For those of us who live at the shoreline
standing upon the constant edges of decision
crucial and alone
“A Litany for Survival”, by Audre Lorde
On the somber afternoon Hurricane Matthew breached the shorelines of Eastern North Carolina, I was preparing clipboards for a full day of voter registration. My goal was to knock every door along the western edge of a predominantly Black neighborhood before settling into a night of recruitment calls. A paper schedule, pinned to my office door, listed the names of three volunteers I’d enlisted days earlier under the 1:00 p.m. time slot. As the hour (and storm) drew close, it became clear that one volunteer would actually show and I was conflicted about bringing him into the storm. His name was Mr. Allen and, like many, he was concerned about how a win for Donald Trump would affect his job, family, and the Black community altogether. So, in the pouring rain, and in the middle of a hurricane, he joined me in my perilous—and admittedly foolish—attempt to register new voters.
But Mr. Allen and I were not alone. Prior to his arrival, I noticed a woman sitting still on one of Wilson County’s park benches in an open field opposite my office. Had it not been for a bolt of lightning and a loud clap of thunder, I never would have looked out my office window and in her direction. Out of curiosity—or some conceited desire to rescue someone—I crossed the street to investigate the benched woman. The closer I came to her, the more noticeable her swaying and more audible her humming became, as if she were calmly anticipating rapture rather than a hurricane. It did not take long to deduce that the woman, whose name I never learned, had nowhere to go and was waiting on no one to come and shield her from the wrath of the storm.
I walked over to the woman and smiled a toothy grin to signal my sympathy, then asked if she’d follow me inside. I extended my hand and after a beat she gripped it, tightly. With a jolt of effort, she raised herself from the bench, leveraging her body weight between her cane and my right arm. She moved mostly in silence save for when she uttered a soft yes when I asked if I could hold her backpack. The bag, though caked in dirt, was bright pink and adorned with cartoonish shapes. Surprisingly, it weighed several pounds. As we crossed the street back to my office, I caught whiff of her miasma—damp, reminding me of stagnant rain water, but more distinct. We walked together, slowly, her flattening the backs of her too-small orthopedic shoes with every step. Once safely inside, I eased the worry from my face as I considered what could have happened if she had remained outside. But then, the reality of the situation set in: Who could I call for help? What could I do? Where would the woman go?
In the twenty minutes or so before Mr. Allen arrived, I mulled over these questions. The who, what, where of the situation was mounting, and I was unprepared to provide anything beyond comfort for the woman, if that. Deciding it’d be best if she came along with me and Mr. Allen, rather than remain alone in an unfamiliar room for two hours, I prepared the backseat of my car by removing a healthy amount of trash and boxes of clipboards. The novelty of this can’t be overstated. This was the first and only time, really, that I was in charge of another adult’s well being, and the thought of worsening her situation was enough to give me a panic attack. But instead, I focused my energy on the woman’s needs, providing her with water, towels, snacks, dry clothing, and temporary refuge from the gathering storm. Unsure of what to say, or do next, we sat together, in silence, waiting for Mr. Allen and the storm to arrive.
The town of Princeville, North Carolina, is 31 miles from my office. Originally named Freedom Hill, Princeville has a population count of less than 2,100. But it carries the history of being the first municipality in the United States incorporated entirely by free Blacks, in 1885. Since major flooding was first recorded there more than a century before, Princeville has also had the distinction of being one of the most notorious locations for severe flooding in the United States. Because it is situated in the underlying region of the Tar River, the entire town is uniquely vulnerable to flooding after heavy or prolonged rain. For the most part, U.S. municipalities at high risk for flooding have a higher proportion of low-income and Black residents. Princeville is no exception. Its Black population is estimated to fall between 96 and 97 percent, and nearly 20 percent of Princeville’s residents currently live at or below the poverty line. Thus, Princeville epitomizes the abandonment, displacement, wanton neglect, and unimpeded mental and physical violence engendered by the state against Blacks in instances of bad weather. A town that historian Richard Mizelle has called a “remarkable symbol of environmental resilience” is synonymous with being frequently, literally and financially, under water.
This was certainly evidenced in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew. The lackluster response from the North Carolina General Assembly illustrates how, across the U.S., the financial, political, and social motives or interests of the state tend to exacerbate the suffering of Black residents. This truth is seen clearest in intimate, local instances. The state’s inability to account for the suffering of the Black woman who sat alone in the park, without shelter from the wind and rain, is emblematic of an anti-Black climate always already prepared to fail Black people. This prolonged, multi-generational failure of the state to properly redress or remedy the variegated suffering of Black people should excite us to imagine otherwise, a society in which Black lives actually can and do matter. The way forward, then, may be to reject the state’s influence and align ourselves with coalitions and community power in order to resurrect Princeville from its Atlantis-like depths.
To assess the state’s response to the residents of Princeville in the wake of Hurricane Matthew—and to see how weather, state power, and Blackness intersect—it is instructive to examine the state’s response in the wake of a previous storm, whose name lives in infamy across the South. On Sept. 16, 1999, Hurricane Floyd, a Category 2 storm system with sustained winds of 110 mph, made landfall in southeastern North Carolina, at Cape Fear. According to WRAL, an affiliate of NBC, between 12 and 20 inches of rain oversaturated the ground and flooded multiple rivers, including the Tar River, which borders Princeville. Fifty two people died across the state. Many died as they tried to escape rising waters and debris. Thousands more were injured. In Princeville alone, over 700 homes—the vast majority of the town—were destroyed, displacing thousands. Water damage brought some of Princeville’s most beloved landmarks, such as its Town Hall, to the ground.
On Feb. 29, 2000, President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 13146 to advance “the future of Princeville, North Carolina” in the wake of Hurricane Floyd. The objective of the Order was to establish an interagency council that would develop structural and nonstructural recommendations in order to assure Princeville’s future. According to the Order, these recommendations were required to respect the “unique historic and cultural importance of Princeville in American history… and, to the extent practicable, protect Princeville from future floods.” Indeed, this was quite the undertaking, and a bold maneuver on the part of an administration on its way out of the White House. The commitment behind the Order could not have been more explicit: Princeville was there to stay, and an assembly of the government’s best and brightest would guarantee it. All they needed was funding.
That funding came four months later as part of the Emergency Supplemental Act of 2000. Approximately 43 percent of this budget was set aside for a feasibility study of ways to reduce flood damage in Princeville. The assumption was that by pouring time, energy, money, and effort into the town, the government could do its due diligence and possibly ameliorate another catastrophe to life and property. In July 2002, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers entered into a Feasibility Cost Sharing Agreement with the state of North Carolina. Over the course of the study, a number of alternatives were proposed, leading to a Feasibility Scoping Meeting in 2006. At last, in December 2015, during the Obama administration, the Army Corps of Engineers published a report. It found that nearly all of Princeville’s residents remain at high risk for “public/life safety issues” due to the high occurrence of flooding in the area and the likelihood of future floods. Among other significant findings, the report finds “substantial threats to mental and physical health” if no action is taken by the state to address the serious environmental issues in Princeville. Additionally, the report predicts “negative impacts to community cohesion, as families and individuals are displaced by floods” and damage to “cultural and historic sites” causes residents to leave town or lose hope.
Catastrophic flooding brings long-term harm, not only to property and infrastructure, but also to the psychology of residents and the very spirit of a community. In Princeville—a community originally built upon the self-organization and determination of Black people—it seemed that the damage brought by Hurricane Floyd might never be repaired. Looking back a decade after the hurricane, Fire Chief Keith Harris—who led many rescue efforts during Floyd—put it this way: “The long-term psychological impact of a flood is still prevalent here. I don’t know if you will ever fully recover.”
An updated version of the Army Corp of Engineers report, released in April 2016, stressed the findings included in the December report. Among its recommendations were new levees, highway rerouting, extensions to current levees, and improved evacuation plans. Despite these plans, six months later Hurricane Matthew breached the unimproved levees, drowning Princeville once more. All told, more than sixteen years of state and federal action did little to prepare Princeville, although the threat of flooding was well known, studied, put into numerical terms, and documented. With Black lives at stake, was it ever conceivable that the state would hold up its end of the bargain and “to the extent practicable, protect Princeville”? It wasn’t unlikely, it was impossible.
Across North Carolina, Hurricane Matthew caused an estimated $1.5 billion in structural property damage, and killed at least 26 people. In the days following the storm, water levels rose over Princeville’s faulty levees, causing massive amounts of flooding. By Friday morning, an estimated 80 percent of the town’s homes and businesses were again submerged underwater. Fortunately, the residents of Princeville were evacuated prior to the storm. "I mean, I just cannot praise them more. We have not had a loss of life in a town that is totally under water at this point in time," former Governor Pat McCrory told reporters.
The evacuation is indeed a praiseworthy feat. But it is hardly evidence of the state’s commitment to “protect Princeville from future floods.” Nor, does it demonstrate the state’s willingness to mitigate, as much as possible, the wholesale damage that displaces residents and creates the conditions for community-wide despondency. Just the opposite—the successful evacuation is notable only because of the state’s wider failure to remedy Black suffering and safeguard the flourishing of Black lives.
Lives were saved, but much of the town, its history and its community, was lost. Such loss is incalculable. As Atlantic writer Vann Newkirk II writes, “The most difficult exercise in a catastrophe’s aftermath is accounting for the things and people lost: the resulting health crises, the activities made difficult, the memories erased, and the strain of rebuilding.” The actions taken by the state in the wake of Hurricanes Floyd and Matthew ignore much of what Newkirk avers cannot be easily recovered: health, access, memories, and relationships.
This present, like the condition of African Americans more generally, cannot be separated from the the long history of transcontinental slavery. “Slavery suffuses our present-day environment in an afterlife called the weather,” writes Tufts University professor Christina Sharpe in her book In The Wake: On Blackness and Being. Sharpe writes that “weather” is “the totality of our environments; the weather is the total climate; and that climate is anti-Black.” In this context, Hurricanes Floyd and Matthew are not so much arbitrary, singular, or apolitical meteorological events, but the manifestations of consequences and conditions that Black people experience within a world that desires, and sometimes even celebrates, Black death. So long as an anti-Black society is the norm, reproducing itself unabated generation after generation, the effect of bad weather upon Black people will result in pain, suffering, loss, or death.
Thus, state recommendations that address only the surface consequences of catastrophic disasters without considering the totality of the environment in which they take place, will fail Black people time and time again. It is no accident, then, that the woman sitting alone in the park had no other recourse other than to endure the brute force of the weather. She, like millions of other Blacks, lives in a climate that would rather her dead than alive. As stated in the famed conclusion of Audre Lorde’s “A Litany for Survival”, the woman was “never meant to survive.” If there is hope, then it be to do as the original members of the Princeville community did and break new ground and pray that liberation will come before the rapture.