Local News

Memories of Floyd still fresh for many

Posted September 16, 2009
Updated October 17, 2011

Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana in August 2005, causing severe destruction along the Gulf Coast. Hundreds of people lost their lives in the resulting storm surge, making the storm one of the deadliest and costliest hurricanes in U.S. history.

Four years later, thousands of residents remain displaced and portions of the coast are still under reconstruction. Lessons are still being learned.

For the residents of eastern North Carolina, Hurricane Floyd was their Katrina.

Painful lessons learned from Floyd Painful lessons learned from Floyd

The Category 2 storm made landfall in Cape Fear, N.C. on Sept. 16, 1999 – days after another storm dropped up to 16 inches of rain across the eastern part of the state. The additional 12 to 20 inches of rain from Floyd overflowed riverbanks, causing floodwaters to cover roads and inundate entire communities.

The storm left a lasting impact that still haunts flood victims today.

"The long-term psychological impact of a flood is still prevalent here," Rocky Mount Fire Chief Keith Harris said Wednesday. "I don't know if you will ever fully recover."

The Tar River, which runs by Rocky Mount, crested the day after Floyd's landfall at 33 feet – 18 feet above flood stage – putting 25 percent of the city under water. More than 500 people had to be rescued from trees, cars and homes.

Harris led many of the rescue efforts.

"Ten years later, it's still vivid," he said. "I can still see people on rooftops. I saw cases where even roofs were under water, and the last safe refuge people had was actually standing on the chimney."

When all was said and done, 52 people in North Carolina died from the Floyd – most of whom drowned as they tried to flee to higher ground.

The floods destroyed more than 8,000 homes, damaged an additional 67,000 and caused more than $6 million in property damage. The Federal Emergency Management Agency declared 66 counties natural disaster areas.

For many of the affected areas, recovery has been slow, but in the years since Floyd, many communities have made great strides.

"We have all our houses back," Princeville Mayor Delia Perkins said. "Our citizens are back. We have a new town hall."

Flooding lasted for more than a week in Princeville, damaging or destroying more than 700 homes.

Lessons learned

For Rocky Mount Mayor David Combs, the greatest lesson learned from Floyd was not to take anything for granted.

"Communities across our state that are prone to any type of natural disaster have to have a plan in place so that this type of devastation, when it occurs, you're prepared for it – not only advanced planning but the next steps after it occurs," he said.

Floyd exposed many weaknesses in the state when it came to emergency management.

About 80 percent of the North Carolina homes damaged or destroyed were not accurately depicted in a flood zone. In 1999, the flood maps were 10 to 15 years out of date.

"Many people had been building homes in flooded areas without understanding the risks," said John Dorman, director of the North Carolina Flood Mapping Program.

New technology has since been used to update the maps, which has led to the relocation of 39 hog farms and more than 90 waste lagoons, which means they won't flood again and dump nutrient pollution into waterways.

Floyd also revealed a communications problem, which led to a statewide radio network that now allows local, state and federal response agencies seamless communication with one another.

A new evacuation plan and more shelters are also in place, including special programs to rescue, feed and shelter pets.

"Pets are important," said Mark Brown with the North Carolina Division of Emergency Management. "People will not evacuate from their homes if they don't have a place to take their pets."

Floyd's devastation has also prompted Triangle researchers to make strides in better understanding how hurricanes form, move and work to cause floods.

As it approached the Atlantic Coast, the storm had weakened from a Category 4 storm but forecasters didn't anticipate the amount of rain that would fall ahead of the storm.

"Hurricanes are very complicated, because they involve small-scale convection interacting with the larger scale and becoming organized in a complicated way that's still not fully understood," said Gary Lackmann, a meteorology professor at North Carolina State University.

Using supercomputers and forecast models, Lackmann and his associates from Renaissance Computing Institute, the Army Corps of Engineers and the state of North Carolina are studying ways that hurricanes can cause floods.

"The extra horsepower means they can make higher-resolution predictions of storm surge and dangerous inland flooding, like we saw with Floyd," he said.

That leads to better planning and better preparedness.

For flood victims, that hopefully means devastation on a less proportional scale when the next Floyd hits.

"It was an absolute shock, We had hundreds, maybe thousands of people who needed help," former Rocky Mount Mayor Fred Turnage said of Floyd.

"We had never experienced anything of this magnitude. Our response was amazingly good considering how unprepared we might have been."


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  • frosty Sep 17, 2009


    I know that. But I was thinking that the state or insurance companies may plan differently for floods of a lower probability.

    Each year a one in 100 or one in 500 chance of a flood is a lot better than a 1 in 10 chance.

    I think beach builders plan on a house lasting 20 years before it gets wiped out for one reason or another. Anything more and you are just ahead of the game. But I do not claim to be an expert.

    In Floyd the water missed me by 100 yards (horizontal) but it was a week before I could make a phone call and that required an 11 mile drive. And I am about 5 miles from the Tar River.

  • 1carpe Sep 17, 2009

    Frosty I must correct something. If you live in a 100 year flood and it floods, it does not mean you are safe for 99 years. If it floods in a 100 or 500 year zone on Oct 1, 2009, the clock starts ticking again on Oct 2, 2009. In short your 100 year cycle starts from "0" which means you have a chance of a flood from "0" to 100 years. You get the same combination of Hurricane Dennis followed by Floyd next year, and you will have another 500 flood 11 years after the last one.

  • walkshome1234 Sep 17, 2009

    Some things have changed in Raleigh since this. we have way more Development (Roofs, pavement, Trees Gone). Olive Chapel Rd in Apex was flooded with just a few inches of rain a 2-3 years ago. If we had a Major Rain event, this would be much worse. If Floyd had been 30 miles west. Raleigh/Cary/Durham would have been KOed. Flood Insurance is a great thing if you live near a creek or a place that is low. A good rule from an Army Corp Eng, was to add 10 ft. to the flood zone elavation. Also, a good friend had 2 500 flood events hit his house in the same year. So its just numbers. So have your flood insurance.

  • GoHeels88 Sep 16, 2009

    Bad storm.

  • raysson Sep 16, 2009

    I remember vividity as well....that storm not only hit the eastern part of the state,but came up toward the Raleigh-Durham area....I was working in the public school system here in Durham ten years ago,and I remember when they broadcast the information about Floyd,they had schools in session that day,but the next day went ahead at the last minute to cancel classes for about two days.

  • frosty Sep 16, 2009

    Oh, and the thing about flood zones. I think they are rated by the likelihood of flooding over time. I can't remember if they rated Floyd as a 200 year or 500 year event. So the probability of it happening again in anyone's lifetime is not large.

  • jmolivieri13 Sep 16, 2009

    My child was four we were liveing in a condo on zebulon road by stony crrek in Rocky Mount. We saw the water come higher and higher to our porch wich was 8ft of the groung and we got scared and started to get out. We opened the door and saw our SUV but, we couldnt find our husbands work truck. We were carried on my husbands back out of the condo and into the car and juts drove. The sad thing was 4 weeks eairler our house caught on fire. That was the worst year for our family.

  • frosty Sep 16, 2009

    The flood maps were so out of date that people had no idea they were in one. In many inland places the berm made when bridges were put in acted like dams flooding places quite a ways from the river. And in the flat areas people were miles away from the river had flooding.

    Also the flooding closed roads all over eastern NC so that you could drive east to west fairly well later but north to south was a problem for quite a while.

    And, as usual I guess, some places due to political contacts or "correctness" where rebuilt over others with the same or more damage. Some were rebuilt when they should have been removed or relocated for that reason.

    And some of the deaths were due to absolute stupidity or panic.

  • JustOneGodLessThanU Sep 16, 2009

    What good are even updated flood maps if people continue to build there?

    News Flash! Flood zones flood.

  • khoggard Sep 16, 2009

    I cannot beleive it has been 10 years. We lived in Rocky Mount then & had water in our apartment to a little over waste deep. We lost 2 cars, our home, & a lot of belongings. My husbands place of work was flooded over the top of the roof because it was right next to the Tar River. They were able to recover & reopen after several months. We left Rocky Mount & now live in Martin County. I told my husband I never wanted to live near water again where it could rise like it did & get our home. I can still see the pictures in my mind of the water rising toward our apartment. We have been able to recover but it never far from my mind.