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By Taylor Knopf

As Mickey Simmons looked over his washed out fields and collapsed barn, he said this could be his last year of farming.

At 72 years old, the Carteret County farmer had been cutting back, only farming about 175 acres of soybeans. He thought he would retire in the next few years. But Hurricane Florence had him considering throwing in the towel early.

Simmons’ barn in Carteret County, near Newport, was destroyed during Hurricane Florence by a suspected tornado. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

He lived through Hurricane Hazel in the ’50s and several other storms. But Florence was the worst one yet for his Newport home.

Simmons’ barns and shelters had suffered damage in past storms, but never fully collapsed as they did in September. Dozens of trees on the lot adjacent to his home were snapped in half, likely by tornadoes during the hurricane. Some were still lying halfway into the road a week later.

As president of the Carteret County Farm Bureau, Simmons had heard from others who had badly damaged corn, tobacco, peanut and cotton fields.

“It’s real discouraging,” he said. “The profit margin on agriculture is not that high anyhow, and when something like this comes through, it’s just depressing.”

He said those with crop insurance could get something back, but it isn’t the same as harvesting a good crop and selling it.

It’s a tough time to be a farmer in eastern North Carolina.

Bad timing

“This storm came at a time of very low resilience for a series of reasons,” said Scott Marlow, senior policy specialist with Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI).

When Florence hit, many were just starting to rebuild after Hurricane Matthew in 2016. A number had used their savings and retirements to cover their losses after Matthew, and there hasn’t been time to recoup those, Marlow said.

Secondly, he said, the national average for net income in farming is down 50 percent from 2013, and it’s not moving.

“This year, we’ve had, for the first time in a while, corn-soy-cotton rotation farmers who could not make cash flow because of the low prices,” Marlow said.

RAFI has a hotline for farmers in distress. The hotline receives about 100 calls a year, and Marlow has spent many years answering those calls.

He said the caseload was pretty full before Florence and he expects there will be even more need in coming months.

But Marlow emphasized that this is not the first time North Carolina communities have faced a natural disaster and rebuilt; nor will it be the last.

Stages of disaster recovery

He and others have learned from responses to past disasters that there are four distinct stages of disaster recovery eastern North Carolina will go through.

The first is the “heroic stage,” which starts when the storms hits and in the week or so immediately following: People come together to assist their neighbors. It’s when you hear the intense stories of roof and water rescues.

Once the flooding goes down, the “honeymoon stage” sets in.

A corn field in Carteret County a week after Hurricane Florence passed through and destroyed it. Photo credit: Taylor Knopf

“That’s when the media is all there, politicians are promising a bunch of things and aide groups come in and talk about all the programs you can sign up for,” Marlow said.

People feel hopeful that everything will be all right.

But soon, North Carolina will hit the “disillusionment stage,” which sets in three to six months after a disaster. Marlow said that’s when there will be a real concern for the mental health of those impacted by Florence.

“That’s when you wake up in the morning and the media has moved on to the next thing, the politicians have gone away, your insurance company isn’t paying out at the level you thought they would and they are finding loopholes,” he said.

And all the disaster relief programs people try signing up for are complicated. It requires reams of paperwork and navigating internet portals and online forms, which can be even more difficult if you’re not tech savvy, you don’t have broadband in your community, or you don’t speak English well.

“So it requires people to be at their most organized and most clear thinking, at a time when their lives are at their worst, and they are the most overwhelmed,” Marlow said.

It’s difficult, and people will often lash out at those trying to help them, which will lead to assistance fatigue. The people helping get worn out. Marlow pointed out that the line between helpers and those they help is often blurred as well.

He recently talked to a farmer in eastern North Carolina who lost 700 acres of peanuts. The man is also on the local volunteer fire department and helped with about 20 water rescues after the storm.

Rising mental health need

Marlow said that disasters take the resilience out of people. Small setbacks on the farm, such as a broken piece of equipment, become a big deal because farmers don’t have a financial buffer to absorb any more hits.

Corn in a field flooded by Florence in September. Once floodwaters inundate a field, the crops are often not even suitable to be used as animal feed. Photo credit: Taylor Knopf

“We know from past experience that a whole lot of things happen in a farm crisis,” Marlow said. “We know that the rates of depression, domestic violence, substance abuse, suicidology, all of those things go up significantly.”

As the need for mental health services goes up, the lack of rural health care access will be highlighted.

He emphasized that people who are struggling with depression or anxiety after the storm aren’t going to be talking about it. So it’s important for those around them to ask, “Hey, are you OK?”

People in county extension offices who work with farmers should be on the lookout for unusual behavior, know the signs of depression, and be ready to make referrals, he said.

One of the biggest things to look for is absence, people who break their routine. If someone is missing from church or their usual coffee shop, these are small signs that something is not OK.

But Marlow said there is some hope. After a period of disillusionment, comes reconstruction, a stage that will last for years after the disaster.

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Taylor Knopf

Taylor Knopf writes about mental health, including addiction and harm reduction. She lives in Raleigh and previously wrote for The News & Observer. Knopf has a bachelor's degree in sociology with a...

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