Hurricane Matthew brought utter devastation to Haiti and other islands in the Caribbean after it swept through the region early last week. In Haiti, the storm killed at least a thousand people; damaged infrastructure advancements the nation had made in its push to modernize; and delayed a presidential election originally scheduled for early October. While the problems it’s caused on the eastern United States have been less dire, the storm has nevertheless had serious consequences in many communities. And, as in Haiti, its aftereffects may have repercussions on the country’s upcoming presidential election as well. Efforts to calculate the political costs of a disaster—which are already ongoing in the case of Matthew—often generate callous, clinical results that don’t capture the length and breadth of those effects; they may focus on how displacement might benefit one candidate or the other, but can’t capture the human stories behind those missed votes. The most difficult exercise in a catastrophe’s aftermath is accounting for the things and people lost: the resulting health crises, the activities made difficult, the memories erased, and the strain of rebuilding. Worrying about political consequences can seem crass when people’s day-to-day lives are in ruins. Sometimes, though, the things victims have to lose are political in nature, making a discussion about politics unavoidable—and even necessary.
The areas at the highest risk for environmental disaster also tend to fit the profile of low-turnout voting precincts.
As Hurricane Matthew skipped along the East Coast of the United States and flooded counties from Florida to Virginia, one question that displaced residents or those otherwise dealing with the storm’s fallout face is whether they’ll actually be able to cast a ballot for the November 8 elections as expected. In a region already engrossed in conversations at the intersection of voting rights, inequality, and justice, though, that question has roots that run deeper than just the practical barriers to voting that a storm can create.
On Monday, the entire town of Princeville, North Carolina, located in Edgecombe County just east of the I-95 corridor, was evacuated by state and local authorities in anticipation of a possible storm surge that could top the local levee on the Tar River and flood the area. The quick move to evacuate to higher ground across the river was based on experience: The town had been almost completely destroyed by a catastrophic 500-year flood after Hurricane Floyd in 1999. While Hurricane Matthew was not a very powerful storm by the time it hit North Carolina, and only struck a glancing blow, the lowland areas of the inner coastal plain flooded easily, and left some locales in nearby upriver areas under 10 or more feet of water. Many places in eastern North Carolina, like the town of Lumberton in the southeast, were hit with rainfall and storm surges that left hundreds stranded. Others dealt with fierce winds that downed trees and power lines. As of this writing, Lumberton is still mostly underwater, and many parts of the state expect flooding for a week or more.