Flood-ravaged Princeville going it alone

Hurricane Floyd destroyed nearly every home, business in '99

March 10, 2002|By Dan Chapman | Dan Chapman,COX NEWS SERVICE

PRINCEVILLE, N.C. - The dead sleep snugly again in the town cemetery. New white-sided homes shine in the warm winter's sun. Handfuls of young men are back dealing drugs by the railroad tracks. Madam Rose reads palms along Main Street.

Princeville survived Hurricane Floyd, which in 1999 destroyed nearly every home, business and dream.

But a wound festers. And because the nation has largely forgotten the hurricane - and Princeville - the town finds itself alone, struggling for its long-term recovery.

The eastern North Carolina village, the first in the country incorporated by African-Americans, was in trouble even before the storm. A legacy of racism and poverty had relegated its 2,000 citizens to livelihoods below those of larger, whiter Tarboro on the opposite, higher bank of the Tar River. Mismanagement and crookedness bankrupted the town in the mid-1990s.

And then, in September 1999, Floyd deluged eastern North Carolina. The Tar burst through the town's earthen dike. At the flood's peak, water stood 23 feet high on Main Street.

Afterward, an outpouring of love, support, private donations and government assistance - President Clinton visited, the musician Prince sent money - flowed into the tiny town. Folks built new houses and restored old churches. Town officials planned a new city hall, community center, museum and historic district. The levee was refortified. Pride and purpose returned to Princeville.

But now North Carolina has a new governor and a serious budget crisis. Piedmont and mountain legislators are beginning to question the millions spent on Eastern Carolina's recovery.

A Princeville official says he "hasn't heard anything" from the Bush administration. The tragedy of Sept. 11 all but erased Princeville from the national lexicon.

And many of the always-poor find themselves back where they started before Floyd swamped Princeville.

"I'm about the same as I was before - I struggle every day, but I'm here," says Kathleen Vines, disabled and living with her son in a government-provided mobile home. "I'm just ready to get some place and settle in. I've done moved four times."

A torrent of water

Miraculously, Floyd killed nobody in town.

But each of Princeville's 890 homes was rendered uninhabitable or seriously water-damaged.

"As devastating as it was," says Sam Knight, "I consider it to be a blessing."

How's that?

"We didn't have any minimum housing laws before and the people didn't want to [fix] their homes," says Knight, the town's assistant manager. "This was God's way of telling us, `If you don't want to take care of your problems, I'll take care of it for you.'"

Hurricane Floyd had an older brother, Dennis, who saturated the area's loamy fields two weeks before the bigger and badder hurricane hit. Most Carolinians thought the worst was over once Floyd headed north.

But then the rivers in central North Carolina swelled and unleashed a torrent of water down the Cashie, Roanoke, Neuse and Tar rivers. Dead hogs floated in waters contaminated by hog waste from overflowing lagoons. Entire towns were surrounded, accessible only by boat or helicopter.

Rickey Grant, a supervisor at a chicken plant, had to flee when the Tar began lapping at the underpinnings of his double-wide mobile home. He returned a week later to discover his home off its moorings, the ceiling caved in and an overpowering stench of river bottom. Oddly, the 64-inch TV remained upright with a picture of Grant's grandchildren perfectly in place.

"When it rains," Grant says, "I go and check the river. I know a lot of people do that."

Floyd caused the worst flooding in North Carolina history, killing 52 people and destroying 7,000 homes. Nearly 90,000 people registered for state and federal disaster relief. "FEMA villages," rows of white trailers, sprouted in Rocky Mount, Greenville and other towns. No town suffered like Princeville. Only roofs and steeples were visible for days. Caskets, uprooted from the cemetery, meandered through town and were joined by live snakes, dead dogs, propane tanks and the chemical run-off from nearby farms.

Once the Tar returned to its banks, an unholy mess of mud, sewage, clothes and furniture settled outside water-logged homes. The Army sealed off the town.

`We lost everything'

"We lost everything - every vehicle, every house, all the town's equipment and records," Knight says. "It was like coming into a ghost town." Residents moved in with friends and relatives, or filled the hallways and gymnasium of Tarboro High School. Homeowners were offered federal buyouts and persuaded to rebuild on higher, though less historic, ground.

The town refused to die. Council members, largely at the behest of the town's senior citizens - 40 percent of the population - voted to remain on the land settled by ex-slave Turner Prince. The floodgates of public and private assistance opened.

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