By Eve Elliott, APPLES Summer Fellow
Diamond Holloman, a Ph.D. candidate in Carolina’s Environment, Ecology and Energy program, is the first recipient of a post-Florence disaster relief grant from the Carolina Center for Public Service. She is investigating ways that communities of color in Lumberton, North Carolina, experience and recover from natural disaster.
In 2018, for the first time, UNC-CH Ph.D. candidate Diamond Holloman took the exit from Interstate 95 into South Lumberton. She was there to visit a local family, to hear the story of their home and the hurricanes that had struck it.
“Man, it couldn’t get more poetic,” Holloman remembers. “The grandmother is talking about the histories they have as a family in this particular house, and the struggles they’ve had since (Hurricane) Matthew.”
A history with disasters had led Holloman to that Lumberton living room.
While an undergraduate resident assistant (RA) studying environmental justice at New York University, Holloman helped her peers through Hurricane Sandy in 2012. She noticed that Sandy was causing drastically different effects on the lives of her affluent undergraduate peers versus the lower-socioeconomic Black community of Bedford-Stuyvesant, where her family lived.
Wanting to know more about how natural disasters exacerbate socioeconomic inequalities, Holloman enrolled in UNC-Chapel Hill’s Environment, Ecology and Energy graduate program. In her words, she studies the “spaces in which the flow of water is impacted or controlled by social or political factors,” or what academics refer to as “hydro-social dynamics.”
At Carolina, Holloman began to prepare a research project centered on the hydro-social dynamics of New York five years after Sandy. Then, in September 2016, Holloman saw her new home state, North Carolina, struck by a new disaster: Hurricane Matthew. Holloman immediately shifted her research focus to Matthew’s impact in southeastern North Carolina.
At a research conference around that time, Holloman met someone from Lumberton, one of the poorest towns hit by Matthew’s winds and flooding. That new colleague invited Holloman down I-95 to her home, where Holloman later sat and spoke with three generations of women — a daughter, a mother and a granddaughter — who would tell Holloman the first personal stories she heard about Matthew’s destruction.
Holloman set out to find more stories from people of color in Lumberton. She crafted research questions that sought to understand how African American and Native American communities experience more vulnerabilities during natural disasters. She also wanted to explore how those same communities receive lower levels of government support — and how they find ways to endure nonetheless.
This research has continued throughout the arrival and aftermath of Hurricane Florence in the fall of 2018. Florence left Lumberton with more than $2 billion in damages. This year, a disaster relief grant from the Carolina Center for Public Service is helping fund Holloman’s continuing community-engaged research and recovery work — which has brought to light effects of Matthew that reach far beyond property destruction.
Natural disasters in Lumberton disproportionally impact minority businesses and, consequently, minority incomes — in addition to the health and education of minority residents. These compounding effects burden communities of color long after the flooding has receded. And yet, aid systems often neglect the clear-cut needs that community members express publicly.
“Folks I’ve talked to, especially in the African American community, have been incredibly vocal about what they want, what they need, and planning how they can get it. I think that’s a large part of what this whole project will show,” Holloman reflected. “People in these communities know what they want, can strategize how to get it. It’s just a matter of resources, which I think is something that should be put more at the forefront of these recovery narratives.”
Holloman has partnered with several community leaders in Lumberton. One of those leaders is Adrienne Kennedy, whose nonprofit, The New DEAL Initiative, empowers the community through skills-based workshops and other community-driven resources.
Kennedy said she values Holloman’s efforts to identify community members’ stated needs.
“Having that knowledge, we’ll be able to address the councils and the commissioner and say: ‘We’ve done our homework, we are put together and this is what we desire with any funds coming towards our community,’” Kennedy said.
In addition to her community-engaged research, Holloman has served Lumberton through fundraising, networking and even going door-to-door to distribute “Help-needed” and “OK” signs as clear signals to search and rescue teams. Using the tool Photovoice, Holloman also has engaged community members in gathering photos and personal stories.
During her service, Holloman said she’s continually inspired by the resilience she sees in South Lumberton.
“People could easily get lost in the hopelessness of it all, and they don’t,” Holloman says. “The same community member who set up the door-to-door handout is also organizing local small businesses.”
As Holloman engaged with community partners in service, she began to learn more about one of the biggest threats to the property and health of those communities: mold.
Using another CCPS Disaster Relief grant, Holloman — in collaboration with UNC-CH graduate student Aleah Walsh and UNC-CH doctorate student Arbor Quist — started work this year to create a mold tool-lending library.
“Our work in this project is to give community members access to tools to reduce the moisture in their homes in order to alleviate some breathing problems from mold in their walls and carpet and/or spores in the air,” Holloman explained.
For Holloman, research goes hand-in-hand with service.
“It’s nice to be in an environment where it’s welcome for us to do this type of tool lending, and it’s seen as valuable,” she said. “Not just for the community or for ourselves, but for academia as a whole.”