2 towns, 2 storms and America’s imperiled poor

By Zack Colman, Daniel Cusick | 10/01/2018 08:31 AM EDT

Hurricanes Harvey and Florence damaged scores of public housing units, reducing the already limited number of homes for financially vulnerable people. It’s no accident these buildings were constructed in low-lying areas. Land in the floodplain is cheaper.

Workers threw away debris and ruined possessions from a public housing project on Buffalo Bayou in Texas after Hurricane Harvey.

Workers threw away debris and ruined possessions from a public housing project on Buffalo Bayou in Texas after Hurricane Harvey. Michael Stravato/Polaris/Newscom

Correction appended.

Sheril Pritchett can’t get out of her room.

It’s not because of damage from Hurricane Florence. Her apartment in Fayetteville, N.C., was spared, somehow, from the historic storm that dumped 30 inches of rain in some parts of the state. She’s not stranded by her earlier hip replacements, either.


Pritchett is bed-ridden by stress.

She, like many in the path of Florence, lives in federally subsidized housing. The 59-year-old followed instructions to evacuate, shuttling 110 miles with her husband to the nearest hotel they could find. Six nights, $600. It wasn’t her emergency money, but it was her savings for a house. She’s back now. Back to square one.

Except that it’s not really the beginning, at all. Far from it. Moving too much is a way of life for many residents in low-income housing. Pritchett has been in her one-bedroom place for just over a year. It’s her fourth since uprooting in 2008 to be closer to her oldest daughter, who was having health issues.

Every time she saves for a house of her own, something takes her cash. Then come the boxes, then the relocation.

Pack. Unpack. Repeat.

Pritchett already felt defeated. It’s the transience. The evacuation, the nights spent in a Holly Springs, N.C., hotel. It’s taken a toll. She lives in one of 3,863 public housing units located in the floodplain of North Carolina. For now. After Florence, she agonized for days whether she’d have a home at the end of it all.

"It really scared me. I don’t have much," she said over the phone. "I had to give up three bedrooms of stuff to move into this place, and I already felt bad about that. And this is all I have left. So I thought about, ‘What if I lost that?’"

Pritchett doesn’t need an active imagination to pick at that thought. Her youngest sister has been homeless since Hurricane Harvey swept her out of a Houston public housing unit.

"She’s not even the same person anymore," Pritchett said. "She’s suffering with depression, her anxiety is bad. She’s just moving from place to place — she’s just not even trying to find her own place anymore. She said she worked so hard for what she had and she’s not just able to replace it."

‘It’s the cheapest land’

Houses sit in floodwater caused by Hurricane Florence. Photo credit: Jason Miczek/Reuters/Newscom
The remnants of Hurricane Florence caused flooding in Lumberton, N.C. | Jason Miczek/Reuters/Newscom

Hurricanes have done it before. Harvey and Florence are the newest to damage affordable housing. They decimated key portions of an already limited housing stock for financially vulnerable people, said Sarah Mickelson, senior public policy director with the National Low Income Housing Coalition. After Harvey, some landlords evicted tenants to charge higher rents to people who were displaced by the hurricane, she said.

It’s no accident that these buildings ended up in low-lying areas. Land in the floodplain is cheaper and more available, suffering from a history of disinvestment, said Mustafa Santiago Ali, a former EPA official who now leads environmental justice efforts for the Hip Hop Caucus. Industrial and agricultural facilities, and all the pollution that comes with them, are often located in these intermittent waterways, too.

"It’s the cheapest land and the most undesirable land, and usually that’s the most dangerous land," Ali said.

Residents of Lumberton, N.C., know that well. Hurricane Matthew destroyed four of the city’s public housing developments in 2016. Millions are being spent to rehabilitate them. Lumberton fared better with Florence — it only damaged 10 of the authority’s 500 occupied units, said Adrian Lowery, the housing authority’s executive director.

Lowery’s greater concern is how disaster recovery funds will be distributed. He knows that Lumberton, as a low-income community, will have to lobby state and federal regulators to get its share.

"I don’t want to say we’ll be left out, but we’ll be at the bottom of the totem pole," Lowery said. "Our folks are going to have to fight for all they can get."

It’s a grim replay. Some of the same buildings that were damaged by Matthew were slammed again by Florence. They’ve been vacant this whole time.

That means hundreds of people in a city already short on affordable housing have been displaced for two years. Now it promises to be longer for some of them. It’s a problem that city and state officials are aware of. Official planning documents prioritizing the expenditure of Federal Emergency Management Agency public assistance money noted that Matthew decimated affordable housing in Robeson County. The county is 67 percent non-white, and the North Carolina Housing Coalition says 42 percent of renters have a hard time paying for housing.

Flooding and disasters compound chronic insecurity related to poverty. Public database searches of subsidized housing residents in Fayetteville, Lumberton and nearby Pembroke revealed patterns. Many were evicted after short stays, sometimes for missing payments as small as $150; some residents had criminal records; and others moved multiple times over short periods.

All of that is already known.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development and FEMA released a survey last month that showed renters were three times less likely than homeowners to have $2,000 on hand for evacuations.

Important number: 104,497

About 10 percent of North Carolina’s public housing units are in the known floodplain, making it emblematic of the U.S., according to New York University’s Furman Center. Altogether, 9 percent of U.S. public housing units — 104,497 total — and 8 percent of privately owned, federally subsidized rental housing — 343,351 units — are in the combined 100- and 500-year floodplain.

Actual susceptibility to flooding is probably even greater, as climate change and development render floodplain maps outdated. Those maps don’t project future effects from sea-level rise and warmer waters, which climate scientists said intensified Florence, Harvey and other storms.

A public housing development in Lumberton, N.C. Photo credit: Department of Housing and Human Development
A public housing development in Lumberton was devastated after 2016’s Hurricane Matthew. | Department of Housing and Human Development

Climate change fueled a stronger storm surge during Florence, flooding 11,000 more homes than it would have in 1970, according to an analysis by nonprofit research organization First Street Foundation. It projected that climate change would help flood an additional 51,000 homes in 2050.

Pritchett doesn’t need a report to see what’s happening. She wants higher ground.

"I think it’s going to happen again next year. It’s happening more often over the years. I don’t know why, but it seems like it’s happening closer and closer together every time," she said of floods and storms. "I’m gonna move because I don’t think I can deal with the stress anymore."

Pritchett applied for FEMA assistance, hoping to get reimbursed for the $600 she spent for the hotel. It’s probably going to be a long wait.

Many federal programs for low-income people don’t work — or aren’t being used by the Trump administration, said Mickelson of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

President Trump did not activate FEMA’s disaster housing assistance program after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria last year. The program provides direct rental assistance and case managers for low-income residents displaced by disasters. FEMA’s transitional housing program — essentially, setting people up in hotels — has requirements that the poorest of Americans can’t meet, like putting down a credit card.

Navigating the system can be hard for anyone. That’s even more true for impoverished victims of a storm, Mickelson said. Sixty percent of Maria victims were denied FEMA assistance, she said. Months after Harvey, just 26 percent of the people who applied for FEMA or Small Business Administration assistance had been approved, according to a December 2017 survey by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

That can lead to hard choices. Do damage victims stay with relatives? Double up with displaced families? Return to uninhabitable homes? Many just wind up on the streets or bouncing from place to place.

That’s what happened to Adrienne Kennedy. Born and raised in Lumberton, the 43-year-old stayed as close to home as she could after Matthew: in her grandmother’s car. Then at her friend Wanda’s house for three weeks. Then at the supply store that she helped run for the county’s disaster recovery committee.

A hotel for 10 months.

Back to the store.

Then, accepting the inevitable, she left her hometown for Fayetteville.

Now she’s at a gymnasium there. She’s helping elderly poor people find their spot on the floor. They each have 75 square feet. Tape on the ground separates spaces. There are no cots. They’ve been "prioritized elsewhere," Kennedy was told. Rumors swirl around the gym about when everyone can go home. No one knows. Lumberton officials still need to check for damage and mold.

"Where we live are the majority of public housing units. Initially, I think that the plan for where public housing is located right now — which is floodplain, flood path, flood zone — the planners of this community had it all planned out," said Kennedy, who doesn’t live in public housing but whose former Lumberton home sat just behind such units. "The policy didn’t change. Neither did the topography."

Geography and prejudice

Map of North Carolina with locator points for; Raleigh, Lumberton,Wilmington,Pembroke,Fayetteville. Map credit: Claudine Hellmuth/E&E News
| Claudine Hellmuth/E&E News

That’s no coincidence. Downtown Lumberton was built on the highest land around. After the Civil War, homes for black families were constructed south of the city limits, along the river in low-lying areas exposed to flooding. Exclusionary zoning, restrictive covenants and "redlining" all played a role in segregating neighborhoods. Over time, Lumberton incorporated those flood-prone, mostly black communities.

Those development trends were common in the South after the Civil War, according to a 2006 study by Jeff Ueland and Barney Warf, two geography professors. Their research of 146 Southern cities showed that historical and institutional racism pushed black communities into less desirable and low-lying land.

That public housing ended up in the floodplain is an extension of those policies, said Andrew Kahrl, a historian and professor of African-American studies at the University of Virginia. Wealthier white residents didn’t want public housing in their communities. Nor did the real estate industry, which worried that those facilities would depress home values.

So they exercised political might.

"When public housing was expanding, it was working in a way to reinforce housing and class segregation," Kahrl said. "When you have that kind of system in place … then you come to a point where you have public housing in the floodplain."

The Rev. Mac Legerton of Pembroke is concerned about what that means for the future. He said climate change will harden the disparities between the wealthy and poor, the white and non-white.

"The pattern of movement in metropolitan areas is that in white communities they mostly move north to higher ground and downtown communities become further integrated," said Legerton, who is the executive director of the Center for Community Action. "That’s happened in Lumberton. The wealthier people moved out of downtown to higher ground."

The Trump administration canceled a policy that might have helped bridge some of that divide by making public housing more resilient. The "federal flood risk management standard" would have required federally funded infrastructure to be rebuilt stronger after a storm. That would have presumably applied to federal housing like those run by HUD.

The policy, though, never got off the ground. Trump revoked it just days before Harvey hit Texas. The White House said more than a year ago that it was working on a replacement standard, but none has emerged.

‘I just froze’

Fixing institutionalized inequalities is daunting. Barbara Brown would know.

Brown has seen hurricane-induced flooding from two perspectives — as a survivor of Hurricane Matthew and a commissioner for the Housing Authority of the City of Lumberton.

Before Matthew, Brown lived in one of the city’s 11 low-income housing projects. It’s named Weaver Court, a cluster of one-story buildings less than a mile from the Lumber River. She joined the housing commission in the early 2000s and gave a voice to the city’s low-income residents. They happened to be her neighbors.

Downtown Lumberton, N.C. Photo credit: Ammodramus/Wikimedia Commons
Lumberton is emblematic of the linked financial and racial fortunes in a disaster-prone area. | Ammodramus/Wikimedia Commons

Then, on Oct. 8, 2016, Matthew filled her home with more than 4 feet of water. "That water was moving like a snake, everything was just moving and banging around," Brown recalled. "So I prayed, I asked God to save me. I prayed because I’m afraid of water."

She survived. But none of her belongings did.

After seven months in a Comfort Inn in Durham, Brown moved back to Lumberton. She found a new apartment across town, in another public housing community called Eastwood Terrace. The new place sits on higher ground and feels like a continent away from the Lumber River.

Brown avoids traveling to the west side of Lumberton because it conjures memories of Matthew. "When I go over on that side, I have to get out of there before dark because all I see is that water coming up again."

As Florence approached the Carolina coast earlier this month, Brown and her fiancé fled to Nash County, where they waited four days before making the 130-mile journey back home. On the way, Brown felt a familiar fear.

"It was like I went into a trance or something. I just froze," she said. "Even though I didn’t get flooded on this one, it left me with anxiety, it left me with depression. And I’m still depressed from the last one."

It’s those kinds of feelings that make Pritchett ready to move — if she can get out of her bedroom.

Pritchett admits that she’s frozen by some sort of past trauma. Studies have shown that catastrophic storms trigger mental health issues, post-traumatic stress disorder and worse health outcomes among low-income people.

So where will she go?

"I don’t know. I don’t know," Pritchett said. "It’s just not going to be near the river."

Correction: An earlier version of the story incorrectly referred to tenants of public housing facilities being evicted after Hurricane Harvey.