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Rural communities in N.C. face long path to storm recovery

A home in Windsor airs out along with all its contents.

A home in Windsor airs out along with all its contents.

The hurricane bore down on eastern North Carolina with as much as seven inches of rain per hour. The storm followed late September flooding in the area — an effect of Tropical Storm Julia.

Windsor Fire Chief Billy Smithwick said the town did not think the water would get as high as it did, damaging downtown businesses and homes.

“The good thing, if there is a good thing in this, is most of the stores or a lot of the houses were already cleaned out from two weeks ago, waiting to dry,” he said.

LuAnn Joyner, Vidant Bertie Hospital spokesperson, said the physical effects on the town will force some local businesses out because of the extensive damage.

“There’s definitely some (businesses) that simply cannot come back after this,” she said.

The rural qualities of Bertie County, where Windsor is located, compounded the effects of the flood, said Joyner. Windsor, the biggest town in Bertie County, has a population of about 3,600.

Joyner said this perspective makes the after-effects of Hurricane Matthew more detrimental.

“We are such a rural, below-poverty-level town, or county and then town, that it just adds insult to injury,” she said.

The conversation about rural North Carolina is one that Margaret Byrne and Ian Kibbe have tried to communicate with their documentary “Raising Bertie.”

The documentary is a coming-of-age film that chronicles three, young African-American males living in Bertie County.

Byrne, who directed the film and produced it along with Kibbe, said she saw a unique opportunity to tell the story of an underrepresented population: rural minorities.

Byrne said she remembers presenting a clip of the documentary at the National Opportunity Summit in New York City and being the only rural component of the entire summit.

“That to me is sort of symbolic and speaks volumes to how much we aren’t talking about our rural community,” she said. “And, in particular, our most at risk youth, which are African-American males living in our rural communities.”

Vivian Saunders is the executive director of an alternative school in Bertie County and appeared in the film. She said in a Q&A following a screening of the documentary at UNC on Thursday she saw the documentary as an opportunity for increased visibility.

“A lot of African-American males are not visible until they do something really bad or they do something really well,” Saunders said.

In response to Hurricane Matthew’s destruction, Kibbe said it is important to remember the resilience of rural communities.

“We don’t provide enough resources, but we also don’t give them the opportunities to show us their resources and learn from them,” he said.

Saunders said the residents of Bertie County are crucial for flood relief efforts.

“The best thing that we have as a resource in our county is our people, because they’re resilient,” she said.

Smithwick said the morale in Windsor was mixed, but mostly positive.

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“As a whole most people are positive and (thinking), ‘we’ll overcome it one more time,’” he said.