Rural, low-income towns threatened by hurricane Florence

As the southeastern United States prepares for hurricane Florence, low-income communities in its path are attempting to take care of their own. Some of these towns are in areas notoriously difficult to evacuate, and some residents don't have transportation, or anywhere to go.

Emery Dalesio/AP
James Howell Jr. considers how to prepare his home for hurricane Florence in Princeville, N.C. The hurricane is supposed to bring significant rain and flooding, especially in low-lying areas like Princeville.

James Howell Jr. lost big two years ago when hurricane Matthew swelled the Tar River less than a half mile from his home. Finally persuaded it was too dangerous to stay, he returned to Princeville days later to learn that the two feet of standing water surrounding his home caused the insulation to mold, forcing a rebuild of his living room.

Now a sofa and other furniture rest under tarps on his small front porch as he and his wife Gloria prepare for hurricane Florence dumping on eastern North Carolina rain that could be measured in feet.

"It's scaring me to death," Mr. Howell said. "If I lose my place, I ain't coming back. I'm not coming back to Princeville no more."

Howell figures he has two options if he needs to flee. His daughter lives about 30 miles west, away from the river. That's certainly where his most prized possessions loaded aboard his pickup are likely going Wednesday, he said. And his granddaughter is staying in a secure motel through her retail employer's largess, so maybe Howell and his wife could rest there, he said.

The rich have long claimed higher ground along waterways, and that left freed slaves to claim bottom land that made Princeville into the country's first town incorporated by black Americans. The land about 75 miles east of Raleigh was inundated by the Tar River at least eight times before Matthew. That includes 1999, when hurricane Floyd's rains overwhelmed the protective dike and submerged the town in water 23 feet deep in spots.

Many people with limited means like the disabled Howells will struggle to escape Florence, or build back when its damage is done.

The median household income of Princeville's 2,300 residents is about $28,000 a year compared to the statewide $48,000, and almost 6 out of 10 town residents had public health insurance coverage like Medicare, Medicaid, or the Children's Health Insurance Program in 2016, according to the US Census Bureau.

Florence's predicted path means trouble for some of the poorest communities in eastern North Carolina and South Carolina, said Susan Cutter, director of the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina. Dozens of poor black communities like Princeville across the region will have a harder time coping with Florence "partly because of the historic inequality that was there," she said.

"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," Ms. Cutter said. "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."

Smaller and economically struggling communities across eastern North Carolina from Seven Springs and Windsor near Virginia's border to Lumberton along the South Carolina line continue working to recover from Matthew. But Gov. Roy Cooper, who was elected weeks after that hurricane hit, promised Tuesday that low-income people won't be left to fend for themselves. The state is using detailed mapping to pinpoint where potential flooding could occur and will share that information with local governments who will warn people they must move.

"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," Governor Cooper said.

In Beaufort County, more than 100 miles east of Raleigh, emergency management officials will use school system buses on Wednesday to move residents living in flood-prone areas to higher ground in Washington, the county seat. There, the local high school will shelter up to 500 people. The county is split by the broad Pamlico River and some of the 45,000 residents lack vehicles to reach the shelter on their own.

"We are trying to provide transportation where they do not have transportation," said Carnie Hedgepeth, the county's emergency services director.

Retired sisters Clydie Gardner and Dorothy Pope ran in 2016 from the flooding spreading toward the home they shared before a massive oak tree, its roots loosened by Matthew's rain, toppled onto the building. They'll flee again to an aunt's home on higher ground across the river. For now, there's nothing to do but wait to see if Florence threatens them again.

"They're saying it's 400 miles wide. There's no telling what it might do," Ms. Pope said. "When the water starts coming and I see it coming, I'm moving."

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP writers Seth Borenstein in Washington, D.C. and Gary D. Robertson in Raleigh contributed to this story.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Rural, low-income towns threatened by hurricane Florence
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today