Princeville moves from rising waters to rebuilding a town

Sitting adjacent to the Tar River, the Town of Princeville, the oldest town chartered by blacks in America, has long been inundated with flooding since its inception as natural disasters routinely plague Eastern North Carolina.

PRINCEVILLE  —— Established by freed slaves after the Civil War, Princeville was settled on an unwanted flood plain. When Hurricane Matthew ripped through the state in October 2016, Princeville was once again underwater only 17 years after the last major flood.

“In 1999, I was in denial. I didn’t think the town would flood and when officials asked us to evacuate, I didn’t,” said Mayor Bobbie Jones.

“The day after the Hurricane Floyd, water had risen to thigh level and I couldn’t get out. I waited too late,” he continued. “A helicopter came to get me.”

“This time, the evacuation was mandatory when Hurricane Matthew came,” said Jones. “The flood of 1999 helped prepare us for the flood of 2016. We were well-coordinated, organized and we didn’t lose a life in Princeville.”

The elevation of Princeville is 30 feet. The dike protecting the town stands at 37 feet. When hurricanes reach landfall in Edgecombe County, the Tar River, though picturesque and silent, brings rising water causing massive destruction to this low-lying town.

In 1999, water rose to 42 feet and engulfed the entire town. In 2016, water rose to 36 feet, one foot shy of the dike’s peak. While the dike held, water entered the town where the dike tapers off, flooding pockets of Princeville which included Main Street, Town Hall, the Senior Center and Princeville Elementary School.

“We are proud people. We are determined people. We have a goal of making Princeville great again,” said Jones.

Following the flood, residents were dispersed to shelters, hotels, or homes of friends and family.

“With every flood people move away from Princeville and people move back to Princeville,” said Jones. “I expect people to do the same this time around.”

In 1999, the population was 2,100. In 2016, the population was 2,200.Based upon assessments by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state of North Carolina, there is an estimated $1.5 million in damage to town-owned properties, said Jones.

Following Floyd, President Bill Clinton created a new council to draw up a plan to more adequately protect the town. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers drafted an extensive construction plan that is still awaiting funding from Congress. The plan last appeared in a 2015 feasibility report.

For Princeville, upgrading the dike is critical. The town was given projected estimates for the upgrade by state and federal government as totaling $22 million.

Since the flood, there has been speculation and discussion around the state as to whether Princeville will rebuild or move the town. Jones sets the record straight.

“We will rebuild,” said Jones. “The heart of Princeville is to stay where it is. Our ancestors’ blood, sweat and tears built this town. If we move, what does that say about the sacrifice and work of the freed slaves who established us?”

Rebuilding takes time. Of the 2,200 residents displaced, Jones estimates that 60 percent of the population has returned to their homes. Many are still living in hotels and FEMA trailers as they rebuild their lives, homes and sense of community. Rebuilding doesn’t come without struggle.

“When you go through this, there will be something good in it, but you have no control,” said resident Mike Graham. “All around me there is hurting. I feel other people’s pain. I feel my pain. When you don’t know where you’re going, when your family will be all right — there’s no control — I can’t make sandwiches every day, wash my own clothes, or stand at the sink and wash my dishes.”

“I try to be strong, but it’s tear­ing me down,” he added. “I can’t let my wife see me like this. I’m the man. I’m supposed to be the strong one. I gotta show my kids and grandkids that it will be OK. I keep telling them that, but I don’t know that.”

Graham and his family have been living in the Quality Inn Hotel in Tarboro since October. They are waiting on a FEMA trailer.

“We have a small tax base. If our people can’t rebuild, then our population decreases,” said Jones.

The N.C. Works Disaster Relief Employment Grant provides funding for programs to provide temporary jobs to North Carolinians who have become unemployed as the result of a natural disaster. The purpose of these jobs is to assist local recovery efforts through clean up and repair. Graham is one of many Princeville residents able to take part in this program. He works for both the Quality Inn and the Distribution Center.

“In rebuilding lives, we have to rebuild the whole person, the whole person mentally, spiritually, physically and financially,” Jones said.