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Underserved, Underwater: Mapping a Future for Coastal NC

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During Hurricane Florence, flooding from the heavy rain forced hundreds of people to call for emergency rescues in the area around New Bern, at the confluence of the Neuse and Trent rivers. (Adobe Stock)
During Hurricane Florence, flooding from the heavy rain forced hundreds of people to call for emergency rescues in the area around New Bern, at the confluence of the Neuse and Trent rivers. (Adobe Stock)
 By Nadia Ramlagan - Producer, Contact
March 10, 2021

COASTAL REVIEW ONLINE MEDIA COLLABORATION

This is the second installment in a continuing series on making the North Carolina coast more resilient to the effects of climate change, a special reporting project that is part of the Pulitzer Center's nationwide Connected Coastlines initiative.

EASTERN NORTH CAROLINA - Craig Allen's memory is a little hazy on the finer details of the coastal storm that pushed the waters of Scotts Creek into his grandmother's backyard in James City.

He can't pinpoint the precise year and time the hurricane rolled in - sometime in the early 1970s when he was in elementary school. He doesn't recall the storm's name.

But he vividly remembers that it was the first time in his life water flowed over the banks of Scotts Creek and crept alarmingly close to his grandmother's house on Kennedy Drive.

"Every year since then it's getting worse," Allen said. "There's some trees in the water now that when I was a kid they weren't in the (Neuse) river."

Allen also recalls that during Hurricane Florence in September 2018, residents had to be rescued by boat when Scotts Creek flooded the neighborhood.

James City, a community on the peninsula at the confluence of the Trent and Neuse rivers in Craven County, is in a floodplain.

That designation is part of why this community, which has a storied Black history, is one of several throughout North Carolina that has been identified by the state as a "potential" environmental justice community. The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality has created maps that identify potentially underserved populations, ones that meet certain racial and economic criteria.

The state's June 2020 Climate Risk Assessment and Resilience Plan identifies these communities as either having a population that consists of more than 50% nonwhites or a population of nonwhites of at least 10% higher than the county or state share. And, those with a population that experiences a poverty rate of more than 20% and households with poverty at least 5% higher than the county or state share.

The maps are designed to be a tool for local governments and organizations to use, if they choose, as a means in helping for the future, explained Renee Kramer, NCDEQ's Title VI and environmental justice coordinator.

"Of course, there's not one right or wrong way to use the mapping system," Kramer said. "We really felt like we could help communities to provide a tool that has this data so that community members and, or, local governments can see what is in their community right now and help plan and envision what they want their community to be in the future. This is a screening tool. It's not the end-all, be-all."

The maps were created through a culmination of information pulled from various government agencies then layered to illustrate a community's compounding vulnerabilities.

The first layer is collected from across NCDEQ's divisions identifying where and which type of government-issued permits, such as air quality and wastewater permits, exist. The second layer establishes socioeconomic and demographic characteristics collected from the Census Bureau. The third piece includes a community's health characteristics gathered from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and county health departments.

"You can't really plan for these real-life scenarios without taking into consideration the reality of the folks living on the ground," Kramer said.

What is the transportation availability in that community? What's the average income? Are there a high number of non-English speaking residents within that population?

"One thing that we have added from our data version 1.0 that is currently out is the flood layer," Kramer said. "I think that would be a very powerful layer to consider to turn on if you're talking about climate change and resiliency."

James City is a prime example of a community with compounding vulnerabilities in our changing climate. It is a historically Black settlement that lies within a floodplain.

A section entitled "Climate and Environmental Justice" in the Climate Risk Assessment and Resilience Plan states, "Barriers to property ownership have resulted in a number of climate resilience concerns specific to African American homeowners and historic African American communities. A disproportionate share of African Americans live in low-lying areas in the Southeast, which are more susceptible to drainage and flooding problems."

Located across the Trent River from New Bern, U.S. Highway 70 now divides this unincorporated community named in honor of the Rev. Horace James, a Union Army chaplain who was charged with managing the Trent River Settlement, a haven for former slaves and their families during the Civil War in 1863.

"In 1863 if any African-American could make it to that camp, they were considered free," Allen said. "As long as we stayed there, we had a right to stay there."

By 1865, nearly 3,000 Black men, women and children lived in the settlement. During Reconstruction, James City transformed into an independent community of free Black people.

Roughly 10 years after the settlement was created, the land's white owners began hiking rent of Black residents in an effort to evict them from the property. The owners turned down an offer of $2,000 to buy the land.

In 1892, the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of the property owners in a lawsuit brought on by Black residents.

The ruling prompted some Black families to pack up and move. Others, however, were determined to stay.

For Allen, James City embodies a sense of place, pride and resilience in the face of overwhelming odds. Community leaders are in talks to incorporate.

"To go back, it's home," said Allen, who lives in New Bern. "Home is home regardless of what people say. It's funny that it's called a flood zone and other neighborhoods are called waterfront. If all the Black people moved out right now then it would be a resort community because it's surrounded by water."

Chapter 4 of the Climate Risk Assessment and Resilience Plan pointedly discusses the connection Black property owners have to historically Black communities: "Given the barriers to property ownership among African-Americans, land often holds particularly high historical and cultural value for Black households. In some cases, land has been in the same family for many generations. The decision to consider a buyout, if offered one by a state or local program, is particularly fraught for these homeowners."

Naeema Muhammad is organizing director of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network and a member of the NCDEQ Secretary's Environmental Justice and Equity Board.

She knows firsthand the challenges residents of environmental-justice communities face.

"It's about the sentimental and emotional ties and values that people are connected to in their homes and why should I have to give up my home and my family connection to my land to satisfy somebody else," Muhammad said. "You will hear people around the state say, 'Well, why don't they just move?' If it was that easy then maybe people would. You hear their stories and you hear the passion that they're speaking from. You see and hear their connection to the places they're at. You know, everything is not always about money. It's about the emotional ties that they have."

Elsie Herring does not want to leave the land that's been in her family for generations.

She's living on a portion of the land her grandfather purchased in Duplin County in the late 1800s. He bought the first 150-acre tract in 1891. Before the turn of the century, he had purchased three more tracts. All told, he owned more than 60 acres.

"This has been home for my family since then," Herring said.

She and her 14 siblings were born in a house the family built in 1921.

By the time she was a teenager nearing high school graduation, jobs in and around the homestead were scarce for Blacks, she said.

She moved to New York where she lived and worked 27 years before returning to Duplin County in 1993 to care for her then-ailing mother and a brother.

The return home has been bittersweet because, for more than two decades, Herring, 72, has been fighting the pork industry. She is part of a number of nuisance lawsuits filed against the pork industry in recent years. In the case in which she was involved, an appellate court ruled in favor of the families - mostly Black landowners in rural areas of eastern North Carolina - where industrial hog farms operate.

Herring said she and her family have suffered years of intimidation and threats and dealing with the indescribable smell of hog waste sprayed onto fields next to, and oftentimes directly, on her mother's land and house.

She alleges that her family's land deeds were illegally changed for the benefit of the pork industry.

She witnessed hundreds of dead hog carcasses washed out by Hurricane Floyd in September 1999 and remembers the stench of death.

"There were dead pigs everywhere," Herring said. "They even brought an incinerator down the road to burn the carcasses and that made it even worse. I'm very concerned about climate change. After Floyd, there was always the threat of another hurricane coming by worse than Floyd. (Hurricane) Matthew was bad, but none of them were like (Hurricane) Florence."

Hurricane Florence's record-breaking rainfall in September 2018 flooded Rock Fish Creek to the point the family wondered if they would have to evacuate their home.

"My mother lived on this land for 99 years and she said the water had never been an issue coming up that high," Herring said. "It was an excessive amount of water. We had a strange feeling for the first time that we may need to leave for higher ground. What happens when another one comes? These (hog) facilities are still sitting there. These lagoons are still sitting there. They're still just sitting there in a floodplain. We're already dealing with enough pollution. Not only are we dealing with the pigs and their waste, we're dealing with the chicken houses. Those two combinations right there are a recipe for disaster."

She remains hopeful, despite a new fight, this one against a proposed facility in Duplin County that would capture biogas from hog waste lagoons at 19 industrial hog operations in that county and neighboring Sampson County.

The project would cap open-air lagoons to capture biogas, which would be transported through some 30 miles of pipeline to an upgrading facility, then injected into an existing natural gas pipeline.

Herring is one of a number of critics of the project who argue it does not address significant air pollution from the 19 operations that would be included or possible groundwater contamination.

"It's not being treated," she said. "It's just being converted. We already have enough poisonous gas in our environment."

Muhammad said communities like Herrings, overburdened with environmental hazards, are "like ticking time bombs" in a changing climate.

"These environmental justice communities are really just in harm's way and it grows each hour because we can see how the weather can be 90 degrees in the morning and drop to 40 and 50 at night," she said. "Any overflow of rain creates a major problem for these communities. One of the things we've seen during flooding (from hurricanes), you had a tremendous number of people who didn't have a way to get out of harm's way. They didn't have cars. They didn't have public transportation."

She has read the Climate Risk Assessment and Resilience Plan. She's familiar with Chapter 4.

"I read that plan and I thought, 'You're saying all this, but you're still issuing bad permits,'" Muhammad said.

"We have a long way to go. There have been some gains made, but not a tremendous amount. It's not because of the will of the people. It's because our local, state and federal governments don't have the will to ring in these dirty industries," she said. "If you are serious about protecting these communities, why are you going to keep dumping these same things in these places. You're saying you're going to do better and try to protect these communities but you're not showing that. It's wordy stuff that sounds good on paper. We're not giving up that's for sure."

Neither is Elsie Herring.

"I would love to see change in my lifetime, but I don't believe anything the industry says," she said. "You can't let man's behavior take your joy away because if you do you may as well be dead. There's no time to get tired when your job's not complete and this job is not complete because the industry is a bad neighbor. This land means everything to me. We lived off this land. We were born and raised here. It's a beautiful place. I'm hopeful that I'll be able to stay on it until I die."

Next in the series: Resilience as opportunity

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This story was produced with original reporting from Trista Talton for the Coastal Review Online, with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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