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Floyd anniversary brings flood of memories

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Firefighter Bobby Wilson carries Iris Horton from her Drake Street home on Sept. 16, 1999.

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BY AMELIA HARPER
Staff Writer

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Twenty years have passed since Hurricane Floyd targeted the Twin Counties, but long-time residents will remember Sept. 15, 1999, as the Day the 500-Year Flood Came.

For on that day and far into the night and the next day, it rained. And rained. And rained. Not gentle rains or steady downpours. It rained as if celestial taps had been opened and water was filling an enormous bowl. Roughly 15.49 inches of rain fell the first 24 hours of that storm on land that already was saturated from Tropical Storm Dennis about two weeks before.

When the rain ended, the nightmare only grew. Floodwaters filled brooks and streams and mighty rivers. Almost everyone in the Twin Counties was either flooded or was stranded on little islands of rain-soaked land. Roads were covered in every direction and transportation was nearly impossible. Boats and jets skis were used to get supplies to stranded residents.

As the floodwaters swelled, many residents were in mortal danger. Rescue boat and helicopters were used to rescue as many as possible. But too many lives were lost.

The days following were surreal. All sense of normality was gone. Almost everyone in the area was affected in some way — damage to personal property, damage to businesses, damage to churches, damages to schools — in additional to personal loss or injury. More than 500,000 homes in North Carolina were without power, including many in the Twin Counties.

And the nightmare did not end in a day. Or even a week. The waters continued to rise. The Tar River in Rocky Mount crested at 32.35 feet on Sept. 17. The river crested at 41.51 feet in Tarboro on Sept. 20. These were new records. By comparison, the average river level in Rocky Mount that year was 5.8 feet.

The Town of Princeville was largely submerged. Special teams were sent out to deal with the floating coffins dislodged from grave sites around Princeville. The flood waters in Princeville did not begin to recede until Sept. 26. The damage was so bad that FEMA offered to buy out the entire town. But with the encouragement of such dignitaries as Jesse Jackson, the town voted to rebuild the dike in an effort to preserve the historic community, which has since been devastated by Hurricane Matthew.

Shelters were full and many, many people were permanently displaced as a result of Hurricane Floyd. It took more than three years for the victims of that flood to find permanent housing.

Jeff Herrin, former editor of the Rocky Mount Telegram, recounted the effects of the devastation on the state and the community in the foreword of the book “A Flood of Memories” which was published by the paper in 2000. Proceeds from the sale of the book were used to help create the Imperial Centre.

“The rescue worker will remember that storm’s statistical horror. Fifty-one people died—16 in the Twin Counties of Nash and Edgecombe. About 2,000 homes were damaged by flooding in Rocky Mount. In all, 15,000 homes and businesses were hit throughout North Carolina.

“Farmers will measure Floyd by its statistical destruction. The storm wiped out 24,000 acres of farmland in Nash and Edgecombe counties alone. Livestock farms throughout the state lost 28,000 hogs and 600 cattle. Poultry farmers lost 2.85 million fowl.

“For the rest of us, Floyd is a more personal nightmare. Every person in Nash or Edgecombe county on the night of Sept. 15, 1999, has a story to tell, even if it’s no more than “Thank God, we weren’t hit,” Herrin wrote.

An entire generation has grown up since Hurricane Floyd struck the Twin Counties. Thousands of new residents have become a part of the community. For them, the memories are not there.

Some of these residents may wonder why folks in this area take hurricane warnings so seriously. Hurricane Matthew was a reminder but pales in comparison to the widespread devastation of Hurricane Floyd, which packed only 70 mph winds when it hit the Twin Counties.

But for those who were here when the 500-year flood hit, the memory remains. Memories of loss and gratitude for what was not lost. Memories of helping and receiving help. Memories of coming together as a community in mighty way. And every hurricane watch and warning since remind us of what can happen when the rains come.

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