In North Carolina, an intergenerational and racially diverse group of people are working together for climate action.

Hannah Jeffries, Carol Richardson, Sallie McLean, and Mac Legerton all live in Robeson County and have created a Disaster Survival and Resiliency School under the Robeson County Cooperative for Sustainable Development (RCCSD). They represent Indigenous, African American, and white backgrounds. Together they are tackling systemic inequities in the disaster response system in North Carolina.

They chose to call organization a school to pay homage to other cultural and empowerment movements: Freedom Schools and Citizenship Schools cultivated by African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement, and Survival Schools formed by Native Americans to preserve traditional ways in the face of settler colonialism. Robeson County has had significant damage from hurricanes. The school is organizing, educating, and training disaster impacted residents to be advocates for disaster justice through community meetings and partnerships. 

Southerly Community Reporting Fellow Aminah Ghaffar spoke to the group about these issues. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Aminah Ghaffar, Southerly:  What inspired or motivated you to get involved with disaster relief work?

Hannah Jeffries, Meherrin Tribe, Community Organizer, RCCSD: One of the wonderful things the co-op does is outreach, knocking on doors, going on the ground, door to door.  I had the pleasure of them knocking on my door. This was earlier this year, especially being a recent college graduate still trying to figure out what school am I going to go to, what programs next, what can I get involved in? I took the opportunity to get more involved. I’m here now and I’m looking at the recovery process hands on. I want to see how I can incorporate and improve my own community by helping others.  

Sallie McLean, Co-Director, RCCSD: Well, I’ve been involved in this work all my life. It affects me, my family, and my neighbors. The change begins with me. I got to step out and do something. I ended up as a youth counselor and advisor. I’ve been involved now for over 40 years because there’s a lot of things going on that just isn’t right, so we need to step up and say something. That’s why I am always going to be involved. I care. 

Carol Richardson, Community Organizer, RCCSD: Well, I’ve been doing this a very long time, before Hurricane Matthew in 2016, and this is something I do in addition to community organizing. I’m just helping folks. Like they say the harvest is plentiful, but the labor was few, but the work has to be done. So I just said, ‘Okay, I’m already doing it, let’s do it,’ and I’m glad to join this great group. 

Mac Legerton, Co-Director, RCCSD: Well, specifically related to the hurricane Matthew disaster, we lost so many trees on our property. We couldn’t get out for days and had to get a team to come in and cut us out, cut the trees out so we could even get out of our property. The flooding was terrible, and when we got hit by Florence two years later in 2018,  I got very involved. I was just shocked that the disaster response system that we have in the state is so dysfunctional. It’s been totally disempowering for residents that have been hit the hardest by the hurricanes. 

Southerly: How do disasters exacerbate economic disparities and racial tension in Robeson County? Can you speak to how it also impacts the racial tensions in Robeson County?

Carol: Most of the time the poor lose. Most of the minority communities don’t get the same amount of recovery funds or attention as in other communities. From Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Florence in 2018, we’ve seen it took a longer time for our community to be restored, and we’re still in the process. So it’s still a long journey to get there. But we do see that it tends to go to a different area, and there may be other reasons behind it. But I know that. 

Mac: The…disaster response system just adds another layer to the inequality that already exists. And there’s already racial distrust and distrust of the government. And, you know, then within each race, there’s also economic divisions in and between races. So the disasters just exacerbate that and just make it more difficult. 

Hannah: I can say that the scales are off. It’s just definitely out of balance when it comes to minority communities. You know, we see particularly like the North or the East side, which are predominantly white wealthier neighborhoods, getting more attention, more developments than West Lumberton, which is historically a Native side of the community, or even in South Lumberton, which is a historically African-American community. We see that the divide, which I feel like is a cause and effect, will cause more tension. I see you’re getting more here and I’m still left out because a lot of our family, our community members, still feel like they’re left out. You know, they feel like they’re alone. It’s up to us to help encourage them. 

Southerly: Robeson County is one of the most uniquely diverse communities in the state. Do you believe that outside organizations such as the Red Cross and FEMA without proper cultural humility and training worsen the impact of disasters? What type of response would you like to see in the future from those organizations?

Sallie: FEMA was saying they were out of money after Hurricane Matthew. There’s no time to be out of money in a disaster. That’s what your purpose is, to help with disasters. So I would like to see them step up and just really do it fairly. Give the most impacted communities what they need. Do your job, and step up and do what you’re supposed to do. A lot of people need more assistance when it comes to filling out everything. Paperwork. It’s just terrible the paperwork those folk were put through just to say, ‘Well, no, we don’t have the money,’ after they do all that paperwork. We still didn’t get assistance or were promised assistance and it never came. Some people are still today, right now waiting for assistance that they should have gotten a long time ago.  

Carol: I’m still very salty with this situation because after Matthew, one side of the community had cots and blankets where the other side would be sitting on a bench. I know because my uncle was one that was sitting on the bench. This is very hurtful for me, and so what I want them to do is not only be fast, but also be sensitive and be fair. After Matthew I immediately signed up for the Red Cross and started volunteering because I did not want that to ever happen to anyone. I want it to be equal. They were already going through so much and the ability to be insensitive and make them feel bad…because it’s very humbling for you to have to ask for a toothbrush or toothpaste. When they send their people in places like this, be sensitive because we went through a lot. 

Southerly: Tell us a little about your disaster justice tours. How are the tours educating the public and leaders on the impact of flooding from storms? 

Mac: We have four stops on the tour. We start with where the problem began with the floodwaters coming in under the interstate and through the railroad track that they never imagined would ever happen. They built the dike so this area wouldn’t flood in and they never expected the river to rise that high, to get 30 inches of rain and for this to happen. So we start there so you can visually understand and comprehend what happened. Then we go into West Lumberton, which is right where the floodwaters came in, and see the devastation there, the loss of the school. We see some potential there for community gardens and other solutions. Then we go to South Lumberton, where about 70 percent of the houses are either dilapidated or are removed. Then we do the last stop, and we really look at solutions. We look at three houses within a two block area that have been elevated. We talk about that and how elevated  homes could even be done better.  

Carol: On the tours, we go through the different communities and one of which was a community where my aunt lives and just kind of show how the impact of the hurricanes has really wiped out those communities. Sometimes, we get to speak to some of the residents there and they share their story, how they’re feeling, and how they’ve started rebuilding their homes.  

Sallie: We talk about how it was, and what should have been done that wasn’t. We let them feel the devastation because I mean, that’s all you can say. Some dare to talk about how it should have been. But I want to touch on the younger kids. They lost their friends, their schools, their churches. They’re so young that they don’t really understand why. A lot of them internalize it, and a lot of our parents are not at the point that they can even explain it because they don’t know what happened. They were blindsided. That’s why I’m so grateful that we’re here for education training. 

Hannah: It ties back to that Indigenous teaching of seven generations. I was constantly thinking about those next seven that’s going to come after you. All of our actions are going to have an impact. You have to be a leader by example, and that’s what this co-op is. We are leading by example of what true community resiliency should look like, and really helping one another. We encourage people to learn and then take action.

Southerly: What current projects is your group working on? What are you most excited about? 

Hannah: One of the projects that we’re working on is our housing research – going street by street and documenting all the abandoned homes so we can contact those owners and find out where exactly they are in the recovery process. We had started this with our summer internship program. We got over roughly 100 homes documented.  

Carol: Well, I’m definitely looking forward to the presentations that we’re going to be having with the city of Lumberton. They’re going to be talking about the plan to reinforce the floodgate area, otherwise known as the area behind the levee, and informing the residents living around the floodgate area what the plan is to prepare them for the next storm.  We’re going to collaborate more with the city to educate residents and get their questions answered about the disaster recovery process.

Sallie: I’m excited about our meetings, our community meetings that we hold, because I think that’s the fabric that’s going to maintain everybody together and to spearhead our other movements, because when we come together we make those decisions as we educate the community on things that they are not aware of. We learn a lot about the community and they’ve learned a lot about us, then we can go forward with trying to do what we are trying to do together. 

Mac: We’re doing the disaster, hurricane disaster work in the context of broader justice work, including environmental justice and climate justice. We’ve had two victories for two of our major polluters in the just emerging disaster area. We stopped the first wood pellet facility in North Carolina that had been permitted by the state. More recently, this incinerator that burns poultry waste is now closed. We have a lot of work to do to not only improve our community, but protect it and make sure that we move toward a sustainable and regenerative economy here in eastern North Carolina.  

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