As Another Storm Approaches

A delayed recovery reveals better ways to respond

It has been a great spring and summer in beautiful and historic Beaufort, North Carolina, my hometown. Hundreds of visitors daily have come to explore the glorious coastal ecosystem, just as they have every summer. Yet the normality is just surface. Beaufort is still recovering from Hurricane Florence, which struck the area just under a year ago. 

It seemed we were on a clear path to recovery. I was proud to see citizens offer selfless support to neighbors in need. Supplies and assistance were deployed from across the country. FEMA, the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and many other organizations were on the scene in short order to support storm response and start recovery efforts. 

But then, after a few weeks, the effects of water damage (e.g., mold and mildew) started to appear. Many residents were compelled or encouraged to leave their houses or apartments. Some chose to stay at home despite the health risks. When an apartment complex in Beaufort with 109 families had to be evacuated, there were limited options. Extensive damage across eastern North Carolina means there are few vacancies for those displaced. 

So, instead, it’s been a painful, delayed recovery. Many citizens and businesses in eastern North Carolina are still struggling. As mayor, what keeps me awake at night is that I still do not even know how many citizens remain displaced in tents, in cars, or worse. 

What I do know now is that these problems have to be solved at the local level. The political dysfunction we’ve seen at the national level has permeated our states. National elected officials have no vision for the future; the U.S. agenda is clearly driven by special interests over citizen needs. Yet, at all levels we face complex, overlapping challenges, like an expanding socioeconomic divide, climate change, degrading water quality, failing infrastructure, and drug addiction. 

Consider just the expanding socioeconomic divide. Hurricane Florence exposed this growing inequality, especially in the more rural parts of eastern North Carolina. Those with means are recovering much faster than those without economic resources. We have not yet talked much about this divide because it is complex, has been slow in evolving, demands sustained and discomforting critical thinking, and will require a broad menu of interconnected solutions. Yet our schools skillfully manage these concerns every day. Sixty to seventy percent of students in our schools are eligible for free or reduced-rate lunches, and the impacts of poverty go much deeper than food. If we hope to address these problems, we need to examine the work of the schools. How do students without Internet compete? How do students focus on school work when there are challenges at home with food, shelter, transportation, and mounting bills? How are student performance indicators, discipline problems, and drop-out rates tied to these economic challenges? Does a sense of hopelessness lead to a continuing cycle of poverty and drug addiction? In my town, churches are providing food and resources; the Boys and Girls Clubs are providing food and a safe environment for education and leadership skills; and since North Carolina has not expanded Medicaid, the Broad Street Clinic is providing health care for more than 900 county residents otherwise unable to pay. If local groups with minuscule resources can face these problems, how is it possible that the elected leaders of the world’s most powerful nation, blessed with enormous resources and wealth, are unwilling to meet these basic needs of its citizens? 

Our community, facing real crisis, is finding ways to speak together, to work together, to come together. The Carteret Long Term Recovery Alliance (CLTRA), a group of selfless organizations and volunteers, formed to help those who continue to struggle from Hurricane Florence and to prepare for future storms. But there is still an urgency to address the deeper problems that require national leadership. These problems do not merely remain. They multiply. 

And another hurricane season approaches. 

Newton is a doctoral student at the Duke Marine Lab of the Nicholas School of the Environment and the mayor of Beaufort. He is a retired colonel in the Air Force, where he was a fighter pilot, engineer, and foreign area officer.

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