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Hurricane Floyd's Principal Victims: The Poor

Catastrophe: Quashing any notion that disasters are equalizers, the storm reinforced the axiom that low-income people tend to live in flood plains, rich people on high ground.

February 06, 2000|MARTHA WAGGONER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

ROCKY MOUNT, N.C. — When Cathy Goss listens to the canned music on her doctor's hold line, she hears money washing down the drain.

Before Hurricane Floyd, Goss had a home, a car and a phone. Now she lives in a government-owned mobile home. She has no job or car. She uses a cell phone with prepaid minutes consumed by calls to her doctor's office.

"They put you on hold, and they play that music," says Goss, a disabled single mother of two from Princeville. "They just eat your money. Your time's running out while you're on hold."

When Hurricane Floyd dumped 20 inches of rain and flooded eastern North Carolina on Sept. 16, many residents lost all they had.

People like Goss have little chance of a complete recovery.

"It's like any other hardship or natural catastrophe," says Joe Mobley, a historian and expert on the town of Princeville, which became a ghost town after Floyd. "The poor and minorities always suffer the worst. And that's clearly what has happened here."

Besides inundating more than 6,000 homes, Floyd washed away any notion that disasters are great equalizers. The poor suffered far more than the rich, whose wealth and support systems are making recovery easier.

Environmental justice advocates have been saying it all along.

"A storm doesn't seek out specific kinds of neighborhoods or specific kinds of people," says Bob Edwards, an assistant sociology professor at East Carolina University in Greenville. "But because of the way we live, certain groups of people are at greater risk of suffering damage and have fewer resources to put their lives back together."

North Carolina's environmental justice movement began in the early 1980s, when residents of a predominantly black Warren County community opposed plans for a PCB landfill. They lost, but their idea of fair treatment for all in environmental laws, regulations and policies gained a toehold.

The federal government officially acknowledged the movement in 1992, when the Environmental Protection Agency created the Office of Environmental Justice.

The same day that Floyd hit, the Environmental Justice Network--a coalition of state agencies, environmental groups and community organizations--opened for business. Two months later, eight environmental groups sponsored the second annual environmental justice summit in North Carolina.

The percentage of black, Latino and below-poverty-level residents grows with proximity to areas flooded by Floyd, according to the state Center for Geographic Information and Analysis, which used racial and income figures from the 1990 U.S. Census, the most recent available.

It doesn't surprise geographers that poor people tend to live in flood plains and rich people on high ground. "Wealth is going to go up and poverty is going to go down. That's a basic tenet of urban geography," says Johnathan Bascom, an associate geography professor at East Carolina University .

Floyd flooded the neighborhoods of Mar Mac in Goldsboro, East and West Meadowbrook in Greenville, Shine Street in Kinston and Meadowbrook Mobile Home Park in Roanoke Rapids--all low-income or mostly black sections in low-lying areas.

The worst flooding was in Princeville, the nation's oldest town chartered by blacks. The Tar River town flooded regularly until a 3-mile-long earthen dike was built in 1965. The river poured over the dike during Floyd.

Mobley grew up in Tarboro, across the river from Princeville. "The river was as much a symbolic barrier as it was a physical barrier," he says.

Blacks fled to Princeville late in the Civil War because it was a Union encampment. After the war, blacks were allowed to settle on the land whites didn't want. It was an era when, in many places, black land ownership was discouraged; in the town of Trenton, blacks were prohibited by a 1949 law from buying any land at all.

"In a subtle way, owning land became a sign of whether a black was being uppity or being out of his place," said Southern historian David Cecelski of Durham, who is affiliated with the oral history program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"During the Jim Crow era, it was dangerous for a black man to paint his house. That could get you a visit from the Ku Klux Klan," says Cecelski. "In the same way you can't paint your house but you can have a house, you can have land, but can't have good land. So a black farmer ended up in a little swampy tract down by the branch."

Edwards' research shows that among North Carolina residents affected by Hurricane Bonnie in 1998, poor and disabled people spent the greatest percentage of their income on fleeing the storm and replacing damaged property.

Cathy Goss' life began unraveling a month before Floyd, when she was injured on her job at a textile mill. She now stutters and uses a walker.

She lost everything in the flooding--the home her mother owned, the 1994 Hyundai Excel she had just finished paying for, the only photographs of her dead father and brother.

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