The hurricane that divided an electorate
and united a community

Robeson County was laid waste by Hurricane Matthew, but the storm also had a redemptive effect

FAIRMONT, N.C. — “After years of things leaving Robeson County – manufacturing plants, jobs, payrolls, people – something finally came in, and what was it but more misery.”

That was the opening sentence of an article last October in the News & Observer, a Raleigh, N.C., newspaper. It’s brutally succinct and conveys a brutal truth: Robeson County has seen a lot of hardship for the past couple of decades, and a hurricane last fall seemed like the coup de grace. 

Robeson County is the state’s poorest and most violent county, with a murder rate four times the national average. Good schools are scarce, as are professional and manufacturing jobs. Most are low-wage employment in the food and retail industry, and much of it depends on serving travelers who are just passing through on I-95. 

Hurricane Matthew tore up parts of the Atlantic Coast last October, triggering flash floods in three North Carolina counties that lie in the Lumber River basin. One was Robeson County.  

People lived without fresh water and power for days. Roads and bridges were closed. Hundreds of buildings were completely destroyed, and even more were damaged. Thousands of people fled their homes, some to cheap motels lining the interstate, others, the lucky ones perhaps, out of the area entirely and for good. 

Six months later, some schools remain closed, and hundreds of people are still holed up in those motels. And parts of the county are littered with the trash hurricanes leave behind — broken and rain-soaked sofas and armchairs, sodden items of clothing that were ruined and thrown out, but never actually disposed of.

For Democrats, however, the biggest loss, the biggest political loss anyway, came at the ballot box a month after the storm hit. Republicans won up and down the ballot in what is historically a Democratic county. Danny Britt, a local attorney, became the first Republican to win the county’s state Senate seat since Reconstruction after the Civil War, and President Trump was the first Republican to win here in nearly half a century. 

Ask any Republican why the party won and he’ll tell you it was because the man at the top of the ticket promised to repeal and replace Obamacare, bring jobs back to areas devastated by free trade agreements, and because there was a general desire for change. Ask a Democrat, and she’ll blame Hurricane Matthew.

That was the two-word answer local attorney Tiffany Powers gave me when I asked her to sum up how Trump could have won just four years after President Obama cruised to victory in the county by 17 points. “I do believe that people would have made more of an effort to get to the polls,” had it not been for the hurricane, Powers, who serves on the Robeson County Board of Elections, said. 

Click the image above to expand.

Matthew probably depressed voter turnout among traditionally Democratic voters. Donnie Douglas, editor of the Robesonian newspaper, noted that the hurricane hit the county’s poorest, minority areas hardest — places with lots of people “who might have voted for Hillary Clinton but were otherwise occupied.” Democratic leaders sued to extend voter registration deadlines and early voting. But early voting rates nevertheless declined from 2012 and, according to election records, turnout dipped overall in the county, from 58 percent in 2012 to 53 percent in 2016. The equivalent figures nationally were 58.6 and 58.1, respectively. 

Some Republicans also believe Hurricane Matthew helped them, not so much because it kept voters at home but rather because GOP candidates helped out during the storm.   

“[Britt] was rolling up his sleeves up and getting dirty” during the hurricane, resident Matt Walker said, “and you just didn’t really see that from the Democrats.” 

Photo provided by Matt Walker

Donald Trump’s daughter-in-law Lara Trump campaigned in Lumberton in late September. And after the hurricane hit, an offshoot of the campaign called the Women’s Empowerment Tour, led by her, spent two days delivering nearly $30,000 worth of emergency supplies across the south of the state, including to Lumberton. A photo of a Trump-Pence campaign bus went viral on social media. 

Walker thinks that bus might have won it for Trump. “The only political person that came into the county was the Donald Trump bus, and all that was over Facebook was, ‘Trump’s in Robeson County to help out.’ You didn’t see any professional athletes coming down, you know, Cam Newton or the Panthers … We got the Hurricanes, the hockey team in Raleigh, and none of those guys came. Obama never came down, Hillary never came down.”

“And then the next big question on Facebook was, ‘Well where’s Hillary at?’ That helped me with my vote. It made it pretty easy. Hey, Trump’s willing to help out. He’s the only one who really came down in the crisis and helped out.” 

The Trump campaign’s appearance “means a lot to people in small towns, it does,” Walker continued. “It says hey, you know this guy is willing to reach out and support us in our time of need.”

But if Hurricane Matthew left voters divided politically, it also helped unite them. 

Without electricity, people used charcoal grills to cook whatever they had in their freezers and share it with neighbors and others in need. High school children who should have been celebrating homecoming instead visited a local retirement center to take tenants water and ice, and empty their trash cans. “I’m proud of them,” Powers said. ”I was so proud of all the people. The people that came together to help.”

“I had never seen our community ever come together like that,” Jarrod Lowery of Pembroke said of the way residents united after the disaster. 

Kathy Floyd, of Fairmont, a quiet town eight miles from the South Carolina border, said that for the first time, First Baptist Church, where she is a member of the congregation, didn’t merely donate money to those in need but actually opened its doors. “I saw people come together that I’d never seen come together before because of [the storm]. … We were not sitting around going, ‘Woe is me. What do I do now?’ We came together.”

Alan Taylor, First Baptist’s interim pastor, went further, predicting that the hurricane and flood, and the way the community responded in its aftermath, might have a redemptive effect on the county. It may allow people living in misery to get a fresh start, he said, to rebuild their lives either in Robeson County or somewhere else. 

“The flood, I think, in the end,” Taylor said, “may turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to us.” 

Next: Preaching the wisdom of Reagan in the age of Trump

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