Flood victims visit devastated homes

Waters across N.C. starting to subside

September 26, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ROCKY MOUNT, N.C. -- Guy Bunn thought he knew his neighborhood of 40 years, the familiar slope down from his picture window, and then about a week ago everything that was solid in his life became liquid. A friend pulled up to his front door in a bass boat, and Bunn, rescued, pulled an apple off his tree and knew he would never live there again.

"I thought I had been living on high ground," he said yesterday, as he returned for the first time to his ruined house and possessions. "But there wasn't any high ground. The whole neighborhood was water."

Like so much of eastern North Carolina, the Riverside neighborhood that was home to Bunn and hundreds of others has been drenched beyond salvation in the floods after Hurricane Floyd, which have killed 47 people in North Carolina.

At most, a handful of the 200 solid brick-and-frame homes here will be spared the bulldozer. By the weekend, as a few hundred residents in the state began returning to their homes, the mental geography of a neighborhood and a region -- a people's relationship to its land and its water -- had been permanently altered.

Beyond the week's exhaustion and sorrow, the prevailing emotion in this part of North Carolina has been astonishment. No one could believe that water could rise so high and stray so far from its natural courses. People can accept the winds of a hurricane or tornado, but a torrent raging from a backyard creek a half-mile away makes no sense to a homeowner or farmer who has never seen high water.

"Why on earth would we ever have thought of flood insurance?" asked Robert Mullett, a manager at Bill's Barbecue and Chicken Restaurant, a popular site in the town of Wilson that was wiped out under 7 feet of water from a creek Mullett had not known existed. "Nothing has ever flooded here. It would have been like asking for avalanche insurance."

But these waters defied history and everything that generations had passed down about where it was safe to live and farm. Most of the 30,000 homes damaged or destroyed in the state were not on the coast, where residents know the risks of storms; the houses were occupied by people whose lives had very little to do with water, until suddenly it was upon them.

In Greenville, what appeared to be a very large and attractive lake had installed itself across a main bridge between the north and south halves of town, cutting off passage. It looked like a recreational lake, except that the water, teeming with bacteria and chemicals, covered the airport, the water treatment plant and several adjacent neighborhoods.

It may be a week before the flood subsides, along with waters in cities such as Kinston and Goldsboro.

But in cities farther inland that are drying out, including Rocky Mount and Wilson, the extent of the damage is becoming clear in neighborhoods such as Riverside, where residents stood warily outside their properties yesterday.

Allie Winstead, 81, who lives alone a few blocks from Bunn, paced around her front yard, too depressed to go in her house, but not quite willing to leave. Everything she owned had been dragged out by cleanup crews and left in a large pile at the curb: broken dishes, a green-glass lamp, her clothing, the furniture her parents had handed down.

Winstead was sleeping Sept. 16 when her neighbor phoned and told her to get out. By the time she got to the front door, water from the overflowing Tar River was up to her knees, and she could not open the door above the swollen carpet. For an hour, she waved a flashlight through her window until someone rescued her.

"This is what God took instead of taking me," she said, gesturing to her possessions. "None of us have anything left, but we took care of each other, and not one person died here. And that's what I'll remember about this neighborhood after it's gone."

Winstead has been living with friends since she was forced out, and like most people here, she has no long-term plans. Some of the residents here are among the nearly 2,800 people around North Carolina living in shelters. Because the water has ruined the foundations and supporting walls of most houses here, almost no one will be able to move back, and most residents have little interest in rebuilding near a river that has betrayed them.

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