North Carolina is no stranger to hurricanes, but when Hurricane Florence slammed into the state’s coast in 2018, it quickly broke records. Five days of rainfall left the state with massive flooding and thousands of homes and businesses were damaged in the storm. A month later, the state would see some of the impacts of Hurricane Michael, as well. 

Southerly spoke with Sanja Whittington, the director of Democracy Green, a nonprofit that’s been helping North Carolinians rebuild since the hurricane’s devastating effects. These answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Sanja Whittington, left, and other Democracy Green volunteers and board member. (Photo courtesy Democracy Green)

How Democracy Green got its start

Democracy Green was really launched in the season of Hurricane Florence [in 2018]. We were thrust into the work. It was really boots on the ground, figure it out as you go. Now, we’re going to be as prepared as we can be. 

We center our work in eastern North Carolina. We have been very committed to creating mutual aid hubs. Some people call them resiliency hubs because a lot of people still really haven’t fully recovered in eastern North Carolina from Hurricane Florence. 

What we found is that we need to stay connected to the community because the storms are coming at more of a rapid pace. Now we’re looking at hurricanes hitting like every two years. We’re discovering that North Carolina is a hot spot. Our larger organizations, like the Red Cross in the state, don’t reach small, hidden pockets of people—communities that are hidden because they don’t participate in the Census, hidden because of issues [like immigration].

We make sure that people have what they need when they need it. We do a lot of work in supporting our tent cities—people who are houseless right now that find themselves living in their cars or motels, hotels, or even in literal tents. 

That is where we have found our niche. We develop relationships with the community. We partner with community organizations, ministries, a nonprofit that doesn’t mind doing pop-ups with us. And we’re just anticipating what’s to come because we know what is going to come. And we constantly work year round to make sure that communities are ready when the next storm hits. 

Democracy Green handing out supplies after Hurricane Florence. (Photo courtesy Democracy Green)

Building relationships in vulnerable communities

When Hurricane Florence hit, we knew who was getting impacted and who wasn’t getting help. I recall one situation when Immigrations and Customs Enforcement was a major deal back in 2018. So in the Latinx community, we dropped off materials and relief. We communicated with community leaders and determined meeting spots, and we would drop off aid. They would then take it back to people wherever they were located. Of course, if we would have been stopped, we could have been honest [that we didn’t] know where undocumented workers were. It also developed a respect and relationship with the community to respectfully go to the elders and say, ‘this is what we have, this is what we want to do, this is how we’re going to help you.’

We don’t like to go in and say, ‘we’re here’ and put on a grand show. We like to show that respect to people that are doing the work, doing the best they can. We foster that relationship, that communication. 

Building relationships in hidden communities

For Black communities, a lot of us aren’t on the Census. We’re not on the GIS maps that the Red Cross and other organizations use to find people. Our community doesn’t necessarily trust filling out that information, and they’re undercounted. But when the storm hits, they have needs. 

So a major drop could happen in a known area, a populated area that’s shown on the Census. But a Black community can be 25, 30 minutes out from that drop location with no transportation. So that’s where we would come in and transport goods, because we realized that people can’t get out to what they need.

The long road to recovery

In a lot of our communities, we have what is called heirs property. Froperty can be in a family for like a hundred years, but it’s not deeded, and it’s not subject to approval for lending. So these houses and properties have been allowed to get dilapidated because they can’t get funding to remodel. So when a storm comes, the houses are already facing major challenges because there’s no upkeep and renewal. These structures can’t be expected to withstand the brutal storms that keep coming. And then there is additional damage, mold and mildew, structural issues. The funding is not there to remediate the issue. A lot of people are dealing with homes that are still completely destroyed, or have mold and mildew. 

What solutions look like

We’re seeing a strong buzz from funders in the real issues—what we’re elevating is the need to purchase land in areas that aren’t storm prone, and secure structures that are environmentally safe for people to relocate to. 

Democracy Green is partnering with the North Carolina Black Alliance to launch a mini-grant series to assist individuals in the community already doing the work– providing a hub with items like blankets, towels, and that type of thing so that when the need comes, we’ll have those things already in stock adjacent to communities we’ve identified that will need help. 

Supplies after Florence. (Photo courtesy Democracy Green)

So we have those contacts, and we can get it out into the community that this hub is there for them and they don’t have to wonder when help will come. 

A lot of people want to donate when a storm hits– so we can go and pick up those items and take them to our mutual aid locations. 

Historically in the Black community, we have always helped each other. That’s the way I grew up, my mom reared me and my grandmother reared her. If you were aware your neighbor needed something, you would do what was needed. I grew up with that model and I think that organizing work today is just a larger visions of what we have already been naturally there to do.

Working toward resiliency and political empowerment

We’re very aware that every time storms come through, it affects the political year. Storms happen in September, and people’s lives are in disarray. By November, people are still struggling. Being able to engage in voting is almost impossible. So we’d like to see ballot boxes outside of shelters, mutual aid hubs, wherever people can access that even though a storm has misplaced them. That’s what I would say resiliency is– to not have their rights stripped away and to be heard.