Wilmington, NC — I grew up in Wilmington, North Carolina — a coastal city with a long and painful history dealing with hurricanes. When I thought about hurricanes, I almost always focused on resilience: our ability to piece our cities and towns back together with tarp brigades, chainsaw crews, and mass cleanup efforts. Then, through my work as a freelance journalist, I learned how certain coastal communities would be unlivable in a number of years. I started linking the stories I was documenting to flood zones, increases in flooding insurance, and socioeconomic inequities. And I began to understand that rising water temperatures in the Atlantic had an impact on multiple aspects of my own life, like the cost of my monthly rent.
I moved back home after college because I wanted to be close to my family, to the southeastern coast I'd come to know and love during my childhood. And I naively thought apartments would be affordable. After all, it wasn’t New York or Los Angeles. But I found myself scouring Zillow and Facebook Marketplace for apartments that fit my budget and that would be comfortable. I saw one-bedrooms with no washer-dryer priced near $1,000, and two-bedrooms in poor condition priced even higher. That might seem reasonable, depending on where you live, but the minimum wage in North Carolina is stuck at $7.50 and I was making about $1,800 a month.
I was working as a server at a breakfast diner, but the job I hoped to eventually pursue full-time was my gig in audio production at a local media platform, Shoresides. There I produced a podcast called “Storm Stories,” and I spent my afternoons interviewing people about the long-term impact of Hurricane Florence. I remember sitting on the porches of gutted houses in Pender County, listening to a grandmother talk about her waterlogged family photographs, FEMA trailer and financial losses. I profiled survivors in several rural, coastal counties who were waiting upwards of 18 months to get back into their homes. People I interviewed struggled to find affordable rentals while their homes were rebuilt. Their situations were obviously much more extreme than mine, but it didn’t occur to me that our trouble finding affordable housing was actually connected. Hurricanes and flooding have pushed up rents in coastal North Carolina.
Housing advocate Bri Mellott, a member of New Hanover Tenants’ Union, recently told me that after Hurricane Florence, landlords “either immediately uprooted everyone living [in affordable housing units] or allowed the properties to molder into non livability and blamed renters for the damage without fixing it until tenants left or were evicted.” National news sources have drawn these connections explicitly, but local mainstream media here in Wilmington typically tackle the topics as separate issues. I wondered why, locally, people weren’t generally asking the hard questions I’d started to think about.
Adam Wagner, a reporter for The News and Observer who covers the effects of hurricanes, says it’s hard to decide when to include the connection to climate change and when to leave it out, because every story relates to climate change in some way. He says the impact of climate change is small for each individual hurricane, and sometimes he doesn’t feel it’s worth including in every story about storms and their damage to communities and homes.
“In too many small details, the point gets lost. Too much noise.” Wagner added that climate change made Hurricane Florence only 4% wetter, and he didn’t know if this would be a meaningful number to his readers. Sometimes Wagner and other reporters will give a nod to the crisis in their reporting rather than stating the link outright, “I think that there is a way to address climate change in a story that isn't ostensibly about climate change … this sort of mentality of, 'Oh, it's just a graph or two somewhere in the story' … but I'm not sure if it's enough.”
And then there’s the politics of my region. New Hanover County swings back and forth — in 2016 it went red for Trump, but so far this year, it’s leaning blue for Biden in the 98% of votes counted so far. However, Republicans maintain control of the House and Senate in North Carolina, as they have since 2010. A recent poll by the nonprofit Conservatives for Clean Energy shows that only 10% of Republicans in North Carolina said climate change is a “serious issue that requires immediate action,” compared to 59% of Democrats.
After Hurricane Florence, New Hanover County lost 3,000 affordable housing units, according to Steve Spain, the executive director of Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity. But he doesn’t push the issue of climate change publicly. “As a housing advocate, I would probably avoid the topic because I don't want to piss somebody off who thinks climate change isn’t real,” he said. “I would rather try and get their support for things that I know need to be done.” Instead, he’s focusing on fights he thinks he can win, like creating affordable local rental and homeownership opportunities.
Despite the rising cost of housing in Wilmington and continued impacts from seasonal hurricanes, the population has increased about 19% over the past 10 years. But even as each major hurricane in the area depletes our affordable housing stock, many people turn a blind eye to the coming storms and what they might mean for our city’s existence. After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans residents who returned to the city either found their rents were higher or their low-income housing had turned to mixed-income apartments and condos. People were displaced both from and within their city.
We have to think beyond tarp brigades and chainsaw crews. I wonder if we will make collective, meaningful connections between climate change and its impacts on our daily lives, like the rising cost of housing, regardless of whether or not there’s a storm brewing on the horizon. We must make this transition to honestly assess our future as coastal communities, to prevent and prepare rather than simply respond. We have to deal with our shrinking stock of affordable housing and address barriers to home ownership. By wrestling with the facts, we might have a fighting chance to address the global climate disaster that’s already changing our coastal cities.
As someone who’s grown up in this region and reported on its hurricanes, I took a long time to face these realities myself; I was scared to admit the worst case scenario might be real. But now that I’m doing the work and connecting the dots, I’m weirdly less afraid. Because I know what the future might hold, and I am working as a citizen and a journalist to make lifestyle changes and collaborate on telling meaningful stories so we can see what’s happening all around us. By telling ourselves the truth, I hope we’ll fight for the survival of our entire communities, not just the wealthier and whiter parts.
Laura Bratton is part of a collaboration between YR Media and WNYC’s Radio Rookies called 18-to-29 Now: Young America Speaks Up. It’s an election project that brings together young adults (18-to-29) from around the country to document their lives and what’s at stake for them in 2020.