Unpacking Data Weekly Insight

Five months after Matthew: An exercise in resiliency

Energy for flood recovery decreases as time moves on. This is not to say that aid agencies—federal, state, local and nonprofit—are not in place. They are, but there comes a point in time where a crisis shifts from an emergency to something deeper. Displacement and loss start are no longer immediate pains; they are the deeper scars that are part of a community’s identity. 

Five months after Hurricane Matthew swept through Eastern North Carolina, hundreds of North Carolinians are still living in hotels awaiting some sense of how to rebuild their lives. Every morning, the Edgecombe County Public School System sends buses to five different counties to pick-up more than 100 displaced students who have gone more than half of the school year without a home.

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Princeville Elementary School after flood abatement Photo credit: Andrew Holton/NCCPPR


Earlier this week, the EdNC and NCCPPR team spent 24 hours in Edgecombe County. The goal was to immerse in an area of the state where our reporting team observed great challenges and great opportunities.

The story in Edgecombe County is split: the county has more than its fair share of challenges, but despite that, it is a community rallying and thinking about its place in 21st century North Carolina. And education is at the core of the thought processes.

Conversations with Edgecombe County education officials are candid, authentic and insightful. Superintendent John Farrelly openly embraces the competition generated by school choice and is trying to build an innovative school system to compete in the market. Discussions with board members, teachers, administrators and parents focused on common threads; over and over, we heard that Edgecombe schools are willing take the risks involved with change and acknowledge the inadequacy of the status quo. Despite the flood and the economic devastation, a resilence in the community remains.

Statewide resiliency

Resiliency, however, takes more than just local support. We also spent time with Gavin Smith a UNC professor in City and Regional Planning and the director of the University’s Coastal Resilience Center. A former emergency management administrator in North Carolina and Mississippi, Professor Smith works with the State Office of Emergency Management and advises on the state distribution of some of the more than $200M appropriated for recovery in December 2016.


Professor Smith gave our team a tutorial in disaster recovery and management by explaining how disaster recovery is comprised of three elements: (1) resources, (2) technical assistance, and (3) and public policy. Each requires different administration dynamics and poses separate challenges.

First, though frequently insufficient, resources to address are voluminous at the outset and often pour into communities that lack the administrative capacity—both in people and expertise—to manage them effectively. The sudden influx may cause inefficiencies, confusion and, at its worst, mismanagement.

Second, technical assistance is typically available in disaster situations, but the web of technical assistance providers can be difficult to navigate even for experienced recovery personnel. Standards and agencies often change. The best practices and how to execute them evolve over time. Technical assistance providers struggle to coordinate federal, state, local and nonprofit assistance providers that lack full integration.

Finally, the timing of public policy can be cumbersome and misaligned with the availability of resources. Professor Smith recounted an example in Mississippi where money to rebuild a neighborhood arrived prior to the implementation of new building standards. In the rush to rebuild, new flood mitigation guidelines were ignored in an entire recovery neighborhood.

In his work advising the state on recovery planning, Professor Smith identified several public policy issues, many announced by Governor Cooper in recent public remarks:

  • Identify ways to increase the stock of affordable housing in the flooded counties. Before Matthew, there was insufficient affordable housing. Rental housing, affordable and otherwise, should be a particular focus.
  • Search for ways to clean and provide flood mitigation for business districts where many properties are privately owned and where owners could not afford flood insurance. There are often multiple options for flood mitigation, and business owners need guidance when selecting options and understanding the cost-benefit analysis.
  • Help elderly residents think practically about decisions for flood mitigation and/or relocation. Due to the graying population in many eastern counties, the need to account for the elderly population in disasters will become more acute. This includes elderly property owners and owners managing housing targeting elderly citizens. For example, the cost to elevate and build an accessibility entrance for certain structures may exceed their value.
  • Begin preparations for the next flood while the experience is fresh in our minds. Many of the communities hit hardest by Hurricane Matthew were also hit hard by Hurricane Floyd in 1999. Communities like Rocky Mount and Kinston applied flood mitigation efforts that made a difference in their exposure to Matthew. Through Professor Smith and a cadre of other experienced experts, the state emergency management leaders are harnessing collective flood wisdom and institutional memory while it is available. Let’s hope that result will be a response and recovery system that is even better prepared when the next 100-year flood comes in 20 years.

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Andrew Holton is a board member and contributor to the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.

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