Flood waters of historic proportions crested in eastern North Carolina today, keeping thousands from their homes, drowning hundreds of thousands of farm animals and cutting a huge swath of human misery that may last for weeks or even months.
Hurricane Floyd's aftermath has claimed at least 35 lives in North Carolina, but some people remained missing tonight, and officials couldn't thoroughly assess the damage because roads to several rural communities and farms were impassable. In county after county, meanwhile, people confronted hardships that seemed almost biblical in scope: Coffins sent floating away from low-lying cemeteries; portable incinerators being assembled to dispose of 100,000 dead hogs and a million drowned poultry; oceanfront homes being swept away; and thousands of residents living without safe tap water, telephones or mail service.
"It's going to be a long time before our town is normal. Maybe never," said Dreana Coggins, 45, a resident of Tarboro, where flood-ravaged gasoline pumps spilled gallons of fuel into the murky waters covering the town.
Flood waters have shut down much of the state's eastern third, an area of 18,000 square miles and 2.1 million people, officials said. They said 30,000 homes were flooded and perhaps 1,600 are beyond repair. The damage may exceed the $6 billion total from Hurricane Fran in 1996, the state's costliest natural disaster.
Public health concerns will outlast the high waters, however, because inundated farms and sewage treatment plants have sent animal and human waste into the swollen tributaries. Adding to the problem are the carcasses of an estimated 1 million chickens and turkeys, and about 100,000 pigs and hogs, in a region where hog and poultry production have overtaken tobacco as the leading agriculture products.
"It does create a tremendous problem, an environmental problem of the highest magnitude," said Jim Barnhart, county manager of Duplin County, where looting was reported over the weekend.
State officials were assembling two incinerators today to destroy animal carcasses and hoping for several more to arrive from Florida, said agriculture department spokeswoman Andrea Ashby. "We're trying to remove and get rid of the dead animals as much as we can," she said. Agriculture losses statewide are estimated at about $1 billion, she said. "It has just totally wiped out some farms."
Health officials also warned that the abundant water is producing swarms of mosquitoes, which could spread encephalitis.
Across the region, National Guard troops and state police helped stranded motorists and watched for looters, who were reported in scattered locations. The problems could grow worse, as rain from Tropical Storm Harvey was forecast for tonight and Tuesday in much of the area, possibly heavy at times, just as the Neuse and Tar rivers were cresting at unprecedented levels.
President Clinton used Tarboro's flooded Main Street today as a backdrop to announce a package of federal assistance to victims in North Carolina and other states raked by Floyd, which struck near Wilmington, N.C., early Thursday and swept northward. Like many others in this state's coastal plains, he struggled for words to describe the devastation.
"No matter how much television there is, it doesn't do it justice," Clinton said. "You can't show what it feels like inside for people" who have lost homes and businesses, or for farmers whose fields and livestock were destroyed.
About 1,000 residents were rescued over the weekend from rising waters, North Carolina officials said. Most of the deaths recorded thus far resulted when currents swept away motorists who tried to cross flooded roads, or when residents tried to escape rising waters by foot or in small boats.
As skies grew increasingly dark and threatening today, North Carolina officials said 114,000 households were without power and 35,000 had dead phones. Interstate 95 reopened for the first time since Thursday, but about 300 other roads remained closed. More than 10,000 people were staying in 39 shelters.
In Tarboro, after viewing the floods by helicopter, Clinton announced several aid initiatives: $12 million in temporary cleanup jobs for people suddenly unemployed; low-interest loans for home repairs and small businesses; and additional flood aid as part of the Farm Bill now moving through Congress.
"We know we have a responsibility as members of the American family to help you out," the president said. "And we intend to."
About 12,000 North Carolinians have asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for assistance. In Edgecombe County, where Clinton spoke, Floyd has left about one in 10 homeless. Many have opted for friends' or relatives' houses rather than stay in the somewhat chaotic shelters.
Just blocks from flooded downtown Tarboro, 17 children and seven adults from an extended family have been crowded into a two-bedroom house for several days. They said they had $150 among them, and no income because their workplaces are flooded.
"We're just scraping by, day by day," said Jamie Egnor, 22.
In almost every way, life has been disrupted for the residents here. Power has returned for many, but water is undrinkable unless boiled or treated with chemicals. Most workplaces have closed, and travel is sharply limited by flooded roads.
Jim Riffle, 24, ran his hand through his matted hair today and lit a cigarette. "I stink," he said. "I haven't had a shower since Wednesday. We all stink."
Riffle works in a quarry that was under at least 12 feet of water. His boss was unable to lend him money. His mobile home was miles away, cut off by flooding. His sister's home was the only place he could go.
"We've had money and food up to now, but what's going to happen next week?" said Tina Peeden, 40, another family member. "How much longer can we go like this?" She told her family that tonight's dinner would be crackers and cold-cut stew.
In nearby Princeville, a community incorporated by former slaves after the Civil War, Floyd dealt a cruel blow to a community that had been on the upswing. Following the state's first takeover of a town's finances, trash was being picked up regularly and the leaking sewage system was fixed. Today, it's under water, with only the tops of two-story houses visible.
"I've lived there since 1934," said Barbara Pittman, 66. "I don't know if I'll ever see it again."
Even the dead are disturbed. Flood waters unearthed caskets from Wilson Cemetery, where town founder Turner Prince is buried.
Similar woes plagued the town of Goldsboro, where the swollen Neuse River ripped several caskets from the grounds of Willow Dale cemetery.
"We've gotten most of them, and basically it has stopped," Town Manager Richard Slozak said today. A previous storm had made similar incursions in the cemetery, he said, but never before had the town's sewage treatment plant been flooded and incapacitated. Surrounded by a levee that's 28 feet above the Neuse's normal level, Slozak said, the treatment plant seemed safe from any imaginable storm.
Hit by the waters of Floyd, he said, "the levee didn't break, it just went over it."
On Oak Island, one of North Carolina's barrier beaches, Hurricane Floyd's massive surge left no trace of several beachfront homes.
"We lost -- I mean they're gone -- around 20 houses," said Phil White, owner of Ocean 1 Realty Inc. "And there's maybe 25 to 50 that probably will have to be torn down" because of exposed septic tanks and other structural damage.
"This was the worst since Hurricane Hazel wiped this island out," White said, referring to the 1954 storm that left five houses standing on Oak Island.
Mishra reported from North Carolina, Babington from Washington.
Some effects of flooding in North Carolina
Craven County: Marines sent amphibious craft to handle dead hogs.
Kinston: Neuse River rising into downtown area.
Greenville: Tar River crested here yesterday.
Nash, Edgecombe Bertie and Pitt Counties: Airlift delivering food and water.
Waccamaw River, Cape Fear River, Lumber River: Rose to record levels.
Tarboro: River crested 24 feet above flood stage. 2,000 staying in emergency shelter.
Duplin County, Hertford County: Looting reported
SOURCE: STAFF REPORTS AND ASSOCIATED PRESS