Seven months out from one of the most devastating storms in the state’s history, residents in eastern North Carolina continue to struggle to find housing, regain employment, and restore their lives. This article is the first of a three part series that examines community economic development through a millennial lens. Here, recent high school graduate Nya Kenchen offers her perspective on a trip to Lumberton to explore how residents there are coping and moving toward recovery from Hurricane Matthew.
A Ride Through Robeson
By: Nya Kenchen
The day did not go as any of us had planned. To start, it was raining, a small irony considering we were going to Lumberton to see how recovery from Hurricane Matthew was going. Our schedule was tentative at best and we knew it would be subject to circumstantial change, so we were only mildly inconvenienced when the car wouldn’t start.
Back into Robeson County’s Department of Social Services we went. Little did we know that building would be the one place all day we didn’t stick out like sore thumbs.
Dressed in business casual attire, we stood next to a table filled with pamphlets on Elder Abuse, the automatic doors, and the security guards.
Triple A would take up to an hour to come- hopefully less. We had a meeting to get to.
When one of the security guards asked what brought us here, to Robeson, Sonyia, an intern at the Initiative, had a ready answer.
“We’re here to see how the recovery from Hurricane Matthew is going,” she said. It was true, and we were also there to hand out fliers detailing the Initiative’s loan programs for landlords and small businesses that suffered Hurricane Matthew-related damage.
The security guard was satisfied with the answer, and easily told us that people still need help: with no money and nowhere to live, it was hard for them.
Half an hour later, Triple A was still nowhere in sight. Another man came up to us. He was checking out the elderly abuse table, but clearly was more interested in the group of three young women standing by the door. We were a curious sight to behold, after all.
He also engaged us in conversation, starting by asking what brought us to Robeson. The question was fair enough and the conversation was similar to the one with the security guard.
“So what would you say could have been done differently to prevent all the damage?”
“Well Robeson goes like this.” He mimicked an incline with his hand. “And all this is low. They need to build the houses higher. They should’ve build them higher before but now that they’re rebuilding, they definitely need to build them at least four feet off the ground.”
This man, a member of the local Lumbee Indian tribe and a Lumberton native had great ideas about how to improve his community. He was smart, knew the area, knew what he was talking about, and thought logically. From him, we were able to gather that a lot of elderly had been displaced, that residents did not know what to do when the water started coming, and that the storm’s effects were persistent. He brought up things we never would have thought of, like how an obese woman affected the overall success of a rescue raft. He told us a story of a woman who would have drowned had it rained anymore because her house was so full of water that she had her face pressed up against the ceiling to breathe.
The pouring rain stopped and the man dismissed himself, went to his truck, and left. Triple A came, and, with our car battery back in business, we too went on our way.
Our adventure only continued. It was a fight to get numbers of those still displaced (nobody ever could give them to us) and difficult to figure out who to talk to. We gave fliers, we took notes, we drove around, we walked around. Not only did we stick out like sore thumbs in Lumberton, but we were outcasts.
“There’s got to be a better way to get the community more engaged in the rebuilding process,” Riley said. “We can talk to a million organizations that are trying to help, but it’s the people here who really know what they need.”
Downtown reminded the three of us of Durham, NC ten years ago: a place with great potential. The architecture was brilliant; the streets were cool- this place only needed some investors. Somebody who could see the vision.
The rain prohibited us from knocking on doors like we planned, but we took pictures of houses, anyway. One street in one corner of Lumberton needed so much help, it was depressing.
We know those houses probably were not in the best shape even before the flooding! We speculated whether or not people were still residing in the houses. Many driveways did have cars, and we saw a few faces eyeing us skeptically from behind smudged windows. The only tell tale sign that a house was vacant was if they were boarded up.
It rained on and off all day. “If that much water is sitting from this rain, imagine how it was during Matthew.”
I couldn’t imagine. I couldn’t imagine my home underwater, losing all my things, and still not being able to come back. Help is still needed in Robeson county. If they are going to rebuild there needs to be more help; more effort. More than anything, there needs to be more local, community involvement. Especially if we are going to rebuild so this kind of disaster will not be as devastating next time.
The lack of adequate housing heavy on our minds, we got on the road to head back to our home, thinking of the people who would do anything to get back into theirs.
The Initiative has disaster relief funding available for affordable housing and small business recovery in counties affected by the hurricane. More information available here.