Above: Post-Matthew flooding in Robeson County, North Carolina. Photo by Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA.
The original intent of North Carolina Sea Grant’s “Building Resilience by Innovating through Diverse Group Engagement” (BRIDGE) project was to help inform decisions about recovery with voices of residents that spanned diverse experiences within Robeson County in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew in 2016. NC State University’s Bethany Cutts, who has done similar work in the Midwest, conceived Project BRIDGE and began working closely with Biola University’s David Shane Lowry, member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina and Robeson County native. Here, David Shane Lowry provides an update on the project’s exciting new work, which now also includes a “citizen science” component and a response to Hurricane Florence.
Robeson County is the largest county in North Carolina, at about 950 square miles. It sits just above the South Carolina border on Interstate 95. The county also is the sacred homeland of two American Indian communities: the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina and the Tuscarora Nation of North Carolina. Demographically, the county is 40% American Indian, 30% white American, and 25% black American.
In 2016 and 2018, 23 months apart, Hurricanes Matthew and Florence raised water levels in the Lumbee River to historic highs. In the wake of Matthew, Robeson County residents discussed waste from corporate chicken farms that floated on top of the floodwaters, and residents remain concerned about toxins in the air and water. There also is an emerging resistance within the community to the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline and its projected path through the middle of Robeson County.
Within these contexts, Bethany Cutts and I have collaborated closely on BRIDGE, and Olivia Vilá and Laura Bray — Ph.D. students in Location Matters, an interdisciplinary environmental social science lab at NC State — have been pivotal for the project. Community advisors from Robeson County, including Adrienne Kennedy, Mac Legerton and Steve Marson, also have supported BRIDGE.
Things never go as we plan. Hurricane Florence hit Robeson County before Project BRIDGE fully commenced. When weather forecasters predicted that Hurricane Florence could lead to similar levels of flooding in 2018, the BRIDGE team felt compelled to extend the project into post-Florence realities. The team quickly convened after Florence and successfully secured additional funding from the Natural Hazard Center at University of Colorado Boulder to collect data on fecal contamination levels in soil using a “citizen science” approach, which teaches Robeson County residents how to collect soil samples in their community. This additional support for soil-testing after Hurricane Florence led to a new collaboration with Angela Harris, an environmental engineer at NC State.
With the addition of new survey methods and soil sampling protocols, Project BRIDGE now helps fill in a gap in environmental knowledge in Robeson County and actively invites residents into the development of environmental science.
The success of Project BRIDGE depends on interviewers who already are mired in the realities of post-Hurricane Robeson County and who are able to connect with citizens as they express grief, hope, doubt, and other feelings related to their survival.
In March 2019, Project BRIDGE hired and trained five Robeson County citizens — Hannah Goins, Sallie McLean, Margaret Crites, Nathan McMenamin, and Angela Allen —to recruit and interview residents from across the county about their hurricane experiences. These brilliant interview specialists completed two intense days of training that introduced them to the art and science of post-disaster interviewing. They also discussed and debated the ethics of post-disaster research. Afterward, in communities around Robeson County, they practiced their freshly honed interviewing skills.
The collaborative, interdisciplinary approach of Project BRIDGE is intended to have long-lasting and positive impacts on recovery and resource allocation decisions in Robeson County. We also want to contribute to the development of new insight about how coastal changes impact inland regions. Throughout the rest of 2019, the Project BRIDGE team will conduct interviews across Robeson County and coordinate “talking circles” in order to collate and interpret knowledge gathered together with the community. We chose to refer to these community conversations as “talking circles” because the term conveys American Indian traditions of inclusion and respect during periods of problem solving.
To date, Project BRIDGE also has collected 51 soil tests that examine E. coli levels in residential and public soils. The results will prepare researchers for rapid-response testing in the event of future flooding in Robeson County.
Project BRIDGE is now poised to become a platform upon which citizens of Robeson County can begin to take control of environmental science efforts, and, in turn, transform multi-generational pains related to policies that have prejudicially targeted and dismissed American Indian and Black American citizens.
The short-term goal of Project BRIDGE includes creating reflective documentaries and training materials to support the future of environmental justice and resilience both in the county and in eastern North Carolina. In the long-term, BRIDGE will establish a network of libraries, museums, churches, and cultural centers that will serve as a repository of information about how vulnerable communities engage high-stakes situations ahead of and in the wake of environmental disaster.
David Shane Lowry is associate professor of anthropology at Biola University. He grew up in Robeson County, and is a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. His academic work focuses on race and health in the United States with a particular focus on human survival in Robeson County. The National Science Foundation has sponsored his research in Robeson County since 2009.
Bethany Cutts is associate professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management and a faculty fellow in the Center for Geospatial Analytics at NC State University. She directs the Location Matters Lab at NC State. She is the lead researcher for Project BRIDGE.
Laura Bray is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology at NC State and a member of the Location Matters Lab.
Olivia Vilá is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management at NC State and a member of the Location Matters Lab.
Angela Harris is assistant professor and member of the Global Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (Global WaSH) cluster in the Chancellor’s Faculty Excellence Program at NC State University. Her research focuses on human exposure to fecal contamination.
Community Advisory Committee
Adrienne Kennedy was born in Robeson County. She describes herself as a “climate refugee.” She currently runs the Seeds of Hope Project & Disaster Relief Center.
Mac Legerton has been doing social justice and environmental justice work in Robeson County for several decades, including his directorship of the Center for Community Action. He received the 2007 Distinguished Service to Rural Life Award by the Rural Sociological Society.
Steve Marson is a professor emeritus of sociology who has taught in Robeson County at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.