The scuffed blue-and-gold basketball court that is usually home to Tarboro High School's Vikings has become a stifling, cramped home for thousands of residents of this deluged eastern North Carolina town. And almost everyone here is black.
Black faces look sleepily from the rows of khaki-green Army cots and line the darkened brick corridors. Black mothers attend to tiny babies in classrooms turned into changing rooms. Black men play cards in the corner. In all, 2,300 black residents and almost as many in a middle school nearby have for six days called these gymnasiums home, twice the number of people that emergency officials had planned for the two shelters to hold.
At the Moose Lodge across town, the faces are almost all white and elderly, a result less of racist intent than of the way residents were evacuated from communities flooded by the rising Tar River in the days after Hurricane Floyd. The lodge houses one-tenth as many people as Tarboro High, most of them elderly residents with medical problems.
The floods that have displaced more than 5,000 residents of Tarboro and neighboring towns--all but a fraction of whom are black--have caused an inadvertent racial segregation of services. Blacks lodged at Tarboro High talk about the white quarters across town and the hot meals served there, though in fact those whites are eating the same boxed meals. Those who run the Moose Lodge shelter acknowledge that many whites may have come there knowing it was run by and for whites, though they have turned no one away.
"Right now, it's not much of a racial thing," said Sam Noble, the town manager. "We're all in trouble."
The disparity in the way the storm affected the 15,000 black and white residents in Tarboro and neighboring communities is a lesson in the cruelties of topography. When the Tar River crested Thursday above a dike built to keep it in its banks, it had nowhere to go but downhill and into the low-lying black neighborhoods east of town. The town of Princeville is more than 95 percent black and is entirely underwater, including a multimillion-dollar school renovation project started this year.
In nearby Pinetops, a fast-rising creek drove black residents into boats a few days ago to escape. One family capsized on a torrential creek, losing Keisha Mayo, 24, and her 5-year-old daughter, Teshika Vines, in the currents. Two young neighbors were also washed away. Officials have confirmed that seven Edgecombe County residents have been killed in the flood, most if not all of whom were black.
The disparity is also evidence of the segregated life that still largely abides in many Southern towns, especially in such rural areas as Edgecombe County, where the races have stuck to themselves for years. But any racial resentment was mostly muted today as most county residents, black and white, prayed for the rain to stop and the water to subside so they could begin cleaning up. Most hope the historic calamity will stitch together the community, much as the economic stirrings of new manufacturing enterprises on the edge of town have done in recent years.
"You can't argue with topography," said Mitch Stenslaw, personnel director for Edgecombe County public schools and one of many white residents who has been volunteering in the shelters, taking black residents home to shower and mobilizing businesses for the relief effort. "If anything, racial tension at this point is too petty to be considered."
After five days of the same clothes and no showers, the Tarboro High gymnasium is a stale cavern as its residents wake each morning. Families stake out corners of the gym or prime spots along the folded bleachers. Many have lived on the floor--the first two days without cots. They change in tents behind the school, eat from Red Cross food trucks and use putrid portable toilets. Stenslaw is one of several officials who say state and private relief agencies were slow to respond to the crisis with food, clothes and cots in the days after the storm. Late today, officials began moving what will be several hundred black residents into campers on the edge of town.
Slowly, the gym comes to life. Waist-high girls with braided hair skip rope and play tag, while boys inspect the undercarriages of toy trucks. A bright blue Sylvester the Cat pillow case stands out against Army cots. Beds are neatly made. In a far corner, a television hums with the morning news.
Nearby, Leroy Sherrod, a forklift driver at Superior Cable, plays a card game called Tunk with two friends. He has been in the shelter--in the same damp pants and work boots--since Friday morning when he fled the Southern Terrace neighborhood hours before it flooded. His Volkswagen Jetta is a submarine.
What Sherrod wants most is a pair of dry shoes and a change of underwear. But when the shelter coordinator announces that vouchers for dry clothes will be given to those with last names beginning with the letters B and C, Sherrod grumbles.
"They were on A yesterday and I'm an S," he said. "It'll be next week until I can get shoes and drawers."
The food consists of beef stew, military MREs, sandwiches, peaches and juice.
About three miles away at the Moose Lodge, pool tables beneath hanging Budweiser lamps have been turned into beds. Those being sheltered are mostly white, but that's because a nearby nursing home that was evacuated a few days ago housed mostly white patients.
James "Donnie" Keel, the lodge administrator, said he set up the shelter Thursday because state and county officials were unprepared for the storm. It was subsequently designated by the state Special Operations Rescue Team to shelter medical cases.
But Keel said the shelter has taken in anyone in need, including an 80-year-old black woman found along a downtown street in chest-high water, clutching her Bible, an antique doll, the deed to her house and her burial arrangements with a local funeral home.
"And she's not leaving until I know she's going to be all right," Keel said.
CAPTION: Dornetta Johnson, 6, peers into a Tarboro High School office as her mother signs in at the shelter housing 2,300 blacks.
CAPTION: Scores of North Carolinians who have been displaced by the floods of Hurricane Floyd line up for an afternoon meal at Tarboro High School.
CAPTION: Volunteer Doris Stith embraces Bernard Hagans as she tries to accommodate thousands of people staying at Tarboro High School. Residents have slept on cots in the gym for six days.