Princeville to get $39.6 million for levee project
Posted January 9, 2020 7:54 p.m. EST
Updated January 10, 2020 6:40 p.m. EST
Princeville, N.C. — The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers will spend nearly $40 million to upgrade the levee along the Tar River and address flooding issues that inundated the historic town of Princeville during Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
The corps plans to elevate highways and extend the levee, and an announcement late Thursday cleared the way for detailed design work to begin. Local leaders and state officials pushing for the money praised the decision, which has been a long time coming.
The corps has discussed the levee project since Floyd nearly wiped the town away. It's one of several projects planned for Princeville, which is the nation's oldest town chartered by freed slaves and sits in a marshy bowl of land just across the river from Tarboro.
"We know that it is subject to flood again because we know the ground that we stand on, we know the geography of it," Princeville Mayor Pro Tem Linda Joyner said Friday. "But we are believing that the dike will prevent the flooding from being as devastating as it has been in the past."
Leaders have been back and forth over how to proceed, and some people have moved away. After Hurricane Matthew, the state bought 53 acres of mostly empty land nearby, and it's working to move some people there. Much of the town is eligible for home buyouts using federal money to get people out of the flood plain, but not everyone wants to go.
"I feel like it would be a slap in the face (to town founders) for us to up and run," Joyner said Friday.
In the end, the state says some homes will be elevated, some demolished and some better protected by the levee.
Princeville built a new town hall in 2002, but it flooded during Matthew, and the temporary town hall remains in Tarboro. The old town hall has been gutted in a rehabilitation project begun last year.
Across the street, the town's former senior center sits on concrete blocks some 10 feet high. Joyner said the plan is to tear it down and build a new one.
Joyner said President Donald Trump called the town's mayor with news of the funding Thursday night. Congressman G.K. Butterfield, U.S. Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis and Gov. Roy Cooper put out press releases applauding the funding.
Burr said "it's not enough to simply rebuild," and that the state must apply "the lessons of the past to mitigate future risks."
"This $39.6 million from the Corps of Engineers will do just that by increasing the elevations of highways and installing additional levees around the Tar River," he said in his statement.
Cooper sent the corps a letter seeking the funding in July, saying the town was "at a critical point in its recovery," that the state planned to commit other "significant federal and state resources" to the area and that plans to elevate homes would be "fully dependent on the status of the levees."
Butterfield said in a Thursday evening statement that he was "overjoyed" by the funding.
"The protection of Princeville and the preservation of its place in our nation’s history cannot be overstated," he said. "The completion of the levee project will ensure the longevity of this historic town for current and future generations."
Former town commissioner Milton Bullock, who is nearly 80, called the money "the dream that I have been envisioning."
"I just hope God will spare me enough ... to make sure, in the sunset of my life, that this money will be put toward ... making Princeville less flood-prone," Bullock said. "Then, we can invite people to come. I wouldn't want anybody to come to a fishbowl."
Joyner said she's been asked, over and over, why people don't simply leave.
"The land," she said. "The blood, sweat and tears that went in to building this land up so we could even stand on solid ground today. Yes, it floods from time to time. Actually, it has flooded numerous times. But every time it floods, we do come back, and with the resiliency that we have and the appreciation for our ancestors. ... That's something that you just don't take lightly."