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Poor and Rural North Carolinians Are Hardest Hit as Aerial Photos Show ‘Overwhelming’ Devastation

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Aerial photos showed “overwhelming” devastation, an 1,870-megawatt nuclear plant had to be shut down, and poor and rural residents of the Carolinas were hit hardest as tropical depression Florence continued to drop rain on a waterlogged region.

“In the days since Hurricane Florence began to make landfall, some Mid-Atlantic towns have received as much as 35 inches of rain,” the Washington Post reports [1], in the introduction to a photo and video essay from the scene of a mounting, multi-city disaster. “Across three states—North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia—residents have been flooded out of their homes. Roads have turned into rivers navigable only by boat. Rivers have swollen to historic highs. Some have yet to crest.”

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The Post adds that “from the ground, this damage is devastating. From the air, the devastation is overwhelming.”

As expected, the floodwaters in parts of North Carolina have become a toxic brew of sewage, coal ash, and overflows from the local livestock industry’s hog waste lagoons, InsideClimate News reports [3]. One of the other centres of concern, the two-unit Brunswick nuclear generating station, was safely put through a “hot shutdown” last Thursday. But the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission still declared [4] an “unusual event”, the lowest of its emergency classifications, after floodwaters cut off Duke Energy employees’ road  access to the plant, located [5] 20 feet (6.1 metres) above sea level, about four miles (6.4 kilometres) from the Atlantic coast, and 30 miles (48 kilometres) from Wilmington, where the storm made landfall.

U.S. News and World Report said there were only 300 utility staff onsite, compared to the usual complement of 900.

“Plant workers have since been able to get provisions in via a single route,” WRAL-TV reports [6]. “But plant requirements say there should be two useable routes. Without that, by definition, it’s an unusual event,” and subject to NRC notification.

“The Brunswick plant’s two reactors are of the same design as those in Fukushima, Japan, which infamously exploded and leaked radiation following a 2011 magnitude 9 earthquake and tsunami,” local TV reports [7]. But “both units still have offsite power,” and essential personnel and NRC inspectors are still on the job.

With 40 solar energy sites in North Carolina, Duke Energy also deactivated the units that were in the storm’s path before it arrived. “As Florence moved onward, said spokesperson Tammie McGee, the utility remotely reconnected sites out of the path of the storm,” , Greentech Media reports [8]. “All solar taken offline during the storm was back online and providing power,” although the region’s utilities and renewable energy companies are still assessing the full impact.

But the most vulnerable of the region’s population face a decidedly less optimistic outlook. The New York Times reports [9] on Trent Court, a riverside public housing development in flood-stricken New Bern, NC, where resident Keisha Monk “thought she had found something better than basic shelter” for herself and her four children.

“Trust me,” she told the Times. “When I first came here, I thought it was heaven.”

That was in January. This week, “after a brief evacuation, she returned to Trent Court to find that flooding from Florence had turned her place into a sodden wreck,” the paper notes. “She also realized that she was now a player in the kind of redevelopment drama that tends to swamp storm-battered places like this—a story of race, class, gentrification, and safety fears, and questions without easy answers about who gets to live on often alluring, sometimes treacherous, waterside real estate.”

Monk is “also being reminded, in the way low-income residents of New Orleans were reminded after Hurricane Katrina, that the poor are always vulnerable—to the vagaries of the real estate market and to the perceived value of their residences in good times and the ravages of Mother Nature [and the impacts of climate change—Ed.] when disaster hits.”

The Washington Post reports [10] that the impact has been particularly harsh for “tens of thousands of homeless, working poor, and farmworkers, many of whom are undocumented. Homeless shelters have seen an influx of people who rode out the storm at emergency evacuation centres but now have nowhere to go.”

Many farmworkers had no idea the storm was coming, since there were few notifications in Spanish. Now, those who made it to emergency shelters are afraid to be grabbed by federal immigration agents if they leave.

“In eastern North Carolina, we don’t have Spanish media. There was almost no warning for a lot of farmworkers,” said Melissa Bailey Castillo, community outreach director for the Kinston Community Health Center in Kinston, NC. “They didn’t have enough information, and this was a really dangerous storm.”

As it turned out, “at least one camp of farmworkers who did not evacuate flooded,” the Post reports, citing Bailey Castillo. “Numerous farmworkers have needed rescue, and many have called emergency numbers because their insulin has run out or is not properly stored.”