Voices from the Future | Kolby Skidmore
The Hurricane Florence
The Event: Hurricane Matthew was considered a 500-year flood, which means it had a 0.2% chance of happening in any given year. Hurricane Florence was deemed a 1,000-year flood and broke rainfall records set by Hurricane Matthew. Many residents of coastal North Carolina were still rebuilding from Matthew when Florence hit in September 2018, dumping more than 30 inches of water on some parts of the state and killing 53 people.
When the floodwater receded, it left behind scores of fish — not just on streets, but also in people’s homes. They were everywhere, and they reeked.
Kolby Skidmore, a 30-year-old woman who had survived lung cancer, found breathing difficult over the stench of rotting fish, dampness and decay. Having recently moved from Arizona to North Carolina, this wasn’t something Skidmore expected in the aftermath of a hurricane. And then there were the bugs.
“What people don’t realize is that when you have a whole bunch of standing water, then you’re going to get really nasty bugs and mosquitoes, and that’s a problem,” Skidmore says. At one point during Hurricane Florence, people traveling through the floodwater in a boat warned her that they’d seen alligators and water moccasins nearby.
Skidmore avoided getting in the water as much as possible, but as a news photographer, sometimes she got knee-deep to show viewers how bad the flooding was. Normally she photographed weddings, but she’d taken a part-time news job because she needed something to pay the bills while she built up clientele in her new state. Skidmore had only been working for WECT News for two months when, in September 2018, she was assigned to travel to a small town and cover Hurricane Florence — a slow-moving storm originally dubbed a Category 4.
After much deliberation, she decided to take the assignment, along with a fresh-faced reporter. Their impromptu base for the storm was the fire station in Whiteville, North Carolina. Unlike other locations in the town of 5,400, the fire station had Wi-Fi even during emergencies — a service that was prioritized after the record-breaking Hurricane Matthew ravaged Whiteville just two years prior.
“A couple of people in Whiteville really freaked out, put all their stuff in their car, and then drove to the fire department and just collapsed to the fire department [floor],” Skidmore says. “They were like, ‘What am I going to do? I can’t go through this again.’ I was amazed at how the fire department dealt with that. They would calm these people down, let them stay, give them a hot meal.” The firefighters made sure people were okay not just physically but also mentally, which Skidmore respected.
The nearby town of Fair Bluff — 21 miles west of Whiteville on the Lumber River — was worse off than Whiteville during Hurricane Florence. As the rain poured, the river rapidly rose, and more than four feet of water claimed the charming downtown business district.
“People have done a lot of articles about how Fair Bluff is going to be the first town that’s completely devastated by climate change,” Skidmore says, because two record-breaking storms in two years is “ridiculous.”
Throughout Hurricane Florence, Skidmore and the reporter hitched rides between Whiteville and Fair Bluff with the firefighters, the National Guard and anyone else they could, documenting what they saw along the way.
“We saw a lot of sad stories, and a lot of people that lost everything — soaking wet, with nothing,” Skidmore says. She often rode through neighborhoods with everyone’s ruined possessions in piles on their front porches or lawns. “It’s one thing to watch people’s houses get destroyed for the first time. It is a far different thing for people that have just rebuilt, and they’re finally getting their life back on track, getting to a new normal, and have it completely devastated again.”
After the storm passed and the ad hoc relief shelters closed, housing quickly became a crisis. With houses damaged and growing toxic mold, many people had to find alternate housing — or were forced to stay because they had no other options. Skidmore recalls entire apartment complexes shutting down due to unsafe conditions, with residents having mere hours to evacuate.
Some people ended up in more expensive housing — a difficult situation for families already on a tight budget. Others couldn’t find any available housing, already limited before the storm, and were forced to stay in hotels. Skidmore met one woman who ended up living with her kids in a hotel room for months. But available hotel rooms were hard to find, too, since many of them were already occupied by people who came to offer aid — or people who saw opportunities to prey on the town’s vulnerability.
“Lootings are a problem of course,” Skidmore says, but other people come to offer much-needed services for astronomical fees. She heard about a woman who was charged $50,000 by a group of men who cut down her property’s falling trees. “Disaster brings out the best in people, but it also brings out the worst in people.”
Skidmore’s experience in Hurricane Florence opened her eyes to a more uncertain world. A new homeowner in Wilmington, now she’ll never go without flood insurance, even though she’s not directly in a flood zone.
“For some people — I know for me — buying a home is a really big deal,” she says. “It’s a sense of accomplishment, and for some people, their home is all they have. It’s hard when it gets ruined and you don’t know what you’re going to do. A lot of people I talked to didn’t have flood insurance” because they didn’t think they needed it.
In addition to insurance, Skidmore learned to always have an extreme-weather plan. “We saw a lot of people that didn’t have a plan, and those were the people that struggled the most,” she says. She also noted that a town’s emergency management team is “very, very important,” and when choosing a place to live, people should take into account whether the community has a strong and well-funded team.
As the climate crisis worsens and extreme weather events become more frequent and intense, it’s increasingly vital to prepare for an unpredictable world. Skidmore fears people aren’t taking climate change seriously enough, especially in rural parts of the United States. “Climate change is not a main concern of people that I’ve run into. Here, it’s not something that people really think about.”
But whether or not people recognize the crisis of a warming climate, it’s happening and people are suffering the consequences. People, and animals — like fish who met an unsuspecting grave in someone’s living room on a fall day.
— Kayla Frost