WRAL Investigates

After Matthew, flaws in levee design left Princeville underwater -- again

Days after Hurricane Matthew moved out of eastern North Carolina in October, historic Princeville was still dry. It wouldn't last, however, as three days after the storm, water moved past a levee designed to protect Princeville, leaving 80 percent of the town under water.

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PRINCEVILLE, N.C. — After Hurricane Matthew moved out of eastern North Carolina in October, historic Princeville was still dry.
It wouldn't last, however, as three days after the storm, water moved past a levee designed to protect Princeville, leaving 80 percent of the town underwater.
Once the waters receded, Princeville leaders hired engineers to figure out how the waters got past the levee with it still intact. The engineers identified four problems, and their report raised serious questions about what wasn't done after another historic storm – Hurricane Floyd – also left the town underwater.

It was 1999 when a so-called 500-year flood hit tiny Princeville, an Edgecombe County town first incorporated by ex-slaves.

Twenty feet of water buried the town after Floyd ravaged the eastern part of North Carolina. It took 11 days for the floodwaters to return to the Tar River, and it took years for the town to recover.

Months after the 1999 flooding, former President Bill Clinton signed an executive order establishing a council to help rebuild the historic town and "to the extent practicable, protect Princeville from future floods."

The Army Corps of Engineers assessed the damage from Floyd and determined that the floodwaters were simply too high for the levee designed to protect the town.

Two years later, the Army began a separate study on better ways to protect the town.

Fast forward to April 2016, when the second Army report on Princeville was finally completed, just six months before Matthew.

Bottom line, the corps found flaws in the levee design that had been previously overlooked.

The existing Princeville levee runs along the Tar River on the northern edge of town. The corps suggested modifying the levee and adding culvert gates to the south, a new roadside levee to the west of town and raising roads on the east side of the town.

When the town's engineering firm surveyed the area after Matthew, they found evidence those trouble spots were exactly where water poured into Princeville.

The corps found several culverts along U.S. Highway 64 that were not equipped with gates – huge metal doors that could be shut to keep water out or opened to help drain water from town in cases such as Floyd.

"In the culverts that are gated, the water can't get through," Princeville Town Manager Daniel Gerald said.

The Corps said in a statement that it worked with the North Carolina Department of Transportation on permitting but was "not involved with the design or construction of Highway 64."

Gerald was behind the idea to hire an engineering firm to look at the Army report and inspect post-Matthew damage.

As it turns out, a system designed to help protect the town may have brought damage to Princeville – first from Floyd and then from Matthew.

Pamela Castens, the Princeville project manager with the Army Corps of Engineers, worked on the 15-year study. She said it was a complicated project that took time to complete.

One concern is that, if Princeville is fortified, where will water go? Many fear future floodwaters would flow into neighboring Tarboro instead.

"It'll take money. The estimated price tag to fix the trouble spots around Princeville is $21 million," Castens said. "It's a lot of money, but a fraction of the taxpayer dollars spent to rebuild the town after Floyd – and now Matthew. After Matthew, the Federal Emergency Management Agency also changed the flood zones in Princeville, putting more homes in the danger area."

The Corps said in a statement that it has "worked diligently with the town of Princeville in finding resources and developing plans to strengthen the town's protection. Unfortunately, rainfall runoff from Matthew created an extreme flooding event on the Tar River which caused flooding in the town."

Gerald said several parts of the town went from Zone X designations to Zone AE, meaning that more areas were under the threat of severe flooding if the levee failed. The changes were made after Matthew.

The change in flood zones has many in the town raising questions about insurance coverage and whether the higher cost makes it worth it to rebuild.

"There are mitigation steps that FEMA can take to secure the town," Gerald said.

Despite the latest disaster, Princeville leaders are still looking to the future.

"There's hope. Every day I hope," Gerald said.

Gerald said part of that hope centers around the fact that town residents and leaders want to see improvements made to the levee system.

"It should be protected by the government and recognized as the historical place that it is," Gerald said.


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