Puerto rico government

Report Residents at Risk – Center for Public Integrity

Reading time: 4 minutes

I didn’t know what to expect as I drove the dual carriageway from Greenville to New Bern after landing from South Florida one morning in March.

I was there as a reporter to find stories about climate change relocation as part of a year-long project, Harm’s Way, produced by Columbia Journalism Investigations in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity and Type Investigations. The goal: A growing number of communities across the country are so threatened by climate change that the best option is to relocate, but federal programs aren’t up to the daunting task.

Although I am an editor at Public Integrity, I volunteered to report on this project because of my years covering natural disasters in places like Florida, Oklahoma, and Puerto Rico.

And now, after months of learning everything I could, I had arrived in this North Carolina town.

New Bern sits on the banks of the Neuse and Trent Rivers before they flow into the Pamlico Strait. I was well aware of the intimate relationship this city has had with water over the years and especially in 2018 when hundreds of people had to be rescued after Hurricane Florence flooded the city.

But New Bern’s history with segregation and its expensive historic homes are a reflection of the many inequalities present in cities across the country. Water does not discriminate, as some locals told me, but those who can afford it recover faster from natural disasters while those who have not struggled for a long time.

And it was time to do the kind of reporting that we journalists can only do in person: we knock on doors, ask questions, and listen to those who are kind enough to share their stories with us.

I spent a lot of time in town on North Hills Drive. Floods have damaged homes there on several occasions since 2010. Many had hoped for buyouts from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but those are slow in coming. Some ended up selling their damaged homes to private buyers for little money. As one woman told me when I called, “We’re not getting any younger to wait for the government.

North Hills Drive is in a hollow and this channel surrounds most of the North Hills Drive community and there is also a stream nearby (not shown here). (Mc Nelly Torres / Center for Public Integrity)

As I drove around the North Hills Drive area, I noticed that many of these homes are well kept, with manicured lawns and dogwood trees.

But residents here are well aware that they live in danger of future flooding. The neighborhood sits in a hollow surrounded by a canal and near a stream.

One afternoon, I met an army veteran caring for his disabled wife in the home where they raised their now grown children. After initially considering a buyout, he asked for help raising his house.

But it was an uphill battle. After repeated conversations with the city – local agencies are the point of contact for these FEMA programs – he is still waiting.

About this series

The federal government knows that millions of Americans will have to relocate to avoid the harshest impacts of climate change, but the country offers little organized assistance for such relocation. When communities ask the government for help, they face considerable obstacles – a particular problem for communities of color.

I couldn’t understand how someone who had served this country in the military couldn’t get government support at a time when he and his family needed it most.

At the end of the street, I saw a house where construction to raise the structure seemed to have stalled. What happened, I wondered? Has it been abandoned?

Julie Thomas, who lives across the street, told me. The owner’s son lives there. He uses a ladder to get in and out as there are no steps.

Thomas, who is about 70 years old, suffered several floods in this house. Florence has ruined everything inside.

“It’s devastating,” she said. “Your heart is broken and you feel like there’s no mending.”

Construction to raise a home on North Hills Drive appears to have stalled. (Mc Nelly Torres / Center for Public Integrity)

She returned a few months after the storm with reconstruction still in progress, with the floors and walls not yet complete.

Now she only buys second-hand furniture. Whenever she feels ungrateful, she looks down the street to remind herself that someone else has it worse.

“My heart hurts more than anything watching situations like this,” she said.

Our Harm’s Way project launches today with a story about communities stuck in the midst of repeating disasters and experts urging the country to take action. Next week we will post the story I co-reported on New Bern and other flood-prone places. Watch for this and other parts of our survey at publicintegrity.org.

This work takes time, but it is worth the time, the effort and frankly the frustration and headaches we go through as we try to shed light on the issues of inequality affecting people in this country.

I’m obsessed with connecting the dots and explaining complex issues. More importantly, I love talking to people and telling their stories.

I wouldn’t have any other way because the result is priceless.

Help support this work

Public Integrity has no paywalls and does not accept advertising so that our investigative reporting can have the greatest impact possible in the fight against inequality in the United States. Our work is possible thanks to the support of people like you.