hacory Blanks didn’t know Hurricane Florence was coming towards her home in Wilmington, North Carolina, until just hours before landfall. The 31-year-old doesn’t have a television – she can’t afford one – and she doesn’t listen to the radio. Her nephew told her about it. S
But as the wind howled outside there was added danger in this part of town: bullets zipping by outside her window in the Houston Moore housing complex.
“They was shooting the day Florence came out. They was shooting,” she said. “Bullets could have hit anybody [in the wind],” she said, shaking her head.
Family and friends crowded a front porch strewn with children’s bicycles scooters and cleaning spray, watching an American Red Cross van at the end of the block hand out a hot meal of rice and ground hamburger with a side of green beans and whole wheat bread.
“If I have to eat one more meal of rice and beans …” Blanks trailed off, standing on her mother’s porch. One of her nephews sat by the bottom of the uneven brick steps, eating his meal, and shrugged.
Blanks wiped her face and lit a cigarette. Another sweltering day post-Florence, she shooed her nephews and niece inside and up the stairs of the house. “Because it’s hot,” she said to them, shutting the front door closed. She turned back and said: “I’ve been keeping [them] in the house since the storm, because they be witnessing some stuff,” referencing the lootings and fights breaking out.
Blanks’s mother is the only person in the family to have power, so Blanks has moved in to her apartment, along with most of her family.
Their neighborhoods get fixed up first around here, their streets get fixed up first around here
She contemplated driving over to Monkey Junction, a mostly white neighborhood, where electricity is back in most parts and restaurants are serving people until the 8pm curfew, to get a hot meal with the $90 she has to her name.
Where Blanks is standing now, Wilmington’s Northside, is a historically and predominantly African American neighborhood. On any given street, sitting on porches, most people are out during the day, for a brief respite from the suffocating heat.
A couple of miles down the road, past the perfectly painted and mowed lawns just blocks away from Blanks’s childhood home, Peggy White, who lives near Monkey Junction, was sitting at a counter at an air-conditioned Whole Foods that opened up again on Monday with hot macaroni and cheese and chicken teriyaki. White hoped to charge her phone because the one thing Blanks’s family had that she didn’t was power.
Other than that, 63-year-old White had an undamaged home, a full tank of gas, and all the free wifi she could want. A recent transplant from Maryland, White has weathered Hurricanes Matthew and Florence unharmed.
“I was looking for a place by the beach, and my daughter is also going to [graduate] from University of North Carolina Wilmington, so I like it here. I was going to move to Charleston, but I liked it here better,” she said.
When Florence made landfall, White’s friends out of state kept her updated with news of road closures and open grocery stores. A friend had told her about the reopening of Whole Foods.
Near the Whole Foods, another grocery store opened, as well as a gas station with long lines. A Dunkin’ Donuts couldn’t sling hot donuts and iced coffees at its customers fast enough.
A 2016 UNC report called Wilmington’s schools “hyper-segregated” between black and white. They’re not the only aspect of life segregated, seemingly, in Wilmington. Now the recovery efforts since Hurricane Florence’s departure have served to highlight disparities among residents.
In Blanks’s neighborhood, unlike the one down the street, there is no open grocery store with air-conditioning to hang out in – just a small convenience store with cigarettes, beer and wine on most shelves. “I think they’re going crazy or delusional because the easiest thing to get right now is drugs. Everybody is smoking and drinking, but there’s no food being put in their body to balance them,” Blanks said.
Blanks was born and raised on Wilmington’s Northside, where the median income is between $14,000 and $17,000 a year, said Good Works volunteer Kristen McKeithan, 39, as she walked by to let people know that hot meals were available at the local community college. That is well below the city average of $43,855, according to US census data.
Many residents feels the recovery from Florence is taking place more slowly in the Northside than others parts of town. Joseph Cobbs, who grew up in this neighborhood, has a theory why.
“They don’t want you to come up. Look at where you at right now. All the white people around us got power. We got none,” he yelled over the roaring generator, sitting in a broken white plastic lawn chair in a friend’s front yard. That one and two others are powering the entire block. “No one comes to help us. So we help ourselves.”
The generator at Cobbs’s friend’s house turned off three times in 10 minutes. Without pause, the retired military man’s friend fired it up again before the duo hopped into a truck. Cobbs limped into the passenger seat – he has a spinal injury – to hunt for work to pay for gas to keep the generators going. They need to keep it running for the neighborhood to use.
At her mother’s house, just down the road from Cobbs, Blanks agreed. “That’s just the way it always is. Their neighborhoods get fixed up first around here, their streets get fixed up first around here,” she said. “When the power goes out, they go to them first.”
Blanks counted down the days she can go back to work. She’s not getting paid during her days off after the hurricane. The thousand dollars a month she makes after taxes covers her rent and bills, with just enough for food. She makes too much to qualify for food stamps, she said.
White, in Monkey Junction, had lunch at Whole Foods, charged some electronics, and was hoping to go back to work at the airport on Wednesday, where she works in customer service for Delta.
“It’s my retirement job. I was a teacher,” she explained. She doesn’t have to work, even though she offered to go back in. “I’ve gotta start living a normal life while you can and go back to work. I do it for fun.”
In thriving historic downtown Wilmington, neighbors are also helping neighbors, but the atmosphere is different. Co-owner of gastropub The Husk, Justin Smith, 46, was doling out beer, hot dogs, and burgers on Sunday for regulars. Loud, crowded and festive, the atmosphere resembled a block party as people spilled on to the sidewalk. “Everyone around us helped us in some way, whether it was gas, buns, or wings,” he explained.” And we got the Panthers on, and it has been a really unifying effort.”
Blanks hasn’t had meat since before the storm. “I’m dying for meat. A nice juicy T-bone steak that I cook myself. They say there are some places out there in Monkey Junction that are open,” she said, getting ready to drive around looking for food in the wealthier parts of town.
Her friend, Sherrel Porter, 31, chimed in: “Mashed potatoes and corn!” Then, with a smirk, she added: “After this hurricane, I might as well go vegan.”