James H. Brady is 88 years old, vision-impaired, and physically disabled, sitting in a hospital bed with a small white bag, the contents of which he can’t describe. He had a hard time packing, he says, when his wife’s home health aide knocked on their door a few Sundays ago and told him that they had to leave. His hometown, Princeville, North Carolina, was under mandatory evacuation orders, he learned, but he had trouble moving quickly. “If I am not walking on a walker, I can’t walk” he says, “so I couldn’t pack. What I had, I just put in a bag, just put what I could….we lost a lot behind, yes we did.” When asked about her journey, his wheelchair-bound wife, also admitted to the hospital, slumps sadly in her bed and can’t bring herself to speak.
On October 8, 2016, the night before the Bradys evacuated, Hurricane Matthew hit North Carolina with a force few foresaw. The storm spent weeks wreaking havoc in the Caribbean, but most meteorologists predicted that it would turn to sea before affecting North Carolina’s mainland. Instead, Matthew stayed inland, dumping a record amount of rain and causing flash floods across the state. By the time it let up, Eastern North Carolina’s rivers were swollen. They expanded ponds, flooded streets, and began to inundate low-lying towns like Princeville.
Matthew’s trajectory changed so fast, even officials were caught off-guard.
“My son was actually getting married on the 8th, in [the neighboring community of] Tarboro,” says Commissioner Linda Joyner, a long-time Princeville resident. “We were at the church, at the reception, and it was about, maybe three or four o’ clock, when someone said that the storm…was getting worse. It started raining harder, so of course, we became very anxious...by six or seven o’ clock, we got word that we really needed to move and go to higher ground, because the part of Tarboro I was in had started flooding. At this time, Princeville had not actually flooded,” she recalls, but by the very next day, the river had risen so high that she and other town officials were forced to order a mandatory evacuation for all 2,200 town residents.
Princeville, North Carolina has an important history as the first town established by Black people in the United States. Settled in 1865 and incorporated in 1885, it was built by freed and former slaves who hoped to create a new life for themselves after the civil war. But its location always proved problematic, Mayor Bobbie Jones says. “Every time there was a hard rain…because it was low-lying land, the town would flood,” which in turn brought mosquitoes and disease. Still, the town preserved, and in 1965 it successfully petitioned Congress to build a dike that could prevent future floods. “From that point, there was very little flooding until 1999,” says Mayor Jones, when Hurricane Floyd swelled the river so high that it overcame the 37-foot dike and devastated the town.
This time, Mayor Jones says, Hurricane Matthew’s flood only crested at 36.1 feet, but the water found its way into town anyway, snaking around the dike’s sides to damage what has been reported as more than 80% of the town’s homes and municipal buildings. It’s an especially ironic turn of events, the Mayor notes, considering earlier this summer, when the Army Corps of Engineers finalized their long-standing plan to widen the dike. “We just had a celebration of the accomplishment of the plan.... They told us that the only thing they were waiting on was the dollars from Congress” to start construction, he says. To date, no funds have been approved, though town officials hope Matthew’s effects will spur legislative action soon.
In the meantime, individuals on the ground say that although Princeville’s situation is dire, glimmers of hope are apparent. “The people not only in Edgecombe County but in surrounding counties and really throughout North Carolina [have] rallied together” says Mayor Jones. State and National political leaders have pledged their support, he says, and the National Guard has been especially helpful, pumping millions of gallons of water out of the town to speed its recovery process.
To aid evacuees, the United Way Tar River Region has activated its disaster recovery fund and created a distribution center for individuals to donate and receive household goods. “The United Way is called on in times of natural disaster like Hurricane Matthew to ensure that our local residents are having their basic needs met – that they have food, shelter, financial stability and…what they need to live a good life,” says Ginny Mohrbutter, Executive Director, United Way said. She notes that the organization has also set up a 53-foot trailer at their headquarters to house hundreds of household items for hurricane-affected individuals. “If they need bedding, if they need toiletries, if they need cleaning supplies, non-perishable food items, baby supplies, we’ve got all of that… so that they can immediately get those items and start rebuilding their lives” she says.
Lieutenant Jonathan Whitakers, Salvation Army Commanding Officer for Nash and Edgecombe County has also been working on the front lines, providing pastoral care to Princeville residents while they are evacuated. He reports that for him, townspeople’s resilience has been awe inspiring. “It has been amazing to watch the community… how they take care of each other,” he says. “The people that are in the shelters…they have no clue what [Princeville] looks like, they don’t know what they are coming home to … but they are a stiff-necked group of folks and they are determined to get back in there and start life again. I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
When asked about Princeville’s future, Commissioner Joyner echoes that hope, saying that no matter what challenges lay ahead, leaders intend to rebuild the town. “Turner Prince and our ancestors built Princeville out of such love and out of a need… I believe it would be a real slap in the face to [them] if we allow Princeville to not be all that it can be,” she says. “Floyd and Matthew are not the only floods that have happened in Princeville…if our ancestors have been able to restore and restore and restore again, certainly with modern technology we should be able to do even greater things. Princeville is worth fighting for.”