In this series by Enlace Latino NC we examine what happens to rural latinos before, during and after natural disasters, and how some non-profits and community groups are pushing for inclusive emergency preparedness, response and recovery solutions.
Dodging a kitten scurrying toward his feet, Alberto stood in the front yard of his Pender County home in late October, marveling at the house that was once in shambles — and that he rebuilt himself. A pale pink sunset lit up a dreary sky as he pointed to the bare branches of three peach trees (one for each of his children) separating the property from a long stretch of rural highway.
“They will come back,” he said of the peaches while speaking in Spanish. “We just have to wait until next summer.”
His daughter, Jessica, 24, looked at her father and smiled at the thought of something certain to look forward to, a memory she could recreate. Two summers ago, Jessica and her mother, Alicia, gathered sun-ripened peaches from those trees to give as gifts to friends.
All that changed on Sept. 14, 2018 after Hurricane Florence ripped through eastern North Carolina. Winds and flooding in the aftermath destroyed their house. Three days after the family evacuated, they returned to Pender County to discover both a large tree and a utility pole had fallen and struck the roof, creating a gaping hole. Water rushed in and ruined everything inside.
The immigrant family from Oaxaca, Mexico, purchased the two-bedroom house in 2010 for $55,000 and paid it off a few years later. Now, the only home they ever owned in the U.S. had to be gutted and rebuilt.
“At that moment I felt horrible,” Alicia, the mother of three, said in Spanish, noting that she almost fainted. “There was nowhere to sleep, nothing to eat. I thought, ‘where are we going to live?’”
On that first night back at the property, the family set up camp in their windowless shed. But as the flooding began to rise, they moved into their cars and spent the night afraid, with nowhere to go. Because the family is of mixed legal status, names have been changed to provide anonymity.
For eight months the family was homeless. The challenging recovery and rebuilding process for this family took nearly two years — 20 months — with Jessica, the only adult English speaker, navigating it all.
Their experience mirrors the struggle many low-income communities of color — Black, Native American and Latinos — have endured in rural areas in North Carolina after major hurricanes. Low-income communities are more likely to live in flood-prone areas, with fewer economic means to recover. But for undocumented populations in rural North Carolina, the majority of whom are Latino, accessing federal support is limited, and most state funds are allocated only to residents with legal status in the U.S. Limited or no English proficiency also poses a challenge that deters many immigrants from asking for help. For the Pender County family, none of their recovery would have been possible without Jessica, their first child born in the U.S.
And unlike other rural minorities, the stories about Latino immigrants after a disaster are less known, eluding most news reports.
Sarah Dewitt-Feldman of Rural Forward NC, a statewide nonprofit supporting community and social health initiatives, said her team’s work on disaster issues has unveiled “tremendous inequities” in the way Latinos in rural North Carolina receive support from disaster preparedness and recovery systems.
In North Carolina, formalized recovery efforts — and funding — have barely considered rural Latinos as a community with complex identities, including socioeconomic status, language proficiency (for both English and Spanish if they speak an indigenous language) and varying degrees of legal status, who are affected by disaster recovery in different ways. During a hurricane, for example, county agencies do not send out emergency evacuation alerts in Spanish. The agencies often don’t know where to find Latino communities after a disaster.
Data on how disasters affect families like Jessica’s is hard to come by in North Carolina. Research is often framed within the context of labor. North Carolina Latino issues are equated with workers who are transient or seasonal, not entire, growing communities that include families like the one in Pender County: mixed-status immigrant families putting down roots despite limited resources and support. The indigenous Mixtec family said they have many other Mixtec friends in the area. Several, however, left Pender County after Florence.
Immigrants in North Carolina — of which an estimated 44 percent, or 350,000 people, are undocumented — often lack money to rebuild their lives, whether it’s repairing a house or paying rent. They face rental troubles, displacement and homelessness. Food insecurity and health issues are serious problems too since undocumented immigrants are not eligible for federal public benefits, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or health insurance through Medicaid or the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
As for Jessica, she spent the next two years piecing together aid from a patchwork of sources, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), local nonprofits and religious groups. Her mother was the sole breadwinner at the time, earning $700 every two weeks while working at a factory. In the meantime, Alberto and a host of friends and volunteers began to rebuild. The family first slept huddled in school gyms serving as hurricane shelters, later moving to a couple of hotels they were directed to (and given financial aid for) an hour away. They ultimately settled on living in an old trailer for almost a year up the road from their wrecked house, paying rent out of pocket.
At Duke University, Elizabeth Albright, chair of the Environmental Economics & Policy Program, is currently researching how rural Latinos in North Carolina are affected by climate disasters. She points to her past research on flooding in Colorado for parallels among immigrant groups.
“In terms of flooding or hurricanes, oftentimes Latinx communities are among the more vulnerable, particularly if their immigration status is not secure,” she said.
A state like Texas — prone to hurricanes with a high concentration of Latino residents — provides insight, too. A survey conducted in Texas after Hurricane Harvey by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Episcopal Health Foundation details challenges immigrants, particularly limited English speakers, faced after the hurricane. Among those: “immigrants may lack the literacy necessary to navigate the systems in place to help people affected, they may be ineligible for benefits, or may be hesitant to seek help for fear of exposing their own or a family member’s legal status.” Most aid from federal and local government agencies requires proof of legal status.
Despite a record 30 named storms in 2020, North Carolina was spared a hurricane of Florence’s magnitude. But as climate change worsens weather patterns, experts warn that even when a hurricane doesn’t make landfall in North Carolina, it’s bound to bring tumultuous impacts in its aftermath that present serious risks to communities.
In August, Hurricane Isaias spawned 12 tornadoes in North Carolina, killing two people. Hurricane Sally caused widespread flooding on the Carolina coast in September. And after Hurricane Eta ravaged Central America in November, it brought torrential rain and winds that killed at least seven N.C. residents.
“There’s no place that’s spared from climate change,” said Kathie Dello, the state climatologist. “[For] communities of color, undocumented immigrants, people living in poverty due to systemic racism — climate change is hurting them now.”
Before the Storm: Without emergency alerts in Spanish, Latino immigrants in rural N.C. are left out of local emergency preparedness. Read it here.
Recovery harder for undocumented population
In the two years since Hurricane Florence hit the region, more than $2 billion in state and federal assistance has helped those affected in North Carolina, FEMA’s website shows.
However, FEMA limits access to its funding, according to UC Berkeley architecture professor Mary Comerio, making it harder for low-income communities to find support.
«Low-income families do not qualify for disaster loans,” Comerio revealed in a report by the Urban Institute, a social policy research nonprofit. “And FEMA Individual Assistance Grants are quite limited in scope and value, and not designed to pay for housing reconstruction.»
FEMA provides some disaster support, including money for temporary rental, home repairs, personal property loss and other serious disaster-related expenses not covered by insurance or other means, according to FEMA’s site. Undocumented immigrants are not eligible for cash assistance programs, but they can apply on behalf of a child born in the U.S.
Yet figuring out how Black, Latino and Native American residents are adversely affected by disasters does not always show up in the data.
“Many times communities of color are undercounted,” said Monica Sanders, a Georgetown University professor who teaches hazard economics and its human impact.
In fact, not all federal and state agencies document the race or ethnicity of those who apply for hurricane recovery assistance, according to FEMA, the N.C. Division of Emergency Management and the N.C. Office of Insurance.
On a Dec. 10 virtual panel with Climate Central, Sanders said these gaps in information trickle down to how communities of color recover from disasters.
“Socially we need to reframe how we think about emergency response and climate adaptation,” Sanders said. “We need to acknowledge that while there are changes in these systems, the changes are happening in a system framed within historical, structural, systemic racism. Recognizing a lot of these anomalies are symptoms of a larger problem is the first step.”
Amanda Martin, deputy chief resilience officer at the North Carolina Office of Resiliency and Recovery (NCORR), said she acknowledges that state agencies must do more to support Latino communities during every phase of a disaster.
“There is a recognition that we have our work cut out for us with respect to greater research and more policy to address the ways that populations like Latino immigrants have fewer monetary and political resources for recovery and resilience,” Martin said, “and to build on the strong social ties and community leaders within the Latino community to support and advance resilience.”
The state’s current disaster funds and grants are allocated by federal agencies — like FEMA and Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Federal rules require applicants to be legal residents of the U.S. For a family of mixed legal status, like the one in Pender County, FEMA allows any household member with legal residence to apply, no matter their age. Current and former FEMA officials and consultants confirmed to Enlace Latino NC that U.S.-born children have been approved as applicants in the past, and the website notes that this is allowed.
But unlike other government agencies, NCORR does collect demographic data on its applications. The agency has committed more than $185.4 million to help storm survivors and continues to accept applications for its ReBuild NC Homeowner Recovery Program. The program provides funds to homeowners recovering from Hurricane Matthew (2016) and Florence (2018) to help repair, reconstruct, replace or elevate residential structures, as well as reimburse homeowners for repairs already completed.
The state-run program does, however, require that applicants are legal residents of the U.S. In an email to Enlace Latino NC, the agency’s spokesperson stated that there were 121 Latino applicants as of Oct. 31, 2020, which includes both the phase 1 application period for survivors of Hurricane Matthew, and phase 2, which opened June 2020, for survivors of Hurricanes Matthew and Florence. Spanish-speaking applicants have accessed the online 2020 Homeowner Recovery Program application 1,156 times since June 15 of this year, according to NCORR’s online user metrics.
When Alberto, 50, and Alicia, 43, bought the Pender County house a decade ago, the family of five had already lived in North Carolina for 13 years. The modest house, which they paid off in 2014 with cash they had saved by working in fields and on construction sites, came with a plot of land that stretched three acres back into a forest.
“We finally had our own home, instead of paying rent to somebody,” Alicia said.
In many ways this family beat the odds. According to a 2015 report titled the State of Latino Housing in North Carolina, published by UNC-Chapel Hill, Latinos are less likely to live in single-family detached housing units (45.2 percent) and are more likely to live in mobile homes (24.9 percent) and apartments (19.6 percent) compared to all households in North Carolina. The report also highlights challenges once Latinos achieve homeownership: “Among Latinos who have managed to navigate the difficult pathway to homeownership, about 37 percent of them are cost-burdened and they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing.”
Insurance or lack of it, whether by choice, unawareness or denied the opportunity, is also common for low-income communities of color. Throughout the first few years of home ownership, Alberto and Alicia consulted with several insurance companies in their attempts to insure their property, but realized they could not yet afford home or flood insurance, they said. One company told Alberto that his home wasn’t worth enough. So they put it off.
After Hurricane Florence, North Carolina residents filed over $2.5 billion in residential insurance property claims to cover cost for damages to homes including condos, mobile homes and other dwellings, according to data provided by the North Carolina Department of Insurance. However, demographics based on race and ethnicity were not documented in these applications.
Similarly, the same Texas survey after Hurricane Harvey revealed that nearly a third — or 30 percent — of residents with damaged homes who self-reported incomes below 100 percent of the federal poverty level said they had insurance. Black and Latino residents are also less likely to report having insurance. Among the Texans surveyed, two-thirds of white residents, half of Black residents and one-third of Latinos insured their homes.
Historically, North Carolina residences are less insured than those in other disaster-prone states. An analysis of federal flood insurance records done by the Associated Press in 2018 shows, only 35 percent of at-risk North Carolina properties were insured during Hurricane Florence in 2018, compared to 65 percent in South Carolina.
Without this type of coverage, the road to recovery for the Pender County family proved challenging. For seven months, they used FEMA funds to stay in a hotel two hours away from their youngest son’s school. Jessica said the experience traumatized her young brother, but she woke him up every morning at 6 a.m. so he would make it to school.
“He barely got into middle school,” she said, adding that she drove her mother to work every morning around 5 a.m., returning to prepare her brother for class. “That year was the worst year of his life.”
But she tried to create normalcy in his routine, even if that meant ordering pizza most nights while living in a hotel room, without a kitchen to cook healthier, homemade meals.
In the meantime, Jessica spent her days at the Pender County Library in Burgaw, where she had access to the internet. She’d pass off the car to her father, who scrambled to find supplies and begin rebuilding, while Jessica searched for forms and filled out applications.
Jessica kept a large three-ring binder, stacked six-inches high with all the paperwork she meticulously documented during the arduous rebuild process. The binder includes some rejection letters from organizations that couldn’t offer support, as well as draft proposals from local contractors, including one who quoted $24,000 for repairs, documents show.
“I had never experienced anything like that,” said Jessica, explaining the agony she felt at times. “But instead of being sad, I focused on learning the rules on how to fix the house. I put my strength toward finding support for my family. I tried to be as positive as possible.”
Jessica learned about FEMA through a hurricane survivor she met at the first shelter. She had never heard of the organization before that. After every disaster, FEMA deploys representatives who set up information stations at shelters and health clinics in affected communities. Jessica found one at the next shelter, and called the same FEMA representative she met there every day until they were able to get them funding to stay in a hotel.
She found volunteer support through a couple of local organizations, including Baptists on a Mission, a Christian nonprofit that sent volunteers to help Alberto rebuild for the first two months of 2020. But she and her father ran into snags during the home inspections, which required the family to rebuild more than just the damage. The county inspector also required updated plumbing to the old structure to meet the county codes.
Alberto, Alicia and Jessica explained that they wanted to “do things the right way.” As first-time homebuyers in the U.S., Alberto and Alicia found an old home within their budget and purchased it directly from the owner. As the home reconstruction began, they learned of local regulations required for newer residential structures. Prior to that, the immigrant family was completely unaware of county codes and inspections.
Less than two weeks after Jessica submitted the first application, FEMA approved the family’s claim by awarding them $4,991.85 total, which they received by the end of October. From that, $2,575.72 went to home repairs, $824.13 for personal property and the rest, $1,592 to pay for two-months of rent. That money did not last for the 20 months they were out of their house, and barely scratched the surface of the rebuilding costs. Alberto said he doesn’t like to think about the cost, but estimated they paid at least $30,000 out of pocket over 20 months. This includes materials and paying people for their labor.
Alberto and Alicia are among 63,664 homeowners and renters who were collectively approved for a total of $229.7 million in FEMA Individuals and Households grants to recover from Hurricanes Matthew and Florence, according to the N.C. governor’s office. The family did not receive any other state or federal funding.
Farmworkers left behind by broken labor and disaster aid system. Read it here.
Advocating for an inclusive future
While immigrants struggle to recover from natural disasters with little or no help from government agencies, more organizations in the private sector are stepping in to help.
The N.C. branch of Catholic Charities USA, a nonprofit advocating for social justice to reduce poverty, developed its disaster program in 2014. Unlike other programs, the organization does not require identification, like a social security number, in order to receive funding or assistance.
Daniel Alteneau, the organization’s communications director, said the group is there to use its disaster funding to fill the gaps.
“No single agency or funding source is going to fully meet a family’s need,” he said.
The program serves as a conduit to connect survivors to resources that meet specific needs like food and utility bills, but often the major need is stable housing. According to Altenau, during the recovery phase of Hurricane Florence Catholic Charities assisted more than 250 Hispanic families, or over 1,000 people by providing financial help to pay for home repairs, rent or bills. Most of these families live in Pender County. After Hurricane Matthew the organization helped 130 Latino families, or more than 500 individuals.
Daniela Vereau coordinates Catholic Charities’ disaster program in eastern North Carolina. She said one main challenge in reaching Latino communities after a storm is earning their trust. As a Latina, Vereau acknowledges that her position within the organization is often perceived as an authority figure.
“Unfortunately, people in the Latino community tend to get spooked after a little while,” she said. “We know the need is out there, but it’s hard to get Spanish-speaking people to trust us.
Sometimes they do find help within their own community and fall off the radar of the agencies trying to help, so it’s harder to keep track of where people are in the recovery process.”
Families of mixed legal status are put in precarious situations after a disaster, especially when law enforcement assists in recovery efforts. Undocumented residents are wary of any interaction with authorities because they fear deportation. About 2.4 million mixed status families live in the U.S. in 2017, according to estimates by Pew Research Center. They are couples or single individuals with minor children where one or both parents are unauthorized immigrants with one or more children who were born in the U.S., said Jeffrey Passel, a senior demographer with Pew. The organization estimates that about 85,000 immigrant families, as described above, live in North Carolina.
After Hurricane Matthew in 2016, N.C. Inclusive Disaster Recovery Network was formed to create collaboration between public, private, non-profit and faith-based organizations to provide equitable access to resources before and after a disaster. This year, the coalition prioritized Latino community input to better develop advocacy and policy strategy on disaster mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery for vulnerable populations. The network meets monthly over Zoom. It is spearheaded by Rural Forward NC, a statewide nonprofit helping rural leaders develop health programs.
The network has opened up an avenue for increased understanding where gaps of communication have long existed among rural Latinos, nonprofit advocates and government officials, especially during a precarious public health crisis with the novel coronavirus pandemic.
According to Rural Forward, more than 300 people attend NCIDR meetings, representing 80 counties; 57 percent of the participants are Latino, 33 percent white and 5.5 percent Black.
During the monthly calls, Latino participants range from healthcare workers, farmworkers to community organizers. Groups represented include the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry, Catholic Charities, the Association of Mexicans in North Carolina and various migrant health clinics and state agencies.
On Nov. 13, Latino community leaders and advocates led and conducted a meeting in Spanish with English interpretation. They invited members of NCORR and N.C. Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry to hear firsthand from the community.
By the end of the year, NCDIR hopes to complete a best practices document to address solutions and align budgets to meet the needs of rural Latino communities affected after a natural disaster.
“If government [officials] aren’t involved in this conversation, it doesn’t have legs,” said Andrew Shoenig of Rural Forward NC and one of the network’s facilitators.
Dewitt-Feldman, another facilitator from Rural Forward NC, pointed out the NCDIR’s strength in connecting communities.
“On the other side, I am continuously amazed by the resiliency of these communities and the way they support each other despite all the odds,” she said. “There is potential for this network to be a vehicle for long-term advocacy to take place.”
Finally back home
After so many months of rebuilding and overcoming obstacles, the family moved back home in April 2020.
The parents fluidly blend Mixtec, an indigenous language, and Spanish into daily conversation. Jessica speaks to them in Spanish, and her youngest brother, a smart, artistic preeteen, responds mostly in English.
Alicia began taking English classes earlier this year, provided through her employer. She continues to take her English lessons virtually during the pandemic on her way to becoming trilingual. Her son, now 22, graduated from N.C. State University in May and got his first job as an engineer out of state.
As for Jessica: while managing all the logistics from the county library for 20 months, she also finished two bachelor’s degrees online.
“I kept going, I kept pushing. And I couldn’t stand not having something to do other than helping out my parents,” she said laughing.
Mostly rural and white, Pender County is 7.5 percent Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census, compared with 81.5 percent white and 14.5 percent Black. It is North Carolina’s fifth-largest county in terms of land size, where agricultural operations for tobacco, sweet potato, blueberries, pork and poultry are big business.
Indigenous Mixtec families make up a growing minority group in Pender County, according to the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry and Centro Hispano at UNC-Wilmington.
The end of the coastal county line stretches into part of Topsail Island, a popular tourist destination, which may also account for the county being the second largest growth rate in the state for retirees headed to the beach.
After Alberto and Alicia bought their home, Alicia planted a peach tree, an apple tree and a blueberry bush for each of her children. She rescued the berries years ago after harvest season working on a farm. Her backyard garden flourished before Florence with tomatoes, chiles, squash, watermelon, wild strawberries and milpa, or corn. The stalks never produced any food, but their tall leaves swayed in the breeze outside the kitchen window, reminding the family of home in Oaxaca, Mexico.
In her new kitchen, Alicia checked on a pot of beans and slapped together tortillas, double the size of the taquerias nearby — Oaxacan style. She mentioned there’s a Oaxacan restaurant in town, a sign to the growing community emigrating from her homeland, but she hasn’t tried it yet.
Alicia painted the kitchen walls lavender and the connected living room a pale turquoise. Where the two colors meet on the wall and blend, she set down a statue of San Pedro, the patron saint of her Oaxacan village. The saint set the tone for the Day of the Dead altar in progress.
Alicia explained she would be picking up marigolds for the altar the next day.
“I’m happy to finally be in this house,” she said.
This report, the final in a series, was produced with the support of Investigative Editing Corps, a project that helps local news organizations to do investigative reporting. The project is funded by the North Carolina Local News Lab.