and thrive. While these voluntary buyout programs can remove people from harm’s way — the land is not redeveloped for housing — it also frays community ties and spurs what the Rev. Mac Legerton calls a “disaster diaspora.”
Such a diaspora has occurred in the two census tracts studied by the cooperative. According to the U.S. Census both tracts have lost residents. The population of Census Tract 9608.01 is down 40%. In tract 9608.02, the population decline has been even steeper — 57%.
Census Tract 9608.01
2010 population: 4,529 2020 population, after two hurricanes: 3,220
Housing units: 1,429 Housing units: 1,347
Census Tract 9608.02
2010 population: 1,971 2020 population: 1,255
Housing units: 823 Housing units: 753
Hearing from voices on the ground
NC Newsline recently spoke with community organizers Hannah Jeffries, Sallie McLean, Carol Richardson and the Rev. Mac Legerton of the Robeson County Cooperative for Sustainable Development at their free Disaster Survival and Resiliency School. The goal of the school is to empower disaster-impacted residents in organizing, leading, and owning their disaster response in partnership with public and private agencies and offices.
By teaching people how to prepare and recover from natural disasters, the cooperative hopes to keep neighborhoods united and intact.
The cooperative also educates the general public about the issues facing the county through what it calls “disaster justice tours” and pursues grassroots work on climate and environmental justice.
The next regional meeting of the cooperative, which targets Robeson, Hoke, Scotland and Richmond counties, is June 27 at 7 p.m. at Jones Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, 307 Phillips Ave., Red Springs. The Environmental and Health Concerns Committee begins at 6 p.m.
This conversation transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Hannah: Last summer, we had a great opportunity to have some interns. And we literally started going to the census tracts that were most impacted, being west Lumberton and south Lumberton. We went street by street, seeing every single house.
So now we want to go through and then talk to the owners of those homes, right? Where are they at on the recovery process? Are they going to keep their home? Or is it bought? Do they already have like a sticker on it from the city that it is going to be condemned and tear down?
I live in West Lumberton. Even on my street, there are two abandoned homes. I live beside one and there’s green space on the other. And I’m a renter, so I see that dichotomy. My own neighborhood gives us a snapshot of what West Lumberton overall looks like.
Especially in areas of west Lumberton, and south Lumberton, where we do our disaster tours, every other house is gone. So what you’re looking at is literally remnants of neighborhoods, a shell of a neighborhood. Where’s the spirit? Where’s the people? Where’s the life? How can we promote that healing?
As we host our community meetings, we want to make sure we’re getting down to the need of the people and raising up their voices.
NC Newsline: So there are certain ties that these communities form over time. So, my concern with when these folks get — it’s kind of just get strewn like seeds to the wind — what happens to these communities when the houses are bought out or flooded? Or how do you recreate community when the people are gone? And anybody can answer that.
Carol: Specifically in South Lumberton, what has happened was when we had those floods, we had people that were in homes on heirs property. A lot of people left because they couldn’t get the funds to rebuild because of that situation and they may not come back. But there are still people who are coming back and trying to rebuild.
NC Newsline: What are the benefits of having this kind of community-based solution rather than a top-down solution?
Sallie: I feel like it should come from the bottom up, then flow out, because then you get first hand experience. We are moving together as a team, from community to community. We know that we belong at the table, moreso than anyone. It’s our community. And we can’t lose sight of that. I believe that it’s going to have to come from the roots up, just like a plant, it grows from the root up. So we come together, and we just try to do the same thing. Nobody can come into your community and tell you more about your community than you know, right? You live there.
NC Newsline: Let’s say there was a hurricane brewing off the coast today coming Robeson’s way. What do you need to reduce the impact of these storms?
Carol: Prepare yourself for a hurricane, get your community prepared with a backup plan. I will say always prepare for something more. Where are you going to be, God forbid, if there’s heavy flooding. Where are the shelters? In my case, I’m definitely going to be [more] overprepared than underprepared.
Hannah: We have developed an awesome hurricane preparedness guide. It has our contact information, if you need help, but we have an awesome checklist of things that you need— and we’ve put it in a waterproof bag, thanks to Legal Aid.
Make sure that you have copies of your IDs, your passports, medicines, pictures of your property, insurance cards. Start with an initial plan. If you have 45 minutes to get out, where are you going to go?
On the back of the guide is a supplies list: candles, batteries, lanterns. I have found a solar powered, hand-cranked radio that has a charger system for your phone. It’s a flashlight, as well.
One more important thing that most people might not think of is the use of water filtration or purification tablets. Packet of life straws act as a filter, and you can drink straight from the water source. It’s from Amazon and it’s under $20.We’re not only preparing people, but we’re also trying to teach them the necessary skills in survival as well. Because we’ve all got to survive together.
Mac: Besides what you do individually, you need a sustained community-based unit of organization that is there for the long haul. And with disaster preparation, as soon as there’s a threat of a hurricane, you need to start meeting every day.
We’re training street leaders to get the phone numbers and the names of everyone on their street and have all the adults get a free conference call number. So, if people have to leave their homes, they can stay in touch as soon as the cell service comes back on. They can come back to the community together help each other muck [clean and recover] their own homes. So, they’re not waiting on outside groups to come in weeks and months later with a mold has already taken over the houses.
The public and private disaster organizations use an individual case management approach. That is not a community-based approach. That’s an agency-based approach. Our communities are not being prepared as communities. And it’s the communities that are going to really be there to help each other afterward.
No disaster organization, public or private, can tell you where a community is in the recovery process. You can’t assess and learn that by using an individual case management system. And you can’t prepare a community for disaster…[by] only working with individuals. You have to go house by house, street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood and have meetings — not just when you’re preparing for disaster, but during the relief phase, the recovery phase and hopefully the resiliency phase of disaster response.
NC Newsline: Does anyone have any closing remarks, anything you’d like to emphasize?
Sallie: I’m going to use Hannah’s word empowerment, to let the community know that we do have the power. We don’t have to just stand and take what they’re shoving on us. If we come together, and we are informed about things that that we can have control over, we can stand together and build the kind of community that we seek and deserve.
Mac: One of the system changes on the local level is to build the capacity to muck and gut our homes together, as well as learning how to remove mold. So we’re not dependent on outside groups.
We started the mold busters program because mold is a constant problem, not just during hurricanes. So we’re going to make that another component in our survival school.
Sallie: When Mac led those classes and in different locations, people got a wealth of information, as well as supplies. He was giving out supplies as well. That was really great, because people were living in those homes with black mold. And you know how dangerous that is. And he told him the different types of molds and how to get rid of it, and even the garments to wear and get rid of.
Hannah: The most important part, and Miss Carol definitely touched on this, is the empowerment in relationship building within the community. Like I mentioned earlier, with the housing recovery, it’s a shell of a community that’s left, and what kind of hope is that for life?
Miss Sallie spoke about the stronger the roots, the higher the tree will grow, right? We’re trying to get those roots solid down here by leading by example. So others will follow we’re going to educate you and let you know about the resources so you can empower yourselves and then hopefully, you will empower the next person beside you and it literally trickles around and spreads like wildfire.
And lastly, I just want to touch on something that Mac had mentioned. And I love this term of what’s going on down here. And that is a disaster diaspora: people are moving anywhere and everywhere trying to survive. That’s all we want to do. What about the American dream? A lot of us in these Tier One counties, these BIPOC communities, we don’t see that. And it’s about time we empower out people and do that.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.