January 22, 2019 | Lee Cannon

Guest post by Jasmine Hayes

I am a recent Master of Public Health graduate from East Carolina University. I was born and raised in the small rural town of Elizabeth City, North Carolina. My career goals are to increase knowledge of health and wellness, creating environments that allow people to reach their physical, mental and spiritual potential.

In 1999, Hurricane Floyd, a Category 2 hurricane, made landfall in North Carolina, causing damage that today represents one of the greatest disasters in the state’s history. Seventeen years later, Hurricane Matthew repeated destruction in many of the same counties.

Most Eastern North Carolina counties convened or resurrected “Long-Term Recovery Committees,” addressing unmet needs of people impacted by Hurricane Matthew. However, few communities have framed recovery as an opportunity to design an initiative to build community resilience using a community-based participatory approach.

Such an approach begins with understanding the viewpoint of individuals impacted by flooding from hurricanes. Individual resilience is a person’s ability to endure, adapt to, and recover from adversity — and individual resilience likely influences the success of building community resilience.

My fellowship lays the groundwork for designing a model of community-based participatory research focusing on community resilience and natural disaster preparedness. I conducted this project with guidance and support of my advisor and co-investigator, Suzanne Lea, in ECU’s department of public health. Our ultimate goal was to expand our understanding of individual and community resilience in socially vulnerable populations. We chose to work with people of low socioeconomic status and the elderly, because evidence indicates that these populations are more vulnerable before, during and after a disaster event.

Vulnerable populations, for instance, lack the resources to prepare for flooding or respond to evacuation requests due to difficulties with transportation, disabilities, social isolation or fear of vandalism to their damaged homes. Thus, socially vulnerable communities need increased assistance over the course of a disaster response and during recovery.

However, the needs of vulnerable populations often are not sufficiently considered during the planning, implementation or recovery phases. This project provided an opportunity to include their voices, giving them a chance to express their perceptions of past planning and response.

With our community partners — Cherry Beasley from UNC Pembroke, David Collier from ECU, and multiple Pitt County Disaster Recovery Partner executive committee members — we tested and developed a focus group interview guide and short survey. In total, we conducted nine focus groups between November 2017 and April 2018 in Pitt County and Robeson County. In addition to the focus groups, we also interviewed two key informants, due to their current work and expertise in the field of disaster recovery for Pitt County.

Fifty-five people participated. Black (49.09%) and Latino/Hispanic (34.55%) people together comprised a majority, and most participants were women (76.36%).

Despite the difference in locations, some common themes arose among participants who had experienced either one or both hurricanes. Residents agreed that the combined levels of the government response leading up to the hurricanes was much better with Matthew than with Floyd.

Participants also explained that they not only were having trouble rebuilding, but also having trouble affording the demolition of their damaged homes.

Many expressed uncertainty and concern about drinking tap water due to an unpleasant taste and smell. The distrust regarding the safety of the water dated back to 1999 with Floyd and again more recently with Matthew in 2016.

In addition, participants said that their children were frightened and remained worried about the next hurricane. Residents also reported that ditches were not maintained in the community, raising concerns about future flooding. Many said that if the ditches are not maintained, the only feasible route for the water is to rise. One of the most prevalent themes was that participants no longer valued physical items and have re-framed their value of material goods.

Though communities are recovering, additional strategies could make community resiliency a faster, more sustainable process. Participants shared recommendations for future flooding events, with the hope that their communities would continue to recover and move in positive directions. These recommendations included a more integrated and transparent recovery application process, more shelters, particularly for elderly, and the need for childcare so that parents could address losses.

Residents also recommended alert systems for evacuation; bilingual representatives; additional sign-language alerts; accommodations for the non-ambulatory, such as a public transit option; and installation signage near bridges and low-lying streets that would identify unsafe water levels.

Going forward, this information is planned be used to lay the groundwork for future disaster preparedness efforts, with the input of previous survivors taken into account. It could also potentially be helpful to county planners and emergency management groups when making preparedness plans.

There may be no better input than that of first-hand survivors. The final report also will be shared among the community partners, focus group participants and key informants as an opportunity to view what we learned.

Jasmine Hayes received support for this project through a joint North Carolina Sea Grant / Water Resources Research Institute Graduate Student Fellowship. This post originally appeared on the North Carolina Sea Grant Coastwatch Currents blog here.

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