Teaching resilience in hurricane-battered southeastern North Carolina

By Sarah Nagem


When floodwaters from Hurricane Florence rose chest-deep outside her home, Andrea Jacobs-Rofail stuck a house key in her mouth and a trash bag in her bra and pleaded with a National Guardsman. She wanted to save her wedding dress. 

“He said, ‘You have five minutes,’” Jacobs-Rofail said of that September day three years ago.

She carried the dress to safety, but she and her husband lost many of their belongings to the nasty water and mildew that invaded their home in Longs, South Carolina. The couple and their toddler son, Noah, moved in with relatives for nine months, sharing a cramped bedroom and storing what little they had salvaged in large Rubbermaid containers. 

Two years later, the family experienced another setback when Robir Nagy Rofail lost his job in the restaurant industry because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Jacobs-Rofail wanted to talk about the struggles her growing family had endured. She had a second son, Jonah, last year in a difficult childbirth.

“I was looking for something to help with crisis situations,” she said. 

Soon she was directed to a program in nearby Columbus County, North Carolina, where she grew up in a small Native American community and works in student services at Southeastern Community College. 

Resilient Columbus, which began two years ago under the Columbus County Partnership for Children, works to raise awareness about the effects of trauma. Much of its focus is on adverse childhood experiences – such as abuse and neglect, poverty or being raised by a single parent – and on how those experiences can lead to health problems later in life. 

Columbus ranks 92nd among North Carolina’s 100 counties for health factors such as drug and alcohol abuse, health care, education and housing.

Margie and Allen Jacobs hang out with with their grandchildren, 4-year-old Noah and 1-year-old Jonah, outside their home in Columbus County. The boys’ mother, Andrea Jacobs-Rofail, said having a strong support system is key to overcoming trauma. Photo by Maddie Gray

Jacobs-Rofail took part in a series of group sessions through Resilient Columbus on how to effectively manage trauma and how to regulate and understand thoughts and emotions. 

“There are some things that you do not script for your life, but they happen,” said Selena Rowell, executive director of the Columbus County Partnership for Children. “But you can rebound from these. And those adversities don’t have to define who a person becomes.” 

Rowell said teaching families how to be more resilient is especially important in a region walloped by two big hurricanes – Matthew in 2016 and Florence in 2018. 

It’s also crucial, she said, because many people in the area deal with multiple adverse childhood experiences, commonly known as ACEs. 

Kids can be “doubly traumatized” by how adults around them react to negative situations, Rowell said. 

“Children get frustrated, parents get frustrated. Sometimes that comes out in ways that are very harmful to children,” she said. 

Finding a ‘happy place’

Resilience training isn’t new. The United States military uses it to help foster physical and mental toughness for active members and their families. Some companies, including tech giant Google, have put resilience programs in place to help employees during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Organizations across North Carolina focus on fostering resilience. For example, the Rural Opportunity Institute works to build resilient communities in Edgecombe County partly by delving into the “roots” of trauma. 

“That trauma that we might see visually or acutely – we sometimes think of it as the leaves on the tree,” said Seth Saeugling, co-founder of the Rural Opportunity Institute. “You can see the abuse or neglect or the different types of acute trauma. But the roots of that trauma might come from inequality, racism, white supremacy.”

Saeugling and Rowell were panelists over the summer in a webinar on “Improving Mental Health in Rural North Carolina.” The session was hosted by the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, which funds the Border Belt Independent. 

Jacobs-Rofail learned about resilience training when she went to the Columbus County Partnership for Children after Hurricane Florence. She wasn’t used to asking for help, and it was tough for her at first to use the community college’s food bank and to accept pajamas and books for her kids from the Partnership. 

But Jacobs-Rofail said the resilience sessions helped her to be a better person, and a better mother, and changed her perspective on the trauma her family has endured. 

“I’m teaching my kids now what matters,” she said. “There are things that we don’t have to have. I’m going back to the basics of what we need. We need shelter and food and water and one another.” 

Andrea Jacobs-Rofail closes her eyes and thinks about her “happy place” – the beach. She said she learned the calming technique during learning sessions on resilience.
Photo by Maddie Gray

In one lesson, Jacobs-Rofail said, the instructor encouraged participants to close their eyes and find their “happy place.” 

“For me, it’s the beach,” Jacobs-Rofail said. “It’s letting off the stress. I’m just releasing it and letting it dump into the ocean.” 

Teaching people such techniques can lead to big community impacts, including lower rates of child abuse, said Jai Robinson, coordinator for the program. 

“If we’re resilient and we can teach that resiliency, our community is going to be more self-aware,” Robinson said. “The community will be more mindful, more focused on self-care.” 

‘We don’t know when the next storm will hit’

The United Way of the Cape Fear Area is funding an effort that will allow four southeastern North Carolina counties – Brunswick, Columbus, New Hanover and Pender – to track data and help measure the effectiveness of resilience programs, Rowell said. 

The results, she said, should help identify what’s working and what else Resilient Columbus needs to do. 

Resilient Columbus is now working with local churches to teach the basics of resilience. It’s also working with the school systems to help educators.  

“We need to be trauma informed so that the teachers then can be better equipped to deal with their own stressors as well as helping the children,” Rowell said. 

It can be easy to send a student with behavioral problems to an alternative school, Saeugling said, but “punishment or isolation just makes things worse.” 

Building resilience can also help improve mental and physical health, according to Rowell. 

“What a child experiences … that trauma stays with them and manifests itself into obesity, into heart disease and other sicknesses as that child develops,” she said. “So what the child experiences in childhood can very well impact the rest of their lives without some sort of intervention that can help them to deal with the trauma.”

The human body is “wired to heal” from trauma, Saeugling said, but sometimes people need help to develop coping skills.  

Rowell experienced her own trauma during Hurricane Florence, when her home flooded and rescue crews used boats to carry her family to safety.  

They made their way to a shelter, where the power was out. Unable to find temporary housing, the family returned to their damaged home until they sold it.  

Columbus County has mostly been spared from hurricanes the past few years, but the fear remains.  

“Because we don’t know when the next storm is going to hit,” Rowell said. “We don’t know when the next natural disaster will happen.”  

Whenever it happens, Jacobs-Rofail will be ready. 

“You’ve got to keep moving,” she said, adding that she hopes other parents will learn more about resilience. “It’s going to give you that hope, give you that drive.” 

Andrea Jacobs-Rofail, center, and her sons 4-year-old Noah and 1-year-old Jonah, play in her parents’ yard in Bolton in Columbus County.
Photo by Maddy Gray