PRINCEVILLE, N.C. – James Howell Jr. lost big two years ago when Hurricane Matthew swelled the Tar River, less than a half-mile from his home. Finally persuaded it was too dangerous to stay, he returned two days later to discover that 2 feet of standing water had turned his insulation moldy, forcing a rebuild of his living room.
Now a sofa and other furniture rest under tarps on his small front porch as he and his wife, Gloria, prepare for Hurricane Florence, which is shaping up to be much bigger and wetter, with a potential for rain that could be measured in feet.
“It’s scaring me to death,” Howell said. “If I lose my place, I ain’t coming back. I’m not coming back to Princeville no more.”
The rich have long claimed higher ground along waterways. That left freed slaves to build their homes on bottomland. That’s how Princeville, population 2,300, became the country’s first town incorporated by black Americans.
The land about 75 miles east of Raleigh has been repeatedly inundated by the Tar River – at least eight times before Matthew. In 1999, Hurricane Floyd’s rains overwhelmed a dike and submerged the town in water 23 feet deep in spots.
Many people with limited means, like the disabled Howells, will struggle to escape and rebuild after Florence’s damage is done.
The median household income in Princeville is about $28,000 a year, compared with $48,000 statewide, and almost 6 in 10 town residents had public health insurance such as Medicare or Medicaid in 2016, according to the Census Bureau.
Howell figures he has two options if he needs to flee: His daughter lives about 30 miles west, away from the river. That’s where he said he’d be taking his most prized possessions, already loaded into his pickup. His granddaughter, meanwhile, is staying in a secure motel thanks to her employer, so he and his wife may be able to rest there.
Forecasters are warning anyone living near waterways in the Carolinas to seek higher ground, and that means trouble for some of the poorest communities in eastern North Carolina and South Carolina.
“What I’m fearful about is there are a lot of people who are not going to be OK because they don’t have elevated structures,” said Susan Cutter, director of the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina. “They’re in low-lying, flood-prone areas, and they didn’t leave because they had nowhere to go and no resources to get there.”
People still haven’t recovered fully from Matthew in small, economically struggling communities across eastern North Carolina, from Seven Springs and Windsor near the Virginia line to Lumberton along the South Carolina border.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, elected weeks after that hurricane hit, promised that poor people won’t be left to fend for themselves during this storm. The state is using detailed mapping to pinpoint potential flooding from Florence and sharing that information to help local authorities warn people to move.
“The idea is to have those shelters available to people on higher ground, and no matter what their income, we want to get people out of places that may be flooding,” Cooper said.
In Beaufort County, more than 100 miles east of Raleigh, emergency management officials planned to use school buses Wednesday to move residents in flood-prone areas to higher ground in Washington, the county seat, where a high school will shelter up to 500 people. The county is split by the broad Pamlico River, and some of the 45,000 residents don’t have cars they can use to reach the shelter on their own.
Retired sisters Clydie Gardner, 71, and Dorothy Pope, 78, ran to safety in 2016 as floodwaters spread toward their home, just before a massive oak tree, its roots loosened by Matthew’s rain, toppled onto the building. They are seeking shelter this time in an aunt’s home on higher ground across the river.
“They’re saying it’s 400 miles wide. There’s no telling what it might do,” Pope said. “When the water starts coming and I see it coming, I’m moving.”
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