Rural Forward NC Joins Effort to Support Those Still Recovering from Hurricane Matthew

Photo from North Carolina National Guard

On the morning of October 8th, 2016, disaster struck North Carolina when Hurricane Matthew hit the eastern coast. Bringing record breaking rain and flooding, roads quickly became washed out, rivers overflowed, and entire towns were left submerged underwater. Residents of over 50 counties were ordered to evacuate, and many who couldn’t get out had to be rescued from their homes.

While skies have since cleared and the devastating storm has passed, for many living in eastern parts of NC, the recovery is still not over. Hundreds of families who were forced to leave their homes behind are still living in a state of limbo.

Since the storm, federal, state, and local officials have made efforts to connect those impacted by the hurricane with necessary resources. Disaster recovery centers quickly opened and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has provided over $100 million in funding to the state. However, as time continues to pass, the needs of many residents who were hit the hardest by the storm—communities of lower wealth, communities of color, and rural communities — have been overlooked.

Recognizing this as a huge problem, several statewide groups, including The Foundation for Health Leadership and Innovation’s Rural Forward NC program, developed an advocacy group to ensure this population doesn’t fall through the cracks. The group initially included a wide range of organizations invested in various aspects of the relief, particularly philanthropy, housing, rural, policy, and legal specialists.  They currently meet every two weeks to raise issues, share resources, and address policy concerns. Their overall mission is to ensure each affected community has a voice within the recovery efforts and that resources are allocated fairly to all.

“We realized that as decisions were being made, local voices were not at the table, and that was a concern” says Calvin. “That’s why we came together. We wanted to create a mechanism where those who were most affected could be heard, and we knew we had connections to the decision makers who could help make that happen.”

The group got organized around its mission, core constituency, and strategies with facilitation support from Rural Forward NC.  The NC Justice Center, NC Association of Community Development Corporations, and the NC Rural Center have led policy and resource efforts around the recovery effort, including the “Community Allies” session in early March to connect over 90 community leaders with relevant state resource leaders.

The group also expanded within the past two months to include two key sets of leaders:  state government officials from the NC Department of Emergency Management who are leading the recovery effort, in addition to local grassroots leaders who are themselves survivors of Hurricane Matthew.  The addition of these leaders are key strategies for accomplishing the mission of this group, providing local voice to the statewide process and state government answers to local recovery questions.

The Hurricane Matthew Recovery Inclusion Support Effort has so far met twice per month over the last five months, and one of the biggest issues being raised is housing. After the storm, more than 18,000 people were displaced from their homes, and many of them are still living in motels. While FEMA has offered homeowners some options for repairs, the floods destroyed most of the land, leaving few places to rebuild. Additionally, if multiple people lived in a family home, services might  only be provided to the person who owned the house. Options for renters are even less promising. Rental property was already scarce before the storm, so finding a new place is almost impossible. While FEMA has continued to extend the deadline for temporary housing funds, this group is hoping to help develop long term and immediate solutions for when people eventually need to move out of motels.

They are also working to bridge the gap in communication between the people on the ground and those at the state level. Many residents are either not getting the information they need or are being told different things from different people in places of authority. County departments are not always on the same page, and people are often sent back and forth just to find out how to get benefits and support. Given that many people have also lost their cars, traveling this much is not easy. That’s why this group is stressing the importance of a consistent message from the North Carolina Department of Social Services and is working to make sure they are consistently training workers on what to say.

There is also a concern with compensating people in these communities for what they have already done and for the resources they have already depleted to help people. Because funding can take a while to kick in, local governments and organizations have been using their own resources and have been working to help their own communities set up shelters, providing food, etc. Whether or not they get reimbursed for these resources is typically up in the air, so this group is ensuring these types of questions are getting raised.

Lastly, the group also hopes that this recent disaster will prompt preparation for the next emergency now. Seeing the damage both Hurricane Matthew and Hurricane Floyd caused to North Carolina makes it clear that long term structures that we can put into place now are necessary. Luckily, many survivors of Hurricane Matthew were on the front-line to help, breaking into neighbors homes to get them out safely, but there needs to be a better, more organized way. “One of the main things we can do is help set up neighborhood collaboratives and coordinate communication structures for future emergencies,” says Calvin. “These types of programs and initiatives will help us to be more pro-active and better prepared if another disaster hits.”