View from Moratoc Park in Williamson, NC, overlooking the Roanoke River

View from Moratoc Park in Williamson, NC, overlooking the Roanoke River

For communities across the U.S., the wrap-up of summer means the start of school, crisper and cooler air, and college football season. For Southern and East Coast states, this time of year is also marked by the looming threats of hurricane season. Already this season, we’ve seen two significant hurricanes, Harvey and Irma, bring destruction to coastal islands and Southern communities. A natural disaster that damages homes, businesses, and local infrastructure can be an inconvenience at best and a devastating set-back at worst for communities that are working hard to improve outcomes for their residents. When we consider what it takes to create Southern places characterized by belonging, thriving, and contributing, we know it’s important for communities to be forward-thinking about equitable growth and bright spots of opportunity—and we’re reminded that environmental resiliency is crucial to these efforts. We’ll be exploring the need for this kind of resilience in Southern communities. We’ll talk about the risks posed by climate change, who is particularly vulnerable to these risks, and why this matters for communities that seek to propel their residents toward higher levels of upward economic mobility.

Today, we begin with an examination of 17 northeastern North Carolina counties that know all too well the frustrations and obstacles brought on by environmental vulnerability. These counties—Beaufort, Bertie, Camden, Carteret, Chowan, Craven, Currituck, Dare, Gates, Hertford, Hyde, Martin, Pamlico, Pasquotank, Perquimans, Tyrrell, and Washington—comprise North Carolina’s “Inner Banks,” part of the focus region of North Carolina Land of Water (NC LOW). NC LOW is a nonprofit organization supporting sustainable development of northeastern North Carolina’s natural resources and cultural history. While they focus on eastern parts of the state including the Outer Banks, NC LOW recently commissioned MDC to conduct a data scan of the state’s Inner Banks to examine educational attainment, poverty, upward economic mobility, availability of living-wage employment, and emerging industries. MDC visited some of these counties’ lovely natural spaces and spoke with local business owners who are dependent on the tourist economy driven by the region’s natural assets.

Pettigrew State Park Trail, by Somerset Place (formerly Plantation) in Creswell, NC

Pettigrew State Park Trail, by Somerset Place (formerly Plantation) in Creswell, NC

It’s not surprising that many entrepreneurs in the Northeastern part of the state have invested in the tourism industry, hunting and fishing services, and restaurants that welcome tourists. For rural communities close to the water and characterized by unique ecosystems, tourism can revitalize towns and turn communities into centers of celebration and festivities, as Chowan County has seen in the small town of Edenton. In fact, NC LOW would like to see local leaders in government and economic development place their bets even more on the ecotourism industry, rather than recruit industries that have the potential to harm the area’s natural resources.

According to Dr. Stanley Riggs, the Chair of the Board of Directors for NC LOW, in the past few years a new generation of young people returned to these counties with aspirations of starting guide services in the unique swamps and waters of the Roanoke River and Albemarle-Pamlico sounds. However, the localities hadn’t yet invested in the infrastructure needed to make this sector robust. Since then, some municipalities have built camping platforms, boat ramps, new parks, and other features that undergird the ecotourism industry.

For this economic development strategy to work, however, communities in Northeastern NC need to have environmental resiliency: decreased vulnerability to natural disasters and other forces that could harm the area’s natural resources. Last year’s hurricane season provides a case study of the damaging effects natural disasters can bring to local economies. In 2016 alone, Windsor, a small town in Bertie County, saw 10 to 20 feet of flooding in some areas three times over the course of the hurricane season, with Hurricane Matthew doling out particularly devastating effects on the heels of previous floods. Local business owners we surveyed referenced the area’s vulnerability to natural disasters as they discussed the challenges of having a brick-and-mortar business. One Windsor restaurant transitioned to a food truck after repeated flooding; the state’s FEMA policy covers homes, but not businesses. While this adaptation has been an exciting new experience and challenge for the business owners, closing their restaurant meant laying off many employees whom they valued and who, in turn, surely valued that source of income.

These effects are particularly troubling considering the high rates of poverty, low rates of educational attainment, and low chances for upward economic mobility in the Inner Banks counties. In Bertie County, for example, where the Windsor business is located:

  • 22 percent of the population lives in poverty (nine percent of the white population and 30 percent of the black population) (U.S. Census Bureau American FactFinder)
  • Only three percent of those born into the lowest income quintile in the area will make it to the top earnings bracket as adults, according to the Equality of Opportunity Project. Conversely, 72 percent of these individuals will stay in either the lowest or second-lowest earnings bracket as adults.
  • Only 47 percent of the white population and 27 percent of the black population have at least some education beyond high school.
  • In 2016, only 17 percent of jobs paying between $20-30/hour were occupied by workers with just a high school degree. Meanwhile, a single adult supporting one child must make an average of $20.98/hour to meet basic living expenses in Bertie County. (MDC analysis of EMSI data and the MIT Living Wage Calculator)

These factors alone create a discouraging situation for economic resilience—add recurring natural disasters to the mix, and it’s clear that communities like Bertie County, in which 62 percent of the population is black and 35 percent is white, are particularly at risk for the crippling effects of natural disasters, especially as those events are projected to occur with increasing frequency and strength.

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Source: Equality of Opportunity Project

Source: Equality of Opportunity Project

We sometimes think about climate change affecting endangered species or making snow a little less likely here in the South. While scientists warn of the likelihood of both scenarios, it’s worth considering the economic dangers of climate change. Current global practices, such as relying heavily on fossil fuels, contribute to increasing atmospheric temperature, which may explain in part why we’re seeing such intense storms that relentlessly hit communities in the South. As we know, many of these communities are vulnerable due to proximity to water, low-lying lands, higher rates of poverty, lower levels of educational attainment, and policies that don’t adequately support recovery.

So what can communities like Bertie County—and its neighboring Inner Banks counties—do to increase environmental resiliency in its area, particularly when ecotourism seems like a promising economic development strategy? “Resiliency” doesn’t mean that a community is utterly invincible; it’s about being prepared so that recovery from unexpected set-backs like natural disasters or economic recessions can be as smooth and strong as possible. Resiliency can be built at local or state levels, for example, by creating recovery policies that more accurately reflect the realities of flooding or by ensuring that local manufacturers and other industries don’t contribute to the degradation of natural resources. Forward-thinking leaders in education and employment also can help build community resiliency by providing education and employment opportunities that lead to credentials and living-wage employment, so that residents can acquire the savings and safety net needed to literally “weather” life’s storms.

In our next State of the South blog on climate change in the South, we’ll examine an effect of natural disasters that doesn’t discriminate between rural and metro areas: the threats to healthcare centers and the patients they serve. Stay tuned, and from all of us here at MDC and State of the South, we extend our sincere condolences and hopes for recovery to those affected by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. To support local and national recovery efforts, you can donate to one or more of the many organizations assisting victims and their families in Houston and areas affected by Irma and Maria.