I didn’t know what to expect as I drove the two-lane road from Greenville to New Bern after I landed from South Florida one early morning in March.
I was there as a reporter to find stories about climate change relocation as part of a year-long project, Harm’s Way, produced by Columbia Journalism Investigations in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity and Type Investigations. The focus: increasing numbers of communities across the country are so threatened by climate change that the best option is relocating, but federal programs aren’t up to the massive task.
Though I’m an editor at Public Integrity, I volunteered to report on this project because of my years covering natural disasters in places including Florida, Oklahoma and Puerto Rico.
And now, after months of learning everything I could, I’d arrived at this North Carolina town.
New Bern sits on the banks of the Neuse and Trent Rivers before they feed into the Pamlico Sound. I knew well the intimate relationship this town has with water over the years and especially in 2018, when hundreds of people had to be rescued after Hurricane Florence flooded the town.
But New Bern’s history with segregation and its expensive historical homes are a reflection of the many inequities present in cities across the country. Water doesn’t discriminate, as some residents told me, but those who have the means recover faster from natural disasters while those who don’t struggle for a long time.
And it was time to do the kind of reporting that we journalists can only do in person: We knock on doors, ask questions and listen to those kind enough to share their stories with us.
I spent a lot of time in town on North Hills Drive. Floods have damaged the homes there multiple times since 2010. Many had hoped for buyouts from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but those have been slow coming. Some ended up selling their damaged homes to private buyers for little money. As one woman told me when I called: “We are not getting any younger to wait for the government.”
As I drove around the North Hills Drive area, I noticed many of these homes are well kept, with manicured lawns and dogwood trees.
But residents here are well aware they live in danger of future flooding. The neighborhood sits in a dip surrounded by a canal and near a creek.
One afternoon, I met an Army veteran who cares for his disabled wife in the house where they raised his children, now adults. After initially considering a buyout, he asked for help elevating his home.
But that has been an uphill battle. After repeated conversations with the city — local agencies are the point of contact for these FEMA programs — he’s still waiting.
About this series
The federal government knows that millions of Americans will need to move to avoid the most punishing impacts of climate change, but the country offers little organized assistance for such relocation. When communities ask the government for help, they face steep barriers — a particular problem for communities of color.
I couldn’t understand how someone who had served this country in the military couldn’t get support from the government at a time when he and his family needed it the most.
Down at the end of the street, I saw a home where construction to elevate the structure appeared to have stalled. What happened, I wondered? Was it abandoned?
Julie Thomas, who lives across the street, filled me in. The owner’s son lives there. He uses a ladder to get in and out because there are no steps.
Thomas, who is in her early 70s, has endured several floods in this house. Florence ruined everything inside.
“It’s devastating,” she said. “Your heart is broken and it feels like there’s no mending.”
She moved back in months after the storm with a rebuild still in process, the floors and walls not yet done.
Now, she buys only second-hand furniture. Any time she feels ungrateful, she looks down the street to remind herself that someone else has it worse.
“My heart hurts more than anything to look at situations like this one,” she said.
Our Harm’s Way project launches today with a story about communities stuck amid repetitive disasters and experts urging the country to act. Next week we’ll publish the story I co-reported about New Bern and other flood-prone places. Watch for that and other parts of our investigation at publicintegrity.org.
This work is time-consuming but it’s worth the time, effort and frankly the frustration and headaches we go through as we try to shed light on issues of inequality that affect people in this country.
I’m obsessed with connecting the dots and explaining complex issues. More importantly, I love talking to people and telling their stories.
I wouldn’t have any other way because the result is priceless.
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