Grateful few get to return to Princeville
Posted October 21, 2016
Princeville, N.C. — About a quarter of the approximately 2,000 Princeville residents returned home Friday, 12 days after the historic Edgecombe County town was evacuated before high water from the Tar River flowed through its streets.
Town Manager Daniel Gerald said residents of the Southern Terrace neighborhood could return home. That area is on higher ground than most of Princeville, so it saw the least amount of flooding.
Elizabeth Battle was one of those lucky ones.
"I said 'God is good because he said he'd take care of me.' I went in every room, and it's just like I left it," she said.
Mary Jones was so happy about returning home, she was hugging just about anyone. Jones has lived in Princeville 47 years, and she said the last few weeks may have been the longest.
"I was going crazy for a while. For two days, I wasn't saying nothing to nobody," she said. "Later on I pulled myself out of it, and said, 'Thank God' because it could've gone the other way."
Jerry Brown was so overjoyed that he almost ran from the shelter where he's been staying in recent days.
"I am going home for good," Brown said. "They've been good to me. I appreciate everything. But there's nothing like coming back home."
Kenneth Jones, his daughter and grandson spent their Friday evening picking up debris. Wind damage left its mark on their home, but they were feeling grateful to be able to be back home.
Since Hurricane Matthew hit two weeks ago and Princeville was evacuated, only people working directly with relief and recovery efforts were allowed into the town.
"It's just been overwhelming, both personally and physically," said Fire Chief James Powell, who still has water in his car and damage throughout his firehouse.
The Princeville Fire Department is making do with what it has – pitching a tent at a nearby gas station and getting help from outside emergency crews – to carry out its duties.
"We reworked their trucks, we fixed mechanical issues, we added equipment, we removed equipment and helped sort everything out," said Chris Murray, EMS director for Pamlico County.
Princeville, which was founded by freed slaves in the 1800s, was nearly wiped off the map in 1999 by flooding from Hurricane Floyd.
Residents rebuffed an offer from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to buy and raze their water-logged homes, choosing to have the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rebuild and strengthen a nearby levee that breached during Floyd.
Although the levee held back water from Hurricane Matthew, flooding along the Tar River was so extensive that the high water simply went around the levee into the town, flooding some homes to their rooftops. Officials spent recent days pumping water out of Princeville and back into the river.
Police have set up a checkpoint in Southern Terrace neighborhood to keep non-residents out. People have to show valid identification as a proof of residence.
Gerald said a second neighborhood is close to reopening, but it could be days before residents in the rest of the town can go home and start the process of cleaning up and rebuilding.
"They are still going to be here at the shelter. The ones that are going to be here a little bit longer, they may be moving to hotels. So, things are being done for them as well," he said.