Reporting about Hurricane Florence’s long-term effects on rural North Carolina put Laura Bratton ’15 on journalism’s cutting edge.
Hurricane Florence slammed into the North Carolina coast early on the morning of Sept. 14, 2018, making landfall at Wilmington, the hometown of Laura Bratton ’15. Florence brought 100-mile-per-hour wind gusts, record rainfall, and a storm surge that flooded the roads leading to the city, leaving it an island cut off from the rest of the state.
Bratton largely escaped the storm’s wrath. After the state ordered an evacuation of the area, she had headed a couple hours inland to Raleigh, where she spent three weeks. Wind and rain destroyed her mom’s condo in Wilmington, but Bratton and the family picked up the pieces and soon found a sense of normalcy.
That wasn’t the case for much of eastern North Carolina, as Bratton discovered. While finishing her college degree, she became a freelancer for a local nonprofit news organization to report podcast stories about places and people who couldn’t put their lives back together so easily. With second-hand recording equipment and little training in journalism or audio production, Bratton immersed herself in hurricane-battered rural communities along the coast, reporting on their struggles but also the resilience of people that mainstream news outlets rarely spotlight. Her goal: turn the microphone over to others so they could share their stories and help make their communities stronger.
The resulting Storm Stories series of 15 podcasts has put Bratton on the cutting edge of a growing trend: nonprofit journalism with a civic mission. Just 24, she’s now co-director of Shoresides, which is covering eastern North Carolina through podcasts, newsletters, documentaries, and videos that aim to strengthen communities and highlight stories often neglected. Its Coastal Youth Media program also trains young people to produce and broadcast their own stories.
A journalism career covering the small towns of coastal Carolina is far from what Bratton planned as a student at Episcopal. “I had always envisioned myself moving to a big city like New York, San Francisco, or Los Angeles,” she says. “That's the big dream leaving somewhere like Episcopal; it sets you up to go to big places.”
An achievement-focused cum laude student and field hockey standout at EHS, Bratton fell in love with economics in Dr. Mike Miller’s AP class, then majored in the subject while at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Before graduating from UNC, she did a Morgan Stanley internship in New York, an ideal launchpad for the high-powered finance career she thought she wanted.
But in the fall of 2018, as her hometown was recovering from Florence, Bratton was rethinking her plans. Working at Morgan Stanley, she had not found a passion for finance, and nearly a year into hard-won sobriety, she was changing her outlook on life. The hurricane’s devastation, she says, “bound our city together and made me realize all the things I appreciated about Wilmington and the deep connection I have to it.”
She turned to journalism in part because of a UNC program she had done years earlier in South Africa, writing stories for GroundUp, an independent nonprofit news agency covering human rights issues. In Wilmington, she initially aimed to do documentary filmmaking — the region is a hotbed for such work — but when she approached Working Narratives, a local arts and media nonprofit, the group offered her a $1,000 stipend to produce post-Florence podcasts. The organization aims to do collaborative journalism with communities that shines a light on overlooked areas and changes the narrative about them, which in turn makes change itself possible.
One of Bratton’s early stories focused on the town of Flair Bluff, whose Black-majority population had been hollowed out by Florence as well as Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Disaster aid had done little to restore the homes of those who remained; two years after Matthew, some still had no electricity.
Bratton anchored the story on the personal narrative of Gloria Walters, who survived both Matthew and Florence and now works for a nonprofit helping families recover from the storms. “I’m crying with them, I’m praying with them, I encourage them,” Walters told Bratton. “I tell them my story, and I let them know that if I can do it, you can do it.”
Bratton’s Storm Stories series focused tightly on individuals such as Walters, including a first responder, a trauma specialist, and a community activist. Her reporting illustrated service gaps to these communities — often home to families of color — but also pointed to how individuals in these towns and neighborhoods were building back on their own. “People closest to the issue at hand are also closest to the solution,” she says.
Early in 2020, as the pandemic set in, Bratton and others created Shoresides, an online local news audio platform that is a Working Narratives project begun to help residents of the region feel connected during the Covid-19 pandemic. “It operates like a start-up,” she says. “We’re still in the early phases of figuring out what sort of shows we want.”
Shoreside News podcasts cover how the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the elections have affected the region. Stories are told through the prism of individuals, with episodes featuring a grocery-store clerk, a community college student, first-time voters, a hair-salon owner, a nurse, and a disabled veteran, among others. Somewhere & Elsewhere focuses on local artists, while She Rocks is a vehicle for teenage girls, particularly young women of color, to talk about their lives and issues that matter to them. Bratton is particularly excited about a new show focused on the hog industry and how its large, concentrated feeding operations are affecting the environment and health of the region.
Apart from Shoresides, Bratton did a story last year for NPR that illustrated the pandemic-related challenges for people in recovery for alcohol and drug addiction who rely on 12-step meetings or other in-person support. A friend from her own 12-step group had relapsed and spent a few weeks in the county jail.
As Bratton and colleagues build out Shoresides, she aims to continue to improve her technical skills, perhaps through a graduate program. But she’s not planning to leave her hometown anytime soon. “There’s just like such a wealth of stories here,” she says. “And it’s so funny, because I always saw myself moving to bigger and better things. Yet those things are in my backyard. I just never realized that until I opened my eyes to what’s happening around me.”