As Hurricane Matthew skipped along the East Coast of the United States and flooded counties from Florida to Virginia, one question that displaced residents or those otherwise dealing with the storm’s fallout face is whether they’ll actually be able to cast a ballot for the November 8 elections as expected. In a region already engrossed in conversations at the intersection of voting rights, inequality, and justice, though, that question has roots that run deeper than just the practical barriers to voting that a storm can create.
On Monday, the entire town of Princeville, North Carolina, located in Edgecombe County just east of the I-95 corridor, was evacuated by state and local authorities in anticipation of a possible storm surge that could top the local levee on the Tar River and flood the area. The quick move to evacuate to higher ground across the river was based on experience: The town had been almost completely destroyed by a catastrophic 500-year flood after Hurricane Floyd in 1999. While Hurricane Matthew was not a very powerful storm by the time it hit North Carolina, and only struck a glancing blow, the lowland areas of the inner coastal plain flooded easily, and left some locales in nearby upriver areas under 10 or more feet of water. Many places in eastern North Carolina, like the town of Lumberton in the southeast, were hit with rainfall and storm surges that left hundreds stranded. Others dealt with fierce winds that downed trees and power lines. As of this writing, Lumberton is still mostly underwater, and many parts of the state expect flooding for a week or more.
It would take time in any community to recover from effects like these. But in some of the counties facing the worst damage in North Carolina—including Edgecombe, Cumberland, and Bladen counties—their history presents additional difficulties that can make resuming normal life a challenge. These areas have large populations of people of color and are home to large numbers of low-income residents. The town of Lumberton is known for its large population of Native American people and is mostly low income. The town of Princeville is also predominantly low income, and as the oldest incorporated black town in the country, its residents are virtually all black.
Towns and counties like these have always faced environmental risks from flooding and other environmental catastrophes because of centuries-old patterns of settlement and marginalization. As is true for Princeville, their precarious locations are often the result of historical decisions to cede lowlands and riskier areas to people of color, a story of de facto segregation that has played out in successions of land grants and redlining in communities throughout the country. The resulting racial and economic patterns of disaster risk are also intensified by the fact that the areas occupied by poor people of color are also the least equipped to launch effective disaster management and recovery efforts.