Flooded by Floyd, bouyed by spirit

Flood: The nation's oldest town chartered by blacks will celebrate its birthday Sunday, hoping to lift spirits amid ruins.

February 16, 2000|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

PRINCEVILLE, N.C. -- Five months after the worst flooding in North Carolina's history, many homes in this historic town remain uninhabitable, most businesses are closed, and junked cars and other debris litter yards.

But Princeville residents will take a break from cleanup efforts Sunday to celebrate the town's 115th birthday. Ignoring the event, they say, isn't an option.

"It's important to have a birthday celebration because even though there are not but a few citizens living there now, we still are a town," said Commissioner Linda Worsley. "The party will also help build up morale."

FOR THE RECORD - An article in The Sun Wednesday about Princeville, N.C., gave the incorrect name for the town's oldest resident. She is Ella Lathan, and will be 100 in July. The Sun regrets the error.

Princeville, with a median annual income of $12,000, prizes its history as the oldest town chartered by blacks in the United States. Founded in 1865 by freed slaves, it was incorporated 20 years later. In September, Hurricane Floyd ripped into the town, destroying about 1,200 of its nearly 1,480 homes and all 37 businesses.

Overnight, it was transformed from a town even many North Carolinians hadn't heard of to a place that drew national attention as people from around the country sent clothes, food and money.

Almost everyone had to move out. Some are staying with relatives. Others are living miles away in campsites set up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But this weekend, hundreds are expected back into town for the celebration.

With the struggle they're facing, planning a shindig might not seem important, but it is to them. A party in the midst of so much turmoil, town leaders say, might be the spark Princeville needs to get its rebuilding off the ground and prove that the historic town won't be done in by the disaster.

"It's so important just to try to pull our people back together," said Kimberly Burwell, Princeville's public relations director. "We've only had one celebration since the flood, and that was at Christmas."

Even that was dampened by being held in nearby Tarboro, where the Princeville town offices have been moved temporarily.

But the birthday party will be in Princeville. Plans call for everything from a parade complete with high school and college bands, motorcycle and horse-riding clubs and a cake that feeds 200.

U.S. Rep. Eva Clayton, a Democrat whose district includes Princeville, will be there. And among the guests, if she's able to attend, will be Dolly Lathan, who at 100 is the town's oldest resident.

Burwell isn't sure whether any celebrities will be there, although many, including actor Tim Reid, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, and members of the Carolina Panthers National Football League team have visited the town and pledged support.

"We just want to try to regain some sense of normalcy," Burwell said.

Things haven't been normal in Princeville since Floyd struck, knocking houses off foundations, putting jobs on hold after businesses closed and destroying homes, cars and family heirlooms.

FEMA, state and Red Cross officials set up residence to offer assistance to those affected by the storm. Two campsites were opened for hundreds of displaced families -- one 20 miles away in Rocky Mount and the other five miles away in Tarboro. Residents without transportation have the added burden of paying expensive cab fares for trips to the grocery store, doctor's offices or to visit relatives.

The media deluge, with newspaper and TV reporters descending on the town, added to the sense of strangeness in Princeville.

Now everything that happens there -- a town that once slipped by unnoticed -- is news. It was a big deal two weeks ago when Roger's Grocery reopened, the second of the town's 37 businesses to do so. The other, Checker Cab Co., resumed operations in December.

Jesse Ransome, a dispatcher at Checker Cab, said officials are wise to throw the party.

`Stabilization' sought

"I think the town needs a little stabilization right now." said Ransome, 50, who has lived in Prince- ville for 26 years. "I think the town also needs some unity right now. There hasn't been a lot of that."

As cleanup efforts continue, leaders are busy trying to secure rebuilding funds. In a decision that shocked many, officials voted 3-2 in November to decline a buyout offer from FEMA. Mayor Delia Perkins, whose home was lost in the flood, cast the deciding vote.

Under FEMA's offer, residents could accept payment for the damage and move out of the flood plain. Princeville voted to rebuild on its historic site, and it will need an estimated $80 million from state, federal and private sources for the reconstruction.

The Rev. Hezekiah Stewart, a FEMA consultant assisting Princeville, knows the difficulty in rebuilding. He is a pastor in College Station, Ark., where tornadoes damaged dozens of homes in March, 1997 and the last two are just now being rebuilt.

`Uphill battle'

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