KINSTON, N.C. – As Hurricane Florence churned toward the North Carolina coast, Gov. Roy Cooper tripled down on a warning he has been issuing for days: Get out of this storm’s way.
“This monster of a storm is not one to ride out,” Cooper said Wednesday from the steps of the state Department of Public Safety’s emergency management staging site in eastern North Carolina.
But in Kinston – a town of nearly 21,000 people living 30 miles of west of New Bern, where the Neuse River widens on its way to the Outer Banks – the governor’s urgent warning went largely unheeded.
Having only two years ago lived through Hurricane Matthew, which devastated portions of the state’s eastern reaches, some Kinston residents decided to stay.
Others, constrained by economic circumstances, remained because they had no choice.
Poverty is an anchor for many in Kinston, home to some of North Carolina’s most economically distressed neighborhoods despite its budding reputation as a food destination.
Ben Knight watched Wednesday as a small team of workers fastened sheets of plywood to the windows of Chef & the Farmer – a nationally renowned restaurant in the heart of downtown that Knight owns with his wife Vivian Howard.
Knight said he’d elected to stay behind while Howard and their children headed west, out of Florence’s reach.
“I think a lot more people have left for this storm, but most people in this town will stay,” Knight said. “With the median income of this town being less than half of the national average, some people will have to stay.”
'Not an option'
Tony Clower, 39, falls firmly within that camp. The 12-year Kinston resident is homeless.
Clower said he thinks others in Kinston should heed Cooper’s warning, advice he said he’d follow if he could.
“I think people should listen when he says to leave because this is going to be a bad storm,” Clower said. “Some people are getting out of town, but that’s not an option for me. I have no money, no job, no connections.”
Jasper Newborn, who runs the city’s only emergency homeless shelter, said that on any given night, he’ll house about 15 people, but that “represents less than 10 percent of the city’s homeless population.” The rest sleep on the street or wherever else they can find shelter, he said.
Natural disasters, Newborn said, most adversely impact the city’s most vulnerable population: the indigent.
And as Hurricane Florence looms, he said he’s worried about what will happen to the city’s homeless residents who decide not to seek refuge. Friends of the Homeless, the shelter Newborn founded in 1990, only has 35 beds, but he said he won't be turning anybody away during the storm.
Clower said he planned to weather the storm in a small wooden shed in which a friend was letting him live.
Kinston has a 30 percent poverty rate, according to 2015 U.S. Census data – nearly double that of North Carolina as a whole.
A 2014 study by the Center for Urban & Regional Studies at UNC Chapel Hill found a Census tract within Kinston to be the state’s most distressed among rural areas for its poverty rate, per capita income and unemployment.
'Where else I got to go?'
The burdensome economic impact of evacuation doesn’t strictly impact the homeless.
In east Kinston, not far from one of the city’s subsidized housing developments, Michael Weathington, 53, sat waiting for a ride on the porch of his home – a humble abode of whitewashed wooden siding beneath a rust-tinged metal roof.
Weathington said he witnessed Hurricane Matthew, and as far as he’s concerned he can live through another hurricane, even if Florence is supposed to be bigger and more dangerous.
But he would struggle to leave even if he wanted to.
“I don’t have a car, and my whole family is here. Where else I got to go?” he said. “I’m just going to ride it out.”
At least two emergency shelters have opened in or near Kinston to house those who might be displaced by the storm.
Different circumstances, different impacts
Travis Quinn, director of sales for Kinston’s Mother Earth Brewing, has lived in Eastern North Carolina his whole life. He grew up in Kenansville, a small town about 45 minutes south of Kinston, where he now lives.
Quinn is no stranger to hurricanes, and while he isn’t evacuating, he said he and the brewery staff are preparing for a walloping.
“This is not our first hurricane, and it’s not something that we take lightly. We’ve seen what these storms can do,” he said.
“The threat of another large storm coming through is really challenging for the community as a whole,” Quinn said.
But as Knight pointed out while standing outside of Chef & the Farmer, some people and businesses are better suited to absorb the damaging impacts of major storms.
Large farming companies can likely roll with Hurricane Florence’s punches. Family farmers, on the other hand, could be ruined if the storm wreaks havoc on their crops, Knight said.
While some consider the economic impacts of the storm, there are others – in some cases living right down the road – who are simply hoping to make it out of the storm alive. Clower is among them.
“I’m really worried about the storm,” he said standing outside of a convenience store, where he works odd jobs in exchange for snacks, such as Hot Pockets. “I want to cry. All I can do is put my hands together and ask God to keep me safe.”
Elsewhere in eastern North Carolina
In the small community of Kelly in Bladen County, roughly 90 miles southwest of Kinston, some have chosen not to leave because they, too, don’t have the resources, said Charles Russ, the former fire chief who now runs Kelly General Store.
Areas nearby flooded heavily two years ago during Matthew, Russ said. Kelly’s less than 15 minutes from Pender County, where officials have called a mandatory evacuation, leaving flyers wedged in the cracks of doors.
Russ said he’s worried that “people aren’t taking this seriously. I tell people it’s going to be nothing like we’ve seen before.”
But for some, the trip to higher ground is beyond what they can manage, he said.
“There was one family that just moved in here. I asked if they were going somewhere. She said, ‘We spent all the money we had coming here.’ ”
Reporter Joel Burgess contributed to this article.