N.C. Victims of '99 Hurricane Are Still Weathering Woes

Jessie Murphy has two loans on her storm-damaged home in historic Princeville.
Jessie Murphy has two loans on her storm-damaged home in historic Princeville. (By Gerry Broome -- Associated Press)
By Martha Waggoner
Associated Press
Tuesday, December 27, 2005

PRINCEVILLE, N.C. -- Jessie Murphy rebuilt her wrecked home after Hurricane Floyd dumped rain that overran levees and inundated her historic home town.

Now she wonders if she should have bothered. And she worries that the victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans will someday feel the same way.

"Because had I been thinking right . . . I probably wouldn't even have came back here," said Murphy, 64. "Then I got to thinking about how my husband built this house. . . . But see, he's not here. I'm the one left with the bills."

Their town of about 2,000, about the same as before Floyd, is tiny compared with New Orleans, but the people of Princeville -- a poor, black community flooded when water topped river levees -- share a connection with New Orleans.

And they have advice for the Big Easy: Don't let sentiment take over when deciding whether to return, because the cost of trying to rebuild what you once had can be devastating. Expect the stress of life to take a toll on your health. And be aware that the sense of unity that a disaster brings to a community won't last.

Floyd dropped more than 20 inches of rain on eastern North Carolina after making landfall in September 1999.

Flooding destroyed 90 percent of Princeville's buildings, but only seven homes were covered by flood insurance.

Murphy moved into one of the mobile homes provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It was placed in her front yard, where she could watch over the reconstruction of her house. One contractor left work unfinished after taking more than $6,000; others in Princeville also suffered from fraud.

Murphy now struggles to pay two loans on the three-bedroom and narrowly avoided foreclosure this year.

It is a common problem in Princeville, where the homes of about 35 residents have been in foreclosure this year, said Emma Davis, the town's housing case manager. Most, if not all, of the financial problems are related to Floyd.

People without flood insurance still had to pay their original mortgage and then took out loans to rebuild, often borrowing extra cash for improvements such as central air conditioning, Davis said.

Daisy Staton and her husband are still dealing with extra mortgage payments. She said she is still so weak emotionally that she cannot work. She received a diagnosis of breast cancer six months after Floyd, and her husband has prostate cancer. He recently left, she said, driven by the stress.

Cancer and chronic pain are diseases that the medical community recognizes as being related to stress, said Beverly Thorn, director of clinical psychology at the University of Alabama.

To avoid becoming physically ill, victims of hurricanes and other disasters should take care of themselves by eating right, exercising, and taking control of any part of their lives that they can, she said.

A driving force in the decision to rebuild Princeville was its historic significance as the nation's oldest town founded by freed slaves, and the history of New Orleans is often cited as a reason to rebuild there.

Princeville "has come a long way from a town that at one time appeared it was so damaged that there was no way to repair it and make it whole again," said David Kelly, who led recovery efforts. "But the people of Princeville wouldn't let that happen, and I hope the people of New Orleans do the same."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company