In the chaotic days of the flooding that followed Hurricane Floyd, Ronald and Tina Child held on to the hope that their middle son, Aaron--the star baseball player they had just launched on his freshman year here at East Carolina University--was only missing. But in their hearts, they knew better.
Tina Child hurried from their Brunswick County home to tack up posters everywhere of the handsome, dark-haired young man. Television appeals were broadcast. Prayers were lifted up. But on Sept. 22, five days after Aaron disappeared while walking from his older brother's off-campus apartment to his dormitory to get some clothing for a trip home, his body was found in a swollen creek at the bottom of College Hill. He had drowned, one of the 48 confirmed dead so far in this flood-ravaged region of the state.
Aaron Christopher Child was mourned at a funeral Saturday, attended by the people in his hometown of Leland who had loved the irrepressible baseball catcher who wanted perhaps to become a psychologist, and by the new college friends who in just a few weeks' time had begun to appreciate his outgoing personality and playful sense of humor.
"We were surprised by how many friends he had already made," said Ronald Child, 49. "But then again, we weren't. He was a popular boy."
Today, his fellow students returned to classes for the first time since the nightmarish storm brought the state's third-largest university to a standstill on Sept. 15. They found a campus that looked largely unscathed, except for a few sinkholes and fallen oaks. But many will wear the scars of this disaster for a long time to come.
"It's brought us all a lot closer, I think," said student government vice president John Meriac, 21, a senior from Forest City, N.C. "There are some setbacks, and the death of the student, everybody thinks a lot about that. The rest of it, well, it makes us think how it doesn't matter how many possessions you have, they can be taken away in an instant. It matures you a little bit faster."
More rain--up to eight inches--fell over eastern North Carolina today and Tuesday, holding off the recovery from the flooding left behind by Hurricane Floyd. The new rains flooded most of the streets in downtown Goldsboro, about 25 miles southeast of here, ruptured a dam in Wayne County and pushed up the Tar and Neuse rivers, which had been receding. Tonight, tornadoes destroyed homes and businesses in the central part of the state.
The hurricane affected many students and staff here. About 2,500 of the 18,000 students found their off-campus dwellings flooded, said university spokesman John Durham, their barely cracked textbooks, brand-new clothing and expensive computers swept away in the swirling, 15-foot-deep flood waters.
Now they are doubling up in dormitories, moving into other apartments in this city of 50,000, and even bunking in private homes opened up to them by residents who were moved by their circumstances.
The university's housekeeping staff also was hit hard, Durham said.
"As many as 25 percent of our housekeepers are homeless," he said, estimating the number at 40 to 50 of a total staff of 180.
Large portions of the campus infrastructure were affected by Floyd, such as electrical works and air-conditioning components, Durham said. Early estimates of the costs, he said, run about $7 million.
Throughout the flood zone, state officials said, damage estimates are likely to soar into the billions, making this the costliest disaster by far in the state's history. At least 1,500 homes were destroyed, and 30,000 others were damaged.
"It may take from three to five years to recover," said Chris Kellogg, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina Emergency Response Team.
The individual losses are incalculable: a much-beloved piano warped beyond repair; a 50-year-old wedding album disintegrated by water; a pet dog that had to be left behind in the panicked rush to safer ground.
And in the Child household, the unfathomable loss of a dear son.
Ronald Child cherishes the memory of the mini-vacation he and his wife, his five sons and his daughter took the weekend before Hurricane Floyd came and went and changed so many lives. They traveled to the mountains near Boone, N.C., and went whitewater rafting.
At the time, his most sobering thought was that these times together might be more difficult to arrange in the future.
"I guess we'll never know what happened," Child said. "There's a low place where the road that goes up to the dorm . . ."
He paused a long moment. "Oh, it is so tough dealing with it. But life goes on--or I guess it's got to."
CAPTION: Flood waters surround the Tabernacle Free Will Baptist Church near Kinston, N.C.