Historic N.C. town's residents rebuilding with volunteers' aid

Habitat for Humanity helps Princeville recover 16 months after storm

January 24, 2001|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

PRINCEVILLE, N.C. - Hurricane Floyd is probably just a memory to people not affected by it. But it often crosses the mind of Barbara Torres.

Torres, 38, was living in an apartment with her husband, Jose, and two children, Latishia Johnson, 14, and Jonathan Johnson, 13, when home as she knew it was destroyed. Pictures, clothes, furniture. Gone.

That was 16 months ago.

Now, thanks to volunteers from Habitat for Humanity and her sweat equity, Torres and her family are less than two weeks from moving into a new home in Princeville, the nation's oldest town chartered by blacks.

"I'm really excited. I'm really outdone with myself," Torres said recently while giving a tour of her nearly finished home. "We were thinking about relocating back to Pennsylvania to buy a house. Every year in January, I enter the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes. Now I always tell people, I may not have $10 million, but I have a home."

Princeville was founded in 1865 by freed slaves and incorporated 20 years later. In September 1999, Floyd destroyed about 1,200 of its nearly 1,480 homes and all 37 businesses. Since then, thousands of people have visited the town, donating clothes and money, and helping it rebuild.

Many questioned why Princeville officials decided to rebuild, so thorough was the destruction. By a 3-2 vote in November 1999, local officials declined a buyout offer from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

With efforts like the current one, residents are hopeful that the town will be rebuilt in four years.

Zoning Officer Sam Knight said homes throughout Princeville are in various stages of repair. More than 100 need to be rebuilt, renovated or demolished. But Knight and others, including Mayor Delia Perkins, can't say enough about the Habitat homes under construction, largely through the efforts of Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse.

"It's another piece of the puzzle that we needed," Perkins said recently. "There was nothing in the governor's package for renters. It was all for homeowners. This will allow 25 families to become homeowners for the first time."

Lowe's teamed up with the Tarboro/Edgecombe Habitat for Humanity to build the houses. At first, there were plans for 25 houses, but officials couldn't find a piece of property large enough for that many, so they decided to construct 12, said Charlotte Webb, Hurricane Floyd Rebuild Program manager and overseer of the Habitat project.

"We went with what we had, and they're looking for some more land," Webb said. "It'll be awhile."

In September, on the first anniversary of the day Hurricane Floyd struck, Lowe's made a donation totaling $1 million to help Princeville rebuild. The money included $350,000 in building materials. Lowe's employees are among the volunteers building the Habitat houses.

Other volunteers have included Rachel Kauffman, 17, and Louise Kinsinger, 14, with a group of Mennonites from Oakland, Md.; several members of St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Poolesville, Md.; 25 medical students from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and Jack and Lillian Timmer, who drove about 2,800 miles from Canada to help build the houses.

Perkins, who also lost her home in the flood, appreciated the corporate sponsors and the hundreds of volunteers who have helped build the homes.

"It helps the citizens become homeowners, and it helps the town with revenue," she said.

Each of the 1,040-square-foot houses will have three bedrooms, 1 1/2 bathrooms, a combined kitchen and dining room, a living room and backyard storage sheds. They are being built in a cul de sac, and the tiny neighborhood will include a park, Webb said.

Building the houses will take 30,375 square feet of plywood, 3,000 pounds of nails, more than an acre of drywall, more than six miles of electrical wire, 7,000 electrical staples, more than 20 tons of roofing shingles, 9,000 square feet of molding, nearly an acre of insulation and more than 10,000 square feet of carpet. But those facts aren't what get homeowners such as Torres or Barbara Atkinson excited.

Atkinson was living in her mother's brick ranch house when Hurricane Floyd hit. She had suffered an aneurysm in her head and was released from a hospital the week of the storm.

When she learned from Webb that she and her husband, James, were getting a Habitat home, Atkinson, 47, could hardly contain her joy.

"I told her, `Praise the Lord,'" Atkinson said recently, sitting on her porch as men worked on plasterboard inside. "I told my husband, I said, `We got the house,' and he said, `Uh-huh.' He didn't believe me at first."

Because of her disability, Atkinson has to be careful about overexertion. But she has to adhere to Habitat rules, which require 500 hours of sweat equity from homeowners. The charitable housing program requires homeowners to perform 250 hours on their own and allows family and friends to "donate" 250, Webb said.

Last summer, Atkinson nailed siding onto a house on Beasley Street. She said the feeling couldn't compare to nailing siding on her own home a few weeks ago.

"It felt good," Atkinson said. "It felt real good."

For volunteers, there's a similar feeling.

"It's rewarding," said Jack Timmer, a Mennonite who works in construction and has traveled the world with his wife helping others in their time of need. "God has blessed us, and it's a little way of helping out people that are hurting. It's nice to do something for nothing."

Medical student Rich Vinroot Jr. worked on attic framing in Princeville.

"I like it," Vinroot said. "The good thing for me is, I was a Southern history major at [the University of North Carolina], and I knew the history of Princeville before the flood."

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