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Hurricane Florence Threatens Property Ties in Carolina's Lowcountry

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Hurricane Florence Threatens Property Ties in Carolina's Lowcountry

"On Monday, Sheldon Scott flew from his home in Washington, D.C., to Pawleys Island, South Carolina, where his mother and sister live. He was on an evacuation mission: With Hurricane Florence bearing in, he needed to get his family members to safety.

The decision to leave the island was not easy. “It’s the only home my mom has ever known,” Scott, an artist and performer, said by phone from D.C., where his family is now, too.

Pawleys Island is a narrow, 4-mile long barrier island south of Myrtle Beach, connected to the mainland by a pair of causeways. The land Scott’s mother lives on was part of the rice plantation where their family members were enslaved more than 150 years ago, he said. Her mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and great-great-grandmother all lived on the island—and generations before that, too. That’s the story of the Gullah/Geechee nation, an estimated 200,000 people living on the barrier islands of the Carolina, Georgia, and Florida coast. They carry on a distinct culture rooted in West Africa, where many of their ancestors were enslaved by British traders in the colonial era.

The low-lying islands are frequent targets for hurricanes and tropical storms, but historically, the Gullah/Geechee people have resisted evacuating their land, due to deep ties, a respect for tradition, and economic limitations. Many have stayed in the face of Florence, too. “We are people of faith and that is the reason that people do not just leave,” Queen Quet Marquetta L. Goodwine, the elected Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, told CityLab via email. “Our souls are tied from the land.”

But as climate change brings more dangerous hurricanes and rising seas, and as the Gullah/Geechee network expands with younger generations living away from home, that connection may be fraying. Many neighbors in the small village where he grew up did leave this time, according to Scott. And they did so with the understanding that their ancestral homes face a double threat—the hurricane itself, and also a vortex of laws that imperil residents’ property rights..."

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