An older man instructs a group of young people during a Florence resiliency workshop
NC Health News board member and media instructor at NC Central, Brett Chambers, instructs teens on basic photo techniques during a storytelling workshop in Wilmington in September. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

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The voices of the young often bring the clearest assessments of the world around us.

Nearly 15 months have passed since Hurricane Florence struck land at Wrightsville Beach and left rivers and creeks so swollen that their floodwaters turned Wilmington and its many surrounding communities into an island cut off from the rest of the state.

North Carolina Health News and Working Narratives/ Coastal Youth Media held a workshop in September for seven teens to share their storm stories.

Their lives have been changed forever.

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. Trees were toppled. Rushing waters broke roads apart. Modern communication systems went down and remained intermittent for long spells.

Participants in the NC Health News/ Coastal Youth Media Speak Your Piece workshop in September. Front row (L to R) Franchon Francees, Jonny Morales, Karissa Sowers, Shecoria Smith, Julia Narvaez, Charlize Bryan. Back (L to R): NC Health News board member Brett Chambers, Rose Hoban, Abel Zukerman, Shamyia Robinson, Anne Blythe, Erica O’Brien

As climate change promises the possibility of more frequent megastorms, these seven teens confronted the ravage that Florence wreaked and offer lessons in recovery and resiliency for the young and old alike.

Thanks to a generous grant from the Democracy Fund, NC Health News editor Rose Hoban, reporter Anne Blythe and NC Health News board member Brett Chambers, who teaches media at NC Central University, traveled to Wilmington for a weekend to teach a two-day workshop with seven young people gathered from four Southeastern North Carolina counties.

The workshop was held in partnership with the team at Working Narratives/ Coastal Youth Media, an organization that uses storytelling and organizing to confront social justice issues. WN/CYM team member Franchon Francees designed and lead the workshop, with assistance from Krys Fakir and Erica O’Brien.

What we heard from these young people blew us away.

Shamyia Robinson is a teen who had lived through a number of hurricanes before Florence. Before the storm blew ashore, she thought it would be a typical event. But as the winds shook her house overnight, Shamyia learned the meaning of fear.

The succeeding year has been a lesson in managing that fear.

“Now that I know what fear truly feels like, I have a better understanding of how I can react to it and lessen it,” she wrote in her essay.

Abel Zukerman runs cross county track at New Hanover High School. Photo credit: Brett Chambers

Abel Zukerman runs cross country track for New Hanover High School. But when Florence came to call, he and his team had to take a hiatus.

It turns out Florence posed problems for many of the area’s athletes, an issue that received little attention during and after the storm. Abel tells his own story of trying to stay in racing form, even as he was trying to cope with the aftermath of the hurricane.

Charlize Bryan, Abel Zukerman and Jonny Morales work on their essays during the NC Health News/ Coastal Youth Media workshop in Wilmington in September. Photo credit: Brett Chambers
Karissa Sowers talks to the group about a photograph taken during one of the group exercises. Photo credit: Krys Fakir

Many of the people from Karissa Sowers’ neighborhood experienced dramatic rescues from their properties, when helicopters came to carry them to safety. Her home was almost ruined, requiring months of repairs. But for Karissa, the experience taught her how resilient she and her family really were.

“Hurricane Florence taught me and my family that home is not a physical address, but rather a place where you feel loved and safe,” she wrote in her essay.

Charlize Bryan wrote that her Hurricane Florence experience left her feeling anxious: for her safety, for the health of her mother, who has diabetes, and for her home.

Before Florence, Charlize wrote that she had not taken storms that seriously, but in the wake of Florence, her first thought is always “please let my mom be safe.”

Jonny Morales and his family fled from southeastern North Carolina and stayed with family in Chicago when Florence took aim at the state. But while away, they could only think about their town, friends and home.

When he returned to North Carolina, Jonny’s home was unlivable due to water damage and mold, but the fear he felt quickly was allayed by the love and encouragement of friends.

Jonny Morales, shares his Hurricane Florence experience with other teens at a NC Health News-Working Narratives workshop. Photo credit: Brett Chambers

“The label ‘victim’ of Hurricane Florence would no longer define me,” he wrote.

Then Jonny got to work providing relief to those less fortunate.

Julia Narvaez found that the response to Hurricane Florence brought what is sometimes a divided community together. Photo credit: Brett Chambers

As the child of Honduran immigrants, Julia Narvaez wrote that she grew up feeling like an outsider in Wilmington. But as she worked to provide help to people affected by the storm, her feelings evolved.

“It felt like race and class no longer mattered. All that mattered that day was knowing where you were going to sleep at night,” she wrote. “This newfound unity inspired me to give back.”

Shecoria Smith learned that the possibility of death during a hurricane is very real when one of her friends’ mothers was killed by a falling tree during the storm. Photo credit: Krys Fakir

Only a handful of people perished during Hurricane Florence, but Shecoria Smith received the “shocking” news that two of the fatalities was the mother of a close friend and her new baby.

“I had heard stories of fatalities days before, brushing it off like it could never affect me and not knowing that days later I was going to get a rude awakening,” she wrote.

She learned that hurricanes are something to be taken more seriously in the future.