Hurricane Florence – Land Loss Prevention Project

Stanley Hughes, third-generation farmer, and with his wife operate Pine Knot Farms, a registered Century farm, in Hurdle Mills, North Carolina. The Farm is certified organic horticulture and produces organic tobacco. Farmer Stanley is a founding board member of the Land Loss Prevention Project. (Credit: Lise Metzger; www.lisemetzger.com; www.groundedwomen.com)

Florence made landfall near Wrightsville Beach (near Wilmington) in North Carolina at 7:15 am on Sept. 14 as a Category 1 hurricane. It brought a massive storm surge and sustained winds of up to 85 mph. The system inundated North Carolina and South Carolina with torrential rain for days.

Although the disaster was a hurricane, the real impact was from catastrophic river flooding. There were 54 deaths attributed to the storm, including 40 in North Carolina. Florence, the eighth-wettest tropical cyclone to hit the mainland United States – and the wettest ever to hit North Carolina – dumped nearly 3 feet of rain across parts of that state.

The storm and the resultant flooding caused a significant impact on the agricultural industry. In North Carolina alone, flooding killed 3.4 million chickens and turkeys and 5,500 hogs. There was significant impact on North Carolina’s sweet potato crop; the state produces half of the country’s sweet potato harvest, valued at $346.5 million in 2017. Other core crops, including tobacco, corn, soybeans and cotton, were also affected. Florence’s floodwaters breached at least 50 lagoons holding hog waste and at least two coal ash ponds, sending a cascade of contaminants into North Carolina waterways. Hurricane Florence caused at least $24 billion in economic losses.

As with every disaster, those who are most vulnerable before a disaster are the most vulnerable after. One of those groups is African American farmers – and small farmers, especially those working in fragile ecosystems, greatly affected by climate change and natural disasters.

The Center for Disaster Philanthropy distributed $1.7 million from the CDP 2018 Atlantic Hurricane Season Recovery Fund to 10 NGOs working in the aftermath of Hurricanes Florence and Michael.

One of those NGOs was the Land Loss Prevention Project (LLPP), a nonprofit law firm, which received a $50,000 grant to support its work following Hurricane Florence in North Carolina. LLPP used CDP’s grant to help small or marginalized Black homeowners, landowners and farmers in 13 counties reduce their disaster assistance inequality by providing legal guidance and services to navigate land ownership issues after the hurricane. LLPP also used the grant to address disparities in disaster assistance programs for small scale Black farmers.

LLPP offers legal representation, community education and professional outreach to promote wealth, land preservation and rural livelihoods. It also assists low-resourced individuals and families statewide by providing direct legal representation, technical assistance and education to protect their homes, land, farms and rural livelihoods from loss or diminution and foster agricultural entrepreneurship and a healthy food system.

A History of Inequitable Land Ownership

LLPP carried out the work for its grant in Eastern North Carolina, the northernmost point of the South’s historical Black Belt. W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about the region in his book The Souls of Black Folk. In September 2020, CDP interviewed Savonala “Savi” Horne, executive director of LLPP, about the impact of the grant. She said Du Bois’ chapter on the Black Belt, “situates the condition then and some of the description is the same now. This region of the Black Belt has a historical legacy of plantations, slavery and racism. And when it comes to food systems, that becomes part of the mix; racism becomes embedded.”

Horne said that tremendous African American land loss ironically accelerated from the 1950s to 1970s during the civil rights movement. She explained that in 1954 in North Carolina, there were 22,625 farmers, and by 1969, that number had decreased by 57.2% to 9,687. Black land ownership dropped from 1,085,750 acres in 1954 by 48.5% to 558,861 acres in 1969. In 1978, the Census of Agriculture data reported that 400,312 acres of North Carolina were Black-owned. By 2017, just a year before the hurricane, the numbers had decreased to 170,450 acres, with only 1,435 Black farm operators – a 57% drop in 40 years, three times that of white farmers.

Much of this can be traced to the issue of heirs’ property, something that LLPP spends a great deal of time educating farmers about. A Pro Publica article explained:

“Heirs’ property, [is] a form of ownership in which descendants inherit an interest, like holding stock in a company. The practice began during Reconstruction, when many African Americans didn’t have access to the legal system, and it continued through the Jim Crow era, when black communities were suspicious of white Southern courts. In the United States today, 76% of African Americans do not have a will, more than twice the percentage of white Americans. Many assume that not having a will keeps land in the family. In reality, it jeopardizes ownership. …  The U.S. Department of Agriculture has recognized it as ‘the leading cause of Black involuntary land loss.’ Heirs’ property is estimated to make up more than a third of Southern black-owned land — 3.5 million acres, worth more than $28 billion. These landowners are vulnerable to laws and loopholes that allow speculators and developers to acquire their property. … Between 1910 and 1997, African Americans lost about 90% of their farmland. This problem is a major contributor to America’s racial wealth gap; the median wealth among black families is about a tenth that of white families.”

Environmental Justice for Immediate Relief and Long-Term Recovery

Horne also explained, “LLPP addresses the impact of heirs’ property through legal representation, community outreach and education. This was the most significant part of the grant from CDP. We were able to leverage field of influence and provide technical and training information for lawyers, which would equip a broader community of legal practitioners to assist those in the disaster area of the state.”

In addition to legal intervention, LLPP looked at best practices to stabilize Black farm ownership affected by Hurricane Florence. They worked to shore up some of the economic activities that farmers were engaging in, particularly as there were entire ecosystems that collapsed after the hurricane.

“Hurricane Florence swelled rivers far removed from the coast,” Horne said. “Because let’s be clear, most of the coastal communities are no longer held by African Americans because the coasts have become desirable property. There are places [along several river systems] that have fragile ecosystems. [Farmers built] close to rivers because it was the cheapest land for African Americans to purchase post slavery. That’s where they wound up. It bled into the historical factors that would give rise to environmental justice claims.”

LLPP and Horne are also clearly and keenly aware that strong public policy is required to address laws around heirs’ property. While they provide litigation support, they are also working on getting a federal policy in place to assist with rural development and African American land ownership.

Horne concluded, “It was farsighted and progressive for the Center for Disaster Philanthropy to fund a legal nonprofit to do this work. When you have disasters, if you don’t have access to legal services and lawyers that understand farmers, it’s going to take people even longer to get back on their feet in these disaster zones. These were well-spent resources that ought to be uplifted by the people who funded and made the grant possible.”

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