The Southeast is seeing extreme flooding—again.
The disaster began to unfold on Saturday, April 22 as a thunderstorm watch for Virginia and North Carolina transformed into a flood watch. The heavy rainfall—which varied from 3.5 to 9 inches throughout North Carolina—impacted the region from South Carolina to Virginia. Roads were underwater, swallowing vehicles left behind. In South Carolina, more than 2,500 Duke Energy customers lost power, reported The Associated Press. In North Carolina, the number was 59,000.
By April 25, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper issued a flood warning, urging his constituents to avoid flooded roads and preparing them for possible evacuation. Edgecombe County, which is nearly 58 percent Black, declared a state of emergency the following day, April 26.
“In the past 24 hours, we’ve seen rainfall like we haven’t seen since Hurricane Matthew,” said Cooper, in a press release. “We know floodwaters can be deadly and I urge everyone to be cautious and stay safe.”
At press time, two people have died from the flooding. On Tuesday (April 25), the first body was discovered, according to The Weather Channel. While that person remains unidentified, a Florida woman named Sandra Berry was found dead in her car yesterday (April 27).
Today (April 28), residents remain on high alert. And the storm ending is not a guarantee that life will return to normal, as recovery and rebuilding are often extremely difficult for communities.
“When you talk about natural disasters, in particular, it exacerbates already existing structural inequities,” said Nathaniel Smith, founder and CEO of the Partnership for Southern Equity, an Atlanta-based nonprofit committed to sustainability and green development.
In the South, the pre-existing inequities revolve around where a community sits. Communities of color are often in lower-lying places, Smith says. This poses a greater flood risk. Their communities might also be made up of older and less efficient infrastructure that won’t offer proper protection or withstand a severe storm.
Additionally, the South, in general, has the country’s highest poverty rates. The numbers only worsen for Black, Native American and Latinx people. How does a family recuperate from a disaster when it has no stable financial base to start with?
“It’s the amalgamation of challenges that communities of colors face,” says Smith. “And it doesn’t start with the natural disaster; the natural disaster is just exacerbating the challenges these communities have been facing for centuries.”
All this comes just seven months after Hurricane Matthew. The one-in-a thousand-year flood event killed 34 people in the U.S. The disaster was so severe that former President Barack Obama declared emergencies in 31 U.S. counties. North Carolina officials estimate that the damage to 100,000 homes, businesses and government buildings incurred more than $1.5 billion in damage. Some of the poorest—and often Black—communities were hit the hardest.
That hurricane has led residents of Princeville, North Carolina, the first town believed to be chartered by enslaved men and women in the 1800s, to ask whether they should stay, as Colorlines previously reported. They rebuilt after Hurricane Floyd in 1999, which was considered a once-in-a-lifetime storm. Then, Hurricane Matthew hit not even 20 years later. They don’t know if they can rebuild again.
The state’s Lumbee Tribe was also hit hard. Most tribal members lost homes, businesses and food supplies for the season. Farmers lost their crop and livestock in the disaster, as well as the electricity they used to preserve and store crops and meat. They might have lost power temporarily, but they lost those goods permanently.
“The way I see it is that as we plan for our future, [we] have to keep these communities at the center of it,” says Nakisa Glover, a national climate justice organizer based in North Carolina for the Hip Hop Caucus. “Once these communities are taken care of, if you focus that energy and efforts there, all communities benefit from that.”
Research shows that such severe weather events will increase in both intensity and frequency thanks to climate change. In reference to extreme rainfall, the EPA states, on its website:
Extreme rainfall events can damage crops, erode soil, and increase flooding. In addition, runoff from precipitation can degrade or contaminate water quality as pollutants deposited on land wash into water bodies used by people for drinking, irrigation and other activities…
It is likely that the frequency and intensity of extreme precipitation events will increase over most of the United States and many other areas of the globe. A trend towards increase heavy precipitation will continue to occur, even in areas where total precipitation is projected to decrease.
These impacts are coming, and the communities that contributed the least to it will see the worst of it, Glover emphasizes. What they need are tools to prepare themselves, she says.
“Communities of color, indigenous communities, tribal communities or self-identified vulnerable or disadvantaged communities, they don’t need charity as much as they need access to resources and access to solutions.”