shows a smiling young man and an older woman with arms around each other, smiling at the camera, while at a disaster relief event in a Wilmington church
Cedric Harrison, the 30-year-old founder of Wilmington-based non-profit Support the Port, on the left, helped organize Hurricane Florence disaster relief and recovery efforts in September 2018. Credit: Support the Port Facebook page

By Anne Blythe

Cedric Harrison grew up in Wilmington and saw his share of storms. Until last year he always sheltered in place when hurricane warnings sent North Carolina’s port city into an altered and frantic state.

He had successfully ridden out major storms in his 30-some years before Hurricane Florence roiled the seas and whipped up the worries of many along the North Carolina coast in early September 2018.

“I’m a Wilmingtonian native and at first I was totally going to stay because hurricanes usually just mean three days off,” Harrison said recently.

Florence was different.

Days before the massive storm struck land just south of Wrightsville Beach, Gov. Roy Cooper was describing it as a “monster.”

As the tropical cyclone spun away from the west coast of Africa, cutting a menacing path across the Atlantic Ocean, its winds reached 150 miles per hour for spurts before eventually tapering to a Category 1 hurricane with winds ranging from 74 to 95 miles per hour by landfall.

The governor and emergency officials across the state implored hundreds of thousands of people to get out of the path of the storm. Harrison heeded the plea.

“It was the first time … that I’ve ever seen the government take that kind of stance,” Harrison said.

He set out for Raleigh but with forecasters predicting possible trouble in the capital city, he decided to go another 80 some miles west to Greensboro, where he stayed while Florence came ashore near Wrightsville Beach, snapping trees, shredding buildings, roads, docks, piers and bulkheads while pushing the surging ocean well beyond high tide marks and sand dune peaks.

Here we go again

As Dorian, the fourth named storm of the year, pounds the Bahamas and takes aim at the East Coast, Harrison and others are highly aware that this is the thick of hurricane season. Emergency responders, scientists, policymakers and others are looking back at Hurricane Florence, Hurricane Matthew and other extraordinary storms for lessons and new paths forward.

The changing climate, they say, could make storms like the most recent, ones that took many lives, caused billions of dollars of damage and left lingering health problems, more ordinary.

Florence dumped more than 30 inches of rain on a wide swath of coastal North Carolina, causing flooding in 74,563 structures and leaving mold, mildew and some of the most impoverished communities with uninhabitable homes.

Though many in the state are more accustomed to short-term mega-storm preparations such as boarding up homes, gathering household staples and supplies, even pondering evacuation, there are great strides to make toward better handling the aftermath, storm survivors say.

Tending to stress and anguish

Harrison, founder of Support the Port, a Wilmington-based foundation that partners with businesses and organizations to help residents in need, has many recovery process ideas, including a “Remembering to Relax” series his organization is sponsoring. It is set to begin Sept. 12 with tips for handling the mental anguish that persists after waters have receded and blue tarps no longer cover roofs.

Housing woes, stress from displacement, the realization that Florence might not be a once-in-a-lifetime experience and the fatigue that comes with that have taken a toll on survivors and their health.

Are storm reports stressing you out?

Support the Port, a non-profit that helped with Hurricane Florence relief, is holding a stress relief session. Remembering to Relax: Self Care Series is scheduled for Sept.12 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Martin Luther King Center, 401 South 8th St., Wilmington.

Harrison, who just moved into a new home with a window that looks out over the Cape Fear River, has gotten numerous phone calls and email messages these past few days from people familiar with his Florence recovery work.

With hopes of staving off some of the problems from the immediate aftermath of Florence, Harrison and a team his organization hired plan to distribute portable chargers, canned goods and other supplies to residents on lists they compiled during Support the Port’s extensive recovery effort. As Dorian threatens more havoc, shopkeepers and others are taking down signs and moving outdoor furniture and other items indoors to prevent them from becoming destructive projectiles in wind gusts.

“We have these teams prepped, ready to be proactive,” Harrison said Monday.

Shows three young people with arms around each other, smiling at the camera. They're all involved in disaster relief and recovery.
Cedric Harrison, middle, built a bridge to an underserved Wilmington community after Hurricane Florence caused massive damage in New Hanover County. The lessons learned from are being used as Hurricane Dorian looms in the Atlantic Ocean. Photo courtesy: Support the Port Facebook page

Wilmington was hit twice by Florence: First on Sept. 14, by the hurricane and its blustering winds and downpours, then days later by the flooding from rivers and tributaries swollen with upstream rains and stormwater runoff.

Harrison didn’t stay away long. He returned before the flooding washed out roads and cut the city off from inland help for days.

A prideful Wilmingtonian with an infectious smile and can-do attitude, Harrison quickly became troubled by where emergency workers set up disaster relief distribution centers. They were near the University of North Carolina at Wilmington campus, along the Cape Fear River front and close to the beach, areas not easily accessible to some of the neediest neighborhoods.

Harrison grew up in a low-wealth area. He had an epiphany almost 15 years after his best friend shot and killed someone in self-defense. Harrison decided then that he would take a different path out of his neighborhood while also knowing that whatever success he built, he also would give back.

Building bridges amid the flood

So as a self-described bridge-builder, Harrison forged a path to the north side of the city with food, flashlights, batteries, cases of water, baby necessities and cleaning supplies and set up his own disaster relief center at Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church on the edge of Creek-wood, a low-income, high-crime, largely African American community.

He had never done disaster relief, but he had a knack.

Soon, he was providing about 700 meals a day and seeing many of the people who came for food and supplies share what they could with others, too.

Fourth to 8th-graders from the Creekwood area became the backbone of his volunteer force, showing up early for breakfast and going door-to-door with food and messages from the makeshift center.

Hear Cedric Harrison talk about his Hurricane Florence relief effort on Storm Stories, a podcast and radio series from the Working Narratives’ studio.

Representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which assesses damage for public relief funding, found out about Harrison and the work he was doing at Ebenezer Baptist Church and invited him to join them and other government officials for planning meetings.

Betsy Albright, a Duke University professor who studies how communities recover after major floods and natural disasters, noted the importance of including non-profits, community-support groups and faith-based organizations in disaster relief, not only in the aftermath, but also in the emergency response planning for future storms.

Spanish speakers and immigrants without government documentation experienced barriers to recovery efforts and health care access, advocates say, encumbrances that can be addressed.

“Local communities who have engaged and empowered community members in the recovery process do reasonably well,” Albright said.

Sherri White-Williamson, an environmental justice advocate and lawyer who retired from the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency and is a board member for the Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help, suggested paying community members who help fill the gaps left by government disaster relief efforts.

When stores, restaurants and other jobs suspend work after the storm, the paychecks often stop, too, in the low-wealth communities.

Community organizers, non-profits and faith-based groups already have contacts with some of the most vulnerable in their communities and can provide a quick conduit to getting health care needs met, as well as helping them begin the often tangled and vexing process of applying for federal and state aid.

Social media provided tools

Nearly 900,000 power outages were reported in the first couple of days. Access to government and traditional media sites was limited. Keeping phones charged for basic communication became a major hurdle, as did getting basic and accurate information.

Harrison, a former media specialist with a degree in mass communication and recreation management from UNC-Pembroke, used Support the Port’s Facebook page to bat down myths and to disseminate pertinent information.

Thousands started following him.

Donna Chavis, a Lumbee elder and longtime environmental justice advocate in Robeson County, also used her social media platforms to get her neighbors the help they needed. Though she heeded evacuation calls, she was so actively posting from out of town that many thought she was right there with them.

“We may not have had TV and radio, but we have our cell phones,” Chavis said, noting that solar chargers and community charging stations should be on the list for coming storm response.

Robeson County, Chavis said, had not recovered from Hurricane Matthew damage when Florence heaped more trouble on struggling people.

In some cases, people are living out of their cars because of mildew and mold infecting homes.

Leaving ancestral lands?

Chavis, like Harrison, has long ties to the area and wants policymakers and others to understand the challenges that come with living where many generations of family lived before them.

It’s not so easy to pick up and move from land families have handed down to children and grandchildren. Many people in the low-lying areas live paycheck to paycheck. Not only is rebuilding after a storm costly and often entangled in slow-moving bureaucracies, there is mental anguish that takes a toll on overall health.

The Lumber River, a 133-mile-long waterway that flows through Columbus, Hoke, Robeson and Scotland counties that spilled over its banks after Florence and Matthew, did not drop below flood stage for months.

“The continued presence of the floodwaters is a mental health issue,” Chavis said.

Routine thunderstorms and dark skies also can trigger stress, storm survivors report.

For many, the strain and tension are tied to an inadequate supply of affordable housing in coastal communities that have been attracting more luxury home developers for decades that squeeze out more affordable digs.

Apartment complexes and lower-cost housing stayed vacant for months with blue tarps stretched across the damaged structures. Once those came down, the doors were not always cast open for low- to moderate-income renters.

“The cumulative effects of poverty go back generations,” Chavis said. “That’s what we really need to influence, not just the impact of the storms, but the impact over the years.”

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Anne Blythe, a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades, writes about oral health care, children's health and other topics for North Carolina Health News.