The Duke bubble is persistent. In an anxiety-inducing week, when people from Georgia to Virginia have been preparing for the potential devastating effects of Hurricane Florence, the fortitude of this bubble has become only more apparent. Hurricane Florence, now a Category 2 storm, is projected to cause widespread damage across the southeast region, from power outages in 1-3 million homes and businesses to flash floods that could result in the loss of life.
Since Tuesday, thousands of people across North and South Carolina have been fleeing their homes for safety, and many across the region have been coming to terms with the losses that could result from this hurricane. A short walk on 9th Street makes this precarity palpable: businesses have shut down and grocery store aisles have been emptied out. As the sun beats down heavily on Durham, offering us a calm respite before the storm, the sense of impending catastrophe is inescapable.
And yet, following the University’s decision to cancel all classes after 5pm on Wednesday, many Duke students have opted to treat this particularly frightening moment as a giant party. While some students have chosen to use their extra free time to plan hurricane parties, others have taken the opportunity to travel out of the Triangle area to attend concerts and parties or vacations in other states. What is a source of grave danger and anxiety for many across this country has become an event that many Duke students have been looking forward to, even hoping for, given the opportunity to miss a class or two.
One need not even look too far to grasp the painful dissonance of this moment. As students celebrate the opportunity for a long weekend, dozens of workers have been forced to remain on campus to facilitate student needs and safety. As usual, the interests of workers are subordinate to those of students. Whilst Duke students will most likely have access to power and water, Hurricane Florence will probably leave many North Carolinians with neither electricity nor water, including the families of staff who will be working to feed and transport us during the storm. Even more disastrously, low-income rural areas such as Duplin County, “the heart of North Carolina’s hog country,” are threatened with water contamination, given the high likelihood that lagoons filled with hog waste will be flooded by the storm. Similarly, despite a state-wide evacuation order, prison inmates along South Carolina’s coast will not be relocated during the storm. Again, as during past natural disasters, the lives of low-income black and brown individuals are not taken seriously.
The continuum of reactions to Hurricane Florence, from those of students to those of Duke workers and other North Carolina residents, exists to highlight the immense racial and socioeconomic disparities that mark Duke’s relationship to Durham and North Carolina more broadly. These are disparities that exist in part because of Duke’s insistence on centering student needs above those of workers. And even though student safety is indeed the University’s responsibility, these disparities lead us to a broader question: Which groups of people are entitled to flee disaster?
As with Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Harvey, wealth and job flexibility mediate access to safety. Many Duke students have been able to purchase pricey, last-minute plane tickets to travel out of Durham. Meanwhile, given the short amount of time between the implementation of the severe weather policy and the projected impact time of the storm, many without financial resources have had less time to make the necessary accommodations. Moreover, those with work commitments, including many Duke service workers, have had to focus on their jobs instead of prioritizing their safety and that of their families. As usual, the lives of the vulnerable become subordinate to the privileged--only this time the stakes are particularly high.
Given the volatility of the situation, we are in no position to tell students how to respond to a natural disaster. However, we urge students to be mindful. When posting hurricane-related memes, and engaging in other light-hearted activities during the storm, remember that for many in and around this campus, this is a period of extreme terror and uncertainty. For many, life after the storm will be difficult, so remember to talk to workers and peers whose families live in the affected region, inquire about their safety and offer words of encouragement. And when the hurricane has passed, remember that many on the physical and social peripheries of this institution may be in the midst of accounting for loss; remember many may be mustering the strength to begin piecing their lives back together. Offer your support, offer your time. Make sure that in the wake of this impending devastation you are in some way using the privileges that this bubble provides to help someone else through the storm.