Memorial Day 2020 and Carteret County was as mobbed by tourists as Liz DeMattia has ever seen it.

It was the eleventh week of North Carolina’s COVID-19 quarantine, and while the official line out of Raleigh was of measured, phased reopening, on Carteret County’s Crystal Coast, tourists brought a sense of “We don’t need to wear masks! We’re at the beach! We’re on vacation,” DeMattia says. The population swelled to twice or even thrice its usual, the influx of mask-less tourists elevating infection risk, sure, but that was not their only impact.

“All the visitors came and actually cleaned out all of our grocery stores. There was no meat for two weeks,” says DeMattia, Duke University Marine Lab (DUML) ecologist and community science facilitator. “On the flip side, that’s the economy.”

It’s a familiar duality in a low, flat, remote region of vast distances, stark inequality, persistent trauma, and elusive solutions. And the history of Carteret County, like much of economically disadvantaged coastal North Carolina, is a history of disaster. Some of these dominate headlines nationwide—disasters with names like Florence or Isabel or Hazel—while others are slow-burning, invisible disasters like generational poverty, hunger, racial inequity, fishery depletion, epidemic opioid abuse, and socioeconomic division. And now, in early 2020, the viral pandemic we all know the name of has sown fear, uncertainty, and isolation in a region still recovering from the destructive hurricanes of 2018 and 2019.

Yet Carteret has what its neighboring counties don’t: DUML. A little campus on a little island across a narrow channel from Beaufort, its cabin-like dorms and dining hall evocative of a summer camp, DUML is best known for its marine science, its drone program, its state-of-the-art research vessel. Yet there’s social science and community outreach here, too, and two initiatives co-led by DUML experts aim to strengthen community cohesion, emergency response, and social supports in this repeatedly traumatized region.

In short, Carteret County has the benefit of a small but capable team of Duke social and community scientists. They live and work in the community. They listen to the community. They build bridges that didn’t exist before.

“In our work we’ll hear about storms, we’ll hear about food insecurity, we’ll hear about the opioid crisis, we’ll hear about racism. We’ll hear about all these specific things, but we keep the focus on, ‘What are the underlying forces that give rise to all these problems?’ ” says cultural anthropologist and author Barbara Garrity-Blake, who teaches marine fisheries policy at DUML. “Once we recognize what they are, how can we work together to help shift the system for better outcomes?”

Garrity-Blake co-leads a collaborative of school administrators, nonprofit leaders, EMS, firefighters, and other Carteret community figures, funded by a grant from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation. This collaborative follows a systems approach, says Garrity-Blake, and aims to build communication networks and regional resilience by considering the entirety of Carteret, looking for leverage points and ways to make the county operate more efficiently. The overarching goal is to give locals the environment to exchange ideas and improve how Carteret operates. And at the end of its three-year lifespan, the changes set in motion by the collaborative should continue under their own power.

The coronavirus crisis has accelerated the work, Garrity-Blake says, jump-starting spinoff collaboratives that would not have existed otherwise. To be clear, she says, the collaborative’s premise is not to rush out and address specific problems, but rather to bring people together, strengthen relationships, and build trust so locals are better positioned to support one another. Duke’s involvement here is not to dictate, but to facilitate.

The collaborative “started meeting with these teams on Zoom, like everyone else on the planet,” says Garrity-Blake. “And it quickly turned to...‘I’d like to make masks. Do you know anybody who needs masks?’ One of the teams really got involved in connecting those that sewed masks with those that need masks, and the chief of the Beaufort Fire Department was instrumental in making those connections. Another team concerned themselves with food.”

Soon the faith community—and churches are community hubs in this rural region—was coordinating with the food community. As Beaufort mayor Rett Newton, a DUML-based Ph.D. student who focuses on water quality and the health of waterways, points out, people in Carteret are running out of food—no hyperbole—during the coronavirus crisis. Accordingly, members of the collaborative are creating a food pantry in the predominately African-American rural community of North River, says DeMattia.

“The other thing that the collaborative is working on is connecting the different food sources and trying to get information about where food help is available,” DeMattia continues. “One of the disconnects is families have the schools, but our elderly don’t, and they’re afraid to go out.”

The collaborative funded by the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation is making the connections, while DeMattia, DUML social scientist Lisa Campbell, and Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center executive director Karen Amspacher are providing the numbers through a SeaGrant Community Collaborative Research Grant.

Historically, there have been plenty of anecdotal claims for what these remote coastal communities want, but precious little data. In her seventeen years at DUML, Campbell has worked to close that gap. In her career as a whole, she’s been no stranger to community research, but Carteret is different. Trust is hard-won—especially in Down East (a string of sparsely populated, culturally distinct fishing villages in rural eastern Carteret County) and doubly especially for outsiders—and missteps can set relationships back years or even ruin them. Working and living in eastern North Carolina’s extreme edge can be up-close, personal, and intense.

“People hold you accountable, and they hold you accountable every day,” Campbell says.

Amspacher is an essential community partner with local roots that go back centuries and with a clear-eyed understanding of the multipronged threats to her ancestral region: climate change; an aging population; worsening storms. Through the SeaGrant project, Amspacher, DeMattia, and Campbell tracked the paths information takes and the resources available to locals before, during, and after disasters.

“Our sample size isn’t huge on this, but we did go through numerous communities in our attempt to not have a monolithic sample,” says DeMattia, whose research included Down East, a rural community of color, and the town of Beaufort.

Like the Z. Smith Reynolds collaborative, the community collaborative research grant was secured after Hurricane Florence struck Carteret County in 2018—a disaster exacerbated, community leaders and DUML staff uniformly agree, by scattershot and inconsistent relief efforts. Yet with each disaster compounded by the next (Florence was followed in 2019 by Hurricane Dorian, which struck Down East, and then COVID-19 in early 2020), the efforts of both the Z. Smith Reynolds and SeaGrant-funded projects remain relevant even as new catastrophes present themselves.

And those who live barely above sea level know the next storm is coming. Recovery from prior hurricanes and preparation for ones to come must happen simultaneously and all during the coronavirus crisis. Three named tropical storms formed well before the official start of 2020’s hurricane season, possible portents of severe weather to come.

“There needs to be more communication before a storm and coordination,” DeMattia says, moving through slides she, Campbell, and Amspacher presented to the Z. Smith Reynolds collaborative. It’s preliminary data, but patterns emerge of coincidental successes, of missed opportunities. After a hurricane, per their research, supplies arrive quickly but aren’t distributed evenly. Connections to outside communities help funnel supplies into an area, and people tend to look to social media for updates, but not the community centers providing tangible assistance. “Fire stations and churches were not seen as sources for information, yet they were the places where people were congregating and getting supplies,” DeMattia says.

Relevant, appropriate information is critical in a crisis, which, as DeMattia observes, is as true in a pandemic as a hurricane. Carteret is a rural, red county, and with quarantine compliance an increasingly politicized topic, its residents hear conflicting messages on the necessity of face masks in preventing the spread of COVID-19.

“I don’t think anyone knows what the right answers are,” DeMattia says. “You can see confusion, and you can see people trying to do the right things, and you can also understand why people want to be at the beach.”

Beyond that, and perhaps most critically, the majority of COVID-19 information and recommendations are geared toward urban areas, says DeMattia—not the scattered, geographically isolated pockets of population that make up rural Carteret. And in those areas are COVID-vulnerable populations. Down East is aging, Garrity-Blake says, and many Down Easters have underlying health conditions as well. Blocks from multi-million-dollar waterfront homes in Beaufort and in the rural communities of Merrimon and North River, one finds poverty and still-evident hurricane damage in historically Black communities.

“These situations really lay bare the vulnerabilities and the problems of the socioeconomic divide,” Garrity-Blake says. “The weaknesses in our community; the uneven impact, which we’re seeing nationally with the pandemic; lower-income people of color that are disproportionately affected—all of this really rises to the surface in times like this.”

Resilience is needed, sure, but even that’s a problematic claim. Beaufort mayor Newton all but bristles at its use in an interview question: It strikes him as a buzzword. Everyone uses the term, but nobody has defined what it means, he says, and how do you allocate resources toward that?

Besides, says DeMattia, DUML is not teaching anyone in the area to be resilient. Carteret County’s communities have held on, stubbornly surviving on low, storm-wracked, isolated ribbons of land for hundreds of years. Whatever resilience is, that’s probably it. Duke is part of that community, sure, but a recent one, with the Marine Lab’s first buildings dating to 1938. Its role, as DeMattia, Garrity-Blake, and their colleagues describe it, is to be a good neighbor.

“I never think of anything as, ‘We’re teaching other people,’ ” says DeMattia. “I think of it as, ‘We learn together.’ ” 

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