Environmental Risk & Disaster Recovery

Project BRIDGE: Building Resilience and Innovation through Diverse Group Engagement

(Some of the) BRIDGE Team. From left to right: Laura Bray, Dr. Bethany Cutts, Margaret Crites, Hannah Goins, Nathan McMenamin, Sallie McLean, Angela Allen, Dr. David Shane Lowry

I’ve been research assistant on this project, led by Dr. Bethany Cutts (College of Natural Resources, NCSU), since 2018. Project BRIDGE is a participatory research project designed to promote environmental justice and sustainable planning in the disaster recovery process. Our research, based in post-hurricane Robeson County, North Carolina, combines two forms of participatory research: participatory videos and citizen science.

Disaster Recovery in Robeson County

Robeson county resident and citizen science specialist Taleek Harlee recruits study participants at Lumbee Homecoming, July 2019.

Robeson County spans 950 square miles of North Carolina’s coastal plains, just above the South Carolina border and about 80 miles from the coast. Located within the Lumbee (Lumber) River watershed, land use in the rural county is dominated by large-scale crop-cultivation and some of the highest densities of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and processing facilities in the United States. The area has long been politically and economically marginalized, resulting in high rates of poverty and large disparities in healthcare, education, and infrastructure. The county is also one of the most racially and ethnically diverse rural areas in the US, with a population made up of 39% American Indian, 26% white, 24% African American, and 9% Latinx (American Community Survey 2017).

Robeson County experienced serious impacts from both Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Florence in 2018. During Hurricane Matthew, the Lumbee River reached historic flood levels due to prolonged heavy rainfall, ultimately causing thousands of residents to evacuate and hundreds more to need rescuing. Hurricane Florence struck just two years later, causing a record breaking $22 billion in damages in North Carolina and again hitting many of the most socially vulnerable communities in the state. Robeson County was still in the midst of recovery when Florence brought three days of heavy rainfall and widespread flooding. During both events, the flooding risked redistributing environmental contaminants, including animal waste from CAFOs and heavy metals from coal ash ponds and other industrial sites.

Documenting Recovery Experiences with Participatory Videos

Interview Specialists Hannah Goins and Nathan McMenamin

In this project, we use the community voice method (CVM) — a video-based method that focuses on creating inclusive and community-focused public participation to improve sustainability planning (Cumming and Norwood 2012). We use the framework to engage residents and community leaders in describing and documenting changes they observe during the recovery process. The filmed interviews will be used to construct documentary-style videos that will be screened in public workshops and policy settings to facilitate discussions and inform recovery planning.

Local interview specialists, trained in qualitative interview methods, have been crucial for navigating the local community and ensuring the research meets local needs and expectations.

Environmental Testing with Citizen Science

Researcher Olivia Vilá (left) and Pastor Lawrence Garner (right) collecting soil samples for E.coli testing at Harpers Ferry Baptist Church in Pembroke, NC.

The citizen science component of the study engages residents in environmental testing focused on the presence of E.coli (an indicator of fecal contamination) and heavy metals in residential soil. Through this project, we seek to gain a deeper understanding of how disasters may produce new environmental hazards, as well as engage residents in discussion about environmental health and risk. By training participants in soil sampling protocol, we also hope to create a network of trained citizens who will be able to quickly mobilize to collect additional samples in the event of future flooding.

Research Products

Funding Acknowledgements

Project BRIDGE is grateful for research funding and support from NC Sea Grant, Foundation for the Carolinas, and the Natural Hazards Center.