Update from Robeson County: Florence wreaks havoc on already struggling and neglected communities

Update from Robeson County: Florence wreaks havoc on already struggling and neglected communities

Turner Terrace remains a soggy, mosquito-laden mess ten days after Hurricane Florence. (Photos by Joe Killian)

Huge pools of standing flood water still surround houses in south Lumberton’s Turner Terrace neighborhood, drawing roving clouds of mosquitoes.

Downed power lines float in the deep brown pools and lay tangled in the many fallen trees.

The stench of sewage is oppressive.

Still, many of its residents want to come home.

Adrienne Kennedy’s family has lived in this lower income Black neighborhood for three generations. But like many of her neighbors, she had to leave after Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Flood damage and pervasive mold drove her and her two young sons to Fayetteville, where they still live as what she calls “climate refugees.”

Returning to her modest brick house on Swann Drive this week, she shook her head as she surveyed the new damage from Hurricane Florence.

She still thinks about coming back to stay one day — to the place of her childhood memories, where her 85-year-old grandmother and cousin still live just streets away. But she can’t say when.

“For us two, three years they say,” Kennedy said. “Then you look at some people in the more well-off white neighborhoods and they’re back in their houses, they’re back to their lives already. For us, it definitely has to do with status and income.”

As reported this week by Brian Kennedy of the N.C. Justice Center’s Budget & Tax Center, minority communities in the eastern part of the state are often in the lowest lying areas and floodplains. That’s not historical coincidence. It’s the result of generations of housing discrimination like redlining, racial housing covenants and poorly executed public housing projects.

As Kennedy explained, much of eastern North Carolina lags behind the rest of the state in returning to pre-recession economic levels.

“The total number of North Carolinians living in concentrated poverty neighborhoods has skyrocketed,” Kennedy wrote. “Certain groups have been disproportionately affected by this trend of growing poverty and economic segregation. From 2012 to 2016, African American North Carolinians were 71 percent more likely than Latinx North Carolinians to live in concentrated-poverty neighborhoods and 434 percent more likely than white North Carolinians.”

“Even when income is not a factor, Black and brown North Carolinians are more likely to live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty,” Kennedy wrote. “Between 2012 and 2016, 5.8 percent of poor white North Carolinians lived in concentrated poverty neighborhoods compared to 16.6 and 8.9 percent of poor African Americans and Latinx, respectively.”

Smaller towns, bigger problems

That’s not news to many living in the poorest parts of Robeson County, where there are five identified “extreme poverty neighborhoods” — census tracts in which the poverty rate is 40 percent or higher. Nearly 18,000 people live in those concentrated poverty areas in Robeson — up from just over 6,000 in 2000.

That’s a big part of why, despite the challenges of life as a displaced single mother, Kennedy is never away from Lumberton and its surrounding communities for very long.

As founder of the non-profit Seeds of H.O.P.E., she continues doing relief, recovery and advocacy work in the area. As Florence approached, she got her sons to safety and set up a makeshift headquarters in the Quality Inn in Lumberton. There she helped safely evacuate 85 people and distribute more than 300 signs to people in the area so they could signal emergency workers if they needed help or tell them they were already safely evacuated.

Adrienne Kennedy, founder of the non-profit Seeds of H.O.P.E., is working tirelessly to help storm victims recover.

When her hotel itself began taking on water, Kennedy said she was rescued by an ad hoc group of volunteer private boat owners known as the Cajun Navy and evacuated to Laurinburg. But as quickly as she could arrange it, she was headed back to Robeson County.

She was in Rowland on Tuesday, a small, rural town about 20 miles from Lumberton. While Lumberton is about 38 percent Black and 38 percent white, about 70 percent of Rowland’s 1,000 residents are Black.

Members of the town’s Black community pulled together to organize relief efforts at the Southside School Alumni Association headquarters on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. The small, hot building was Rowland’s only Black school during segregation. It was left to fall into disrepair when the schools were desegregated and new buildings took its place.

The town agreed to lease the building to community members who wanted to use it as a community center with youth programs, but wouldn’t put any money into rehabilitating it. A few years ago, the alumni of the school raised enough money to buy the building outright for $15,000.

A. Jean Love, 75, graduated from the school in 1960. She left for New York, where she worked with anti-poverty groups. She used those skills when she returned to Rowland, becoming a community organizer and member of the town’s Board of Commissioners.

On Tuesday, she stood in the old school house, wiping sweat from her brow as she directed volunteers in categorizing donated clothes, water, food and diapers. A long line of locals began to form around noon, some of whom still don’t have running water or electricity. Some of those helping with the relief effort are staying in Love’s home until it’s safe for them to return to their own.

“We’re used to having to pull together and do things for ourselves,” Love said. “The state doesn’t pay attention to us out here. They may pay attention to Lumberton or Pembroke, maybe. We’re a town that’s forgotten about.”

A. Jean Love (far right) and other volunteers make a plan to distribute donated supplies in rural Robeson County.

Love huddled with volunteers Tuesday trying to figure out why air drops of supplies don’t seem to be getting to them and why they sometimes only hear about them a day or two later. Poor communication from relief organizations and the state is confusing an already chaotic situation, she said.

But they’re used to that, she said.

“When you live in poverty, you don’t even think it’s poverty. When you live with racism, you don’t even call it racism. You just call it the way it is. When there’s a crisis, we rise to it ourselves.”

The bustling schoolhouse was a testament to that Tuesday. Volunteers, mostly Black women, packed plastic bags of diapers, wipes and food staples, folded donated clothes on a series of long tables and encouraged those coming for help to fill out intake forms so that relief organizations and community partners can stay in touch and properly assess people’s needs.

“Most of them don’t want to do that,” Love said. “They have pride; they don’t want to feel like they’re taking a handout in the first place. But because they know me, because they know the people helping here, they will take some help now because they’re in need.”

Adrienne Kennedy was pleased with the 92 intake sheets completed by the end of the day. That’s a success in an area in which many people with negative experiences with government and law enforcement are wary of giving out personal information and of outsiders in general.

“The truth is, the way it’s set up now — the government model — it doesn’t make sense to a lot of people here and it doesn’t work for the way their lives really are,” Kennedy said.

In trying to get help with house repairs, Kennedy said, it may be uncovered that someone’s mother actually owned the house and left it to the children when she died. But she didn’t have a will, no paperwork was done, their names aren’t on the deed.

Or a “mom-and-pop” business may have been thriving in the rural area for generations, but it’s not officially incorporated. In a disaster like a hurricane, who do those people go to for help?

Living close to the margins often means getting by as best you can, Kennedy said, and many minority communities in rural areas haven’t been given the access to education and assistance that would help them better protect what they do have.

Robert Brockington has been busy, post-storm, giving estimates in the area for cleanup and repair.

“These things may be all you have — that house, that car, that business,” Kennedy said. “But you might not have the paperwork on them.”

Even those with homes that were relatively safe are still struggling with racist attitudes in the struggle for recovery.

Robert Brockington, another volunteer, is also a professional contractor. He owns several properties in Robeson County, he said, and was lucky they weren’t damaged badly during the most recent hurricane. He’s been busy, post-storm, giving estimates in the area for cleanup and repair. After Matthew, he said, he frequently ran into white clients who didn’t want to hire a Black man to help restore their homes.

“One woman let it be known that was why she wasn’t hiring me,” Brockington said. “Then she hires someone else and they ripped her off. They didn’t do the work right. She asked me about coming back and fixing it. I said, ‘No, thank you.’”

Stories like that are too common, Adrienne Kennedy said.

“One of the things we see in these disasters, one of the things we saw after Matthew, is that when there are dollars available to hire people to help with recovery, they aren’t going to local people,” Kennedy said. “You see crews from Raleigh, from Charlotte, from all these other counties coming in and doing the work, and leaving when it’s done.”

She pointed to several volunteers carrying bottled water to cars outside the schoolhouse Tuesday.

“Those men can cut up trees, they can haul things away, they can help rebuild,” Kennedy said. “Why aren’t we hiring them to do that? Why aren’t those recovery dollars coming back into the community?”

Jacqueline Leach finds herself having to rebuild her home again. “This is my third rodeo.”

Jacqueline Leach, 54, is staying with Love this week until she can get back to her own home and begin the process of rebuilding — again.

“This is my third rodeo,” she said Tuesday during a break as she helped others at the schoolhouse. “It’s the third time we’ve been flooded. I’ve got a big canal beside my house and now there’s water everywhere, big old mosquito swarming around like I’ve never seen before.”

She paused, took a breath and looked around at neighbors helping neighbors deal with yet another life-changing disaster — the second in two years.

“I thank the Lord, though,” she said. “I thank the Lord I didn’t lose no family members. So I’m here to help other people.”

“Trying to control your own destiny” 

Robeson County’s Black communities are hardly the only ones struggling in the recovery.

The county is more than 40 percent Native American. The Lumbee people — an amalgamation of various Siouan, Algonquian, and Iroquoian speaking tribes — is the largest tribe east of the Mississippi River. North Carolina’s approximately 55,000 Lumbee are largely concentrated in Robeson, Hoke, Cumberland and Scotland counties.

Tribal Chairman Harvey Godwin Jr. said the tribe has historically made its home near the rivers and swamps and has no wish to leave.

“I can tell you the Lumbee Tribe is taking an out-front approach to this relief and recovery, just as we did after Hurricane Matthew,” Godwin said. “We went out and made sure our 1,000 residents who live in Lumbee tribal housing were safe and we had construction crews out putting tarps on leaking roofs during the rains.”

They have partnered with the offices of Sen. Richard Burr and Gov. Roy Cooper, not only to make sure they aren’t left out of recovery efforts but to retain access to their tribal areas in the recovery, Godwin said.

“We want to be sure we control our own destiny as a tribe,” Godwin said.

That’s been the tribe’s attitude through hundreds of years of discrimination — from targeting by the Ku Klux Klan in the 1950s and continued discrimination by white, Black and even other native peoples.

The tribe is grateful for help from the American Red Cross and Sean Penn’s J/P HRO non-profit, which are supplying hot meals, Godwin said. They’re working with them to be sure that it’s not just Lumbee people who are being aided, but people across Robeson County.

“Right now everything we’re doing is a Band-Aid, just meeting peoples’ immediate needs” said Danielle McClain, attorney for the tribe. “The real work is going to be in recovery.”

What happened after Hurricane Matthew, McClain said, was that everyone was concerned with the area and with the Lumbee people for a few weeks, and then the news cycle moved on. The Lumbee, already experiencing food insecurity at a rate 10 percent higher than others in Robeson County, continued to pull together and try to recover as best they could.

Long-term recovery would be easier if the Lumbee could attain federal recognition as a tribe, Godwin said, unlocking more federal aid and resources. That’s something they’ve been seeking for 130 years. They have been recognized by the state since 1885.

But though the U.S. Congress passed the Lumbee Act recognizing them as American Indians in 1956, it denied them full status as a federally recognized tribe. In 2016, the U.S. Department of the Interior reversed its long-held position that the Lumbee Act terminated the tribe’s existing rights, benefits, and privileges while also prohibiting future legislation applying to them as a tribe.

Harvey Godwin Jr.

“We are still trying to achieve that full recognition,” Godwin said. “That would take a lot of pressure off of us and off of the local county governments as well.”

Among the historical slights the Lumbee have faced is one that is a problem for all citizens of Robeson County, Godwin said: poor investment in local infrastructure that could prevent or lessen the effects of flooding during major storms.

“We are in a low-lying area, but New Orleans sits in a bowl,” Godwin said. “There are things that have been done to protect that city over time that haven’t been done here. This is the home of the Lumbee people for hundreds of years. Things could be accomplished to have this flooding controlled. And those things haven’t been put in place.”

“I do think we’ve been passed over,” Godwin said. “There’s been a degree of pass-over from the federal government and that trickles down to the local government.”

Facing the second hurricane in two years, Godwin said many Lumbee people weren’t yet fully recovered from the first.

That was the case for Lisa Walker, whose family lives in unincorporated Robeson County.

Her family had just managed to repair two houses that house three generations of her family, she said. Now they feel like they’re starting all over again.

“The Lumbee part of my family, we’re used to this,” she said this week. “When things happen to you and no one pays attention, no one helps for hundreds of years, when they won’t pay attention — you learn you have to do it for yourself. Your community has to take care of itself.”