Recovery in North Carolina One Year Later

Amid the whirlwind of disasters this fall—three major hurricanes hitting the U.S., earthquakes and another hurricane hitting Mexico, wildfires in northern California—it is easy to forget that people hit by other disasters as recently as a year ago are still laboring toward long-term community recovery from the damages those events left behind. One of those places is North Carolina, which suffered flooding in several small communities in its eastern Coastal Plain from Hurricane Matthew. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), of necessity, may shift its energy and resources to new places, but the communities and states trying to recover cannot escape the realities of rebuilding their own futures.

I was in North Carolina just two weeks ago for the annual conference of the North Carolina chapter of the American Planning Association, in Greenville. This city of about 90,000 is just an hour west of the Outer Banks, depending on which roads are open. (Hurricane Maria was kicking up waves as it moved north out in the Atlantic Ocean while I was there.) Much of the surrounding area consists of farm country and small towns nestled in river valleys subject to flooding in major storms including tropical storms and hurricanes. In the 1990s, the area was visited by Hurricanes Floyd and Fran, both of which left their marks. I had hoped to travel the towns affected by Matthew with a colleague, but it did not work out. But I did listen to a keynote presentation by Gavin Smith, a research professor at the University of North Carolina (UNC) in Chapel Hill and director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence, located at UNC. I was there because I had been invited to speak at two sessions, one on September 26 on community resilience and another the next day on flood hazards and subdivision design.

Smith has worked with the North Carolina Department of Emergency Management on recovery planning in the past, and as a consultant following Hurricane Katrina, led recovery in Mississippi under Gov. Haley Barbour. He later returned to North Carolina to join the UNC faculty, but clearly is an experienced hand in this field. He has also written extensively on disaster recovery, including an Island Press book, Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery: A Review of the United States Disaster Assistance Framework.

What Smith served up was a primer in planning for climate change and disaster recovery with a side order of North Carolina case studies. I don’t say that to be cute, but because I have discussed at length the issues associated with the former, so here, I will concentrate on the latter. I will note first, however, that he highlighted some issues connected with disaster recovery that are worth considering:

  • Disasters tend to bring to the forefront of community planning existing conditions that may have been less obvious beforehand, but which are not new.
  • Disaster involves opportunity, a unique situation in which good planning can effect positive change. Because planners are generally interested in advancing equity, this is important, as developers are often dictating growth even when it negatively affects some economically marginalized people in the community.
  • This post-disaster environment provides an opportunity to engage in alternative dispute resolution, with planners using negotiation to help resolve difficult issues.
  • The reality of disaster recovery is time compression, the need to move quickly even though better planning may demand stepping back and investing more time in deliberation before making decisions. We can alleviate some of that pressure by developing plans for recovery before disaster strikes.

That is, in a way, all background to the simple fact that one role for planning is to help change the rules governing recovery through serious engagement between local officials, who generally better understand local needs, and those at state and federal levels of government, who generally control more of the resources needed for successful recovery. In other words, planners need to help solve the disconnect between means and understanding. Communities that passively await rescue by higher levels of government without undertaking the task of owning their own recovery may well face consequences in the misallocation of the resources provided.

The Hurricane Matthew Disaster Recovery and Resilience Initiative (HMDRRI) has specifically worked with eight communities in eastern North Carolina under the auspices of the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory. Smith is the project director. It began with a research period that ran from February through June of this year. The project included intake interviews with people in the affected areas who were willing to pursue buyouts of their properties, which would then be maintained in perpetual open space under rules of FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, and discussed with them where they were willing to relocate. The program developed housing prototypes for affordable homes in the $90,000 range that would allow buyers to stay in their communities without remaining in the floodplain. One major question was whether they could endure as a community after such relocation, which is affected by area geography and topography and the ability to identify and develop suitable alternatives. It should also be noted that eastern North Carolina has been through much of this before. Following Hurricane Floyd in 1999, the state undertook buyouts of more than 5,000 homes and assisted in elevating another 1,000.

Camp shelter in Windsor, NC, one of the communities assisted by HMDRRI. Photo by Gavin Smith

The HMDRRI research product is a 580-page report that outlines project objectives and documents economic, housing, and other conditions in both the region and the communities specifically targeted by the project: Kinston, Fair Bluff, Windsor, Princeville, Lumberton, and Seven Springs. This documentation is critical to an accurate assessment of the challenges facing the region. For instance, the standard determinant of housing affordability is the ability to limit spending on housing to 30 percent of income. People in lower-income brackets often struggle to find such housing, and often it requires subsidies or some sort of intervention in the housing market. Within the coastal counties studied, however, the reasons for shortages of affordable housing can vary widely, as can its quality. The resilience of affordable housing in an area subject to coastal storms and flooding is important, yet the abundance of mobile and modular housing in the region offers little resilience in the face of disaster, and septic systems associated with much modular housing often make those homes even more susceptible to flooding. Thus, solutions must address both resilience and affordability to provide some semblance of social equity in disaster recovery.

The intriguing model offered by HMDRRI, however, is the systematic engagement of the academic community in what is simultaneously a practical learning experience for students and faculty, an opportunity for introducing the skills of practicing design professionals to the area, and a direct connection to state and federal officials, for instance, by allowing student and faculty teams to work in the FEMA Joint Field Office (JFO) and thus access data that might not otherwise be readily available. This included interaction with FEMA’s Community Planning and Capacity Building team, part of the larger federal Disaster Recovery Framework. The report, more readable than its length might suggest, includes a substantial section called Home Place that helps facilitate the transfer of design practices to the community level to empower better local recovery planning.

An example of this occurred in Princeville, which Smith described as the oldest African-American community founded by freed slaves. In August, HMDRRI hosted a five-day charrette with visiting architects, three-quarters of them African-American, who worked directly with the community on land-use and design solutions for relocating homes from the floodplain to a higher, 52-acre site still within the city limits. Helping the community to understand and come to terms with the land-use changes resulting from the recovery from Hurricane Matthew is critical to long-term success. The verdict is necessarily still pending in this case, but it may provide a solid case study for future efforts elsewhere. Smith also noted one other important aspect of the charrette experience: Participants were asked to check in daily to document the time they spent. Creative people that they were, the initial reaction was some resentment at being subjected to this bureaucratic procedure until it was explained that documenting their contribution of time was essential to showing a local match for federal funds supporting the project. Approximately 100 people were credentialed for the purpose. At that point, they complied enthusiastically because they understood the purpose as something more than mere bookkeeping. They were helping the community marshal badly needed resources.

It is worth noting that the report recommends that the North Carolina Governor’s Office form a standing committee to provide recommendations for policy, programming, and funding strategies for development of adequate housing in eastern North Carolina. The report also notes interest from Texas and Rice University in the model for state/academic collaboration that HMDRRI offers. This is part of the silver lining of disasters: the emergence and dissemination of positive and innovative solutions to common problems.

Jim Schwab

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