Journey Across North Carolina: Exploring Disaster Relief, Economic Development, and Hidden Gems in the Heart of the State

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By Tiffany Smith, Attorney, Disaster Relief Project

Starting in August 2023, I began a journey across North Carolina that most people, including North Carolinians, had never done. Earlier that year in May, I attended a rural economic development seminar in Elizabeth City, NC. During that seminar, they provided a map of the most at-risk disaster areas in NC. At the top of the list was Hyde County. I had no clue where Hyde County was in NC, as I had never heard of it, but I decided to reach out to them that day. You see, I work as a staff attorney in Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Disaster Relief Project, and I am an African American female who is a double graduate of North Carolina Central University (NCCU). During the Elizabeth City presentation, the statistics showed that Hyde County is majority rural, and the African American community there is the most at risk of land loss during disasters than any other people in the state. Because of my background, I was immediately drawn to do outreach there. I scheduled a presentation on Disaster Relief’s services for August 2023.

Fast forward to August, and lo and behold I had completely forgotten to appropriately schedule myself. Instead, I was asked by a supervisor to do outreach in Haywood County, to which I had agreed. A day later, one of the teams’ paralegals called me and asked if I was still going to Hyde, and I replied yes. I had assumed the travel dates would be apart; however, when I looked at my schedule, I realized that I had to travel the entire length of the state of NC, from Hyde to Haywood, in a matter of days. Rather than cancel and not keep my word, I decided to travel to both events. At that point, I wanted to make it a journey and do outreach in every single county in NC. In that initial journey, I talked to people about the services of Legal Aid in at least 33 counties. In October and November, I realized that I had to travel the length of the state again, so I decided on a different route. By the end of November, I had traveled to 87 out of 100 counties. In December, over the holidays, I went on to complete my journey.

I am very interested in economic development, in addition to disaster relief. Traveling the state, I was able to learn about everyday people’s knowledge and curiosity of disasters and economic development. From this experience, I realized the top disaster on the majority of the state’s mind was active shooting and domestic terrorism. I was able to ask about natural disasters and climate change, and many of the people I spoke to were not as concerned. In terms of economic development, I realized much of the state is very rural. I noticed that there is no consistent and functional cell phone reception in much of the state. As a disaster relief team member, this concerned me. I realized that in the event of a disaster, many people will not be able to call for help. This may result in an underreporting of the number of disasters accounted for. In addition, in many of the rural counties, law enforcement presence is lacking, and in many urban communities, law enforcement and first responder presence is overrepresented. This leaves open the possibility of no first responders being able to access people in a timely manner in the event of a disaster.

Leaving aside the disasters, I learned that the most beautiful places in the state are not in the middle, but in the far east and west. They are the most rural and underdeveloped, but their natural beauty is more picturesque. Here are some of the hidden gems of North Carolina that I came across in my travels: Currituck County to the east, Rutherford County to the west, and Alamance County in central NC. I do look forward to traveling back to those for personal enjoyment, as well as a handful of other places that I would love to do day trips.