An orange "X" on the window marks the houses in this historic black town that have been ruled uninhabitable, and there is an "X" on almost every one. The cars at S&J Auto Sales are piled atop each other like performing elephants. A half-dozen muddy shoes dangle from the high branches of a limp-leafed tree.
The living have been shattered, stripped of their hard-earned possessions, and flung aside by the powerful flood waters of the Tar River. The dead also have been disturbed. At Dancy's Cemetery, more than 35 caskets were ripped from graves by the swift currents and sent floating alongside the ruined homes.
As federal, state and local officials begin to assess the damage from Hurricane Floyd's heavy rains, which swept eastern North Carolina more than two weeks ago, it is easy to see what was destroyed here: practically everything.
"It's a ghost town, a description that will never leave your brain," said longtime resident Mattie Jones, 47. "A lot of people are saying they won't go back."
For days, the flood waters covered all but the church steeples and rooftops. By the time the river had receded enough late last week to allow the 2,100 residents to venture back for their first look, it was clear the entire town would be shut down for months. There is no electrical power; the water and waste systems are in ruins; only a few houses are fit to live in. No one is allowed to stay past nightfall.
Of all the challenges faced by Princeville residents in their long, proud, turbulent history, this may be the most daunting. Located 70 miles east of Raleigh, Princeville is recognized as the oldest town in America incorporated by freed slaves. It was settled in 1865 by blacks from Tarboro, just across the river bridge, who sought the protection of the Union troops camped along the south banks of the Tar. Its original name was Freedom Hill.
By 1885 the state had granted the town a charter and residents had fixed on a new name, Princeville, after a town leader named Turner Prince. Although early residents enjoyed a certain prosperity because of the town's ties to Tarboro, the Edgecombe County seat, those days had long since passed by the 1990s, when the town manager was arrested on a variety of corruption charges. Residents, fed up with the hijinks, refused to pay town taxes.
For the first time in North Carolina history, the state took over a town's finances when it intervened in Princeville in 1997. A cleanup began under new leaders, money began to go toward improvements, and residents talked happily of turning the town into a heritage tourism site.
Then, early on the morning of Sept. 17, the Tar River levee ruptured, despite an emergency sand-bagging effort. "We had to flee like thieves in the night," Jones said. "This fireman came knocking on my door and said, 'You've got to go, and you've got to go now.' "
Princeville residents are scattered, some staying with relatives, others in inexpensive motels around Tarboro, a few still housed in the American Red Cross shelter at Tarboro High School. Jones, a factory worker, and her husband, Earl, who is unemployed, have just moved into a village of what will be 300 camper trailers set up by state officials and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in an industrial park outside Rocky Mount. Dubbed "New Life Park," it has street lights, phone banks and many of the displaced residents of Princeville.
"At one time before all this, I was just going along with my life, striving," said Jones, who fled without so much as a scrap of identification. "What I had was mine. It may not have seemed like much to anybody else, but it was everything to me."
So it was with Eddie and Alice Bell. The retired couple busied themselves Friday on the front porch of their condemned home, trying to salvage a few items from the stinking mud-and-trash piles. Across the hood of their old gray Buick were spread a half-dozen water-wrinkled family photographs, a small mirror and a change purse filled with pennies.
"I had always wanted me a bedroom set," said Alice Bell, 61, a retired school employee, "and when I quit working, I put me one on layaway and I got it. Well, Lord knows, that whole set's gone. I told 'em, well, I laid comfortable one time anyway."
Eddie Bell, 67, worked hard all his life. That is his way. He worked for years at the sewing mill in Tarboro and, after he retired, he worked to make improvements to his home and yard. Wearing plastic gloves, he worked now to see if one of his muddy-leaved houseplants might be saved. But as he recalled the terrible night of the flood, his shoulders began to heave and he did something he rarely does: He broke down and cried so hard that family members rushed to huddle around him, patting his back helplessly. He stood at the far edge of the porch for a long time, his head bowed, as if he were embarrassed.
"Our dogs are gone, Rambo and Lightnin'," Alice Bell said. "One of 'em was laying up here on the fence, dead. The other, my little grandbaby saw on television. He said, 'Grandma! Grandma! There's one of our dogs on top of the school building!' They were so precious. I loved my dogs."
Like most of their Princeville neighbors, the Bells are in limbo, waiting to see how much their homeowner's insurance will pay and how much other assistance might be available. They do not want to move.
Princeville always was mainly a residential town. Although it has about 30 businesses, they are small and scattered--a beauty shop here, a thrift store there, a corner grocery--not concentrated in any one spot. The town center, if there is one, is the new fire department and the old town hall, a 1917 edifice that had been the Rosenwald School, financed by Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears, Roebuck and Co., who set up a fund to train rural blacks in the South. One of the few such school buildings still in existence, it had been targeted as a possible museum for the new, reborn Princeville.
Mayor Delia Perkins and other town officials have promised that this will not be the death of the town. Indeed they hope that a blessing from the disaster will be that the planned renaissance will be better funded, more quickly executed.
But there will be so much work to do. Lillie Mae Gunter, 43, who works at the sewing mill, gasped as she took a small tour of Princeville on Friday, amazed at the extent of the damage.
She already knew she would not be able to return to the double-wide trailer home she shared with her husband, Calvin, and her 27-year-old son, Kelvin, who was brain-damaged a few years ago in a car accident. Its ceilings are falling in, and the current lifted it right off its concrete foundation.
"We had three payments left, and it was ours," she sighed.
Some of the sights were heartbreaking--the cemetery with its empty graves--but others just seemed incredible.
"Oh my goodness," Gunter said, pointing to an ancient house sitting neatly in a field. "You're not going to believe me, but that old red house used to sit over yonder on that hill across the road. I know it did. That river just picked it up and moved it."
She passed another house with the roof caved in, a market with its ruined goods piled in front, and a destroyed church whose sanctuary will never again be filled with worshipers.
"God's going to take care of all of us," she said. "Whatever was done here, God did it."
CAPTION: Flood waters from the Tar River collapsed and shifted the house, above, in Princeville, N.C., which is believed to be the oldest town in the country incorporated by freed slaves. The scene is a familiar one in Princeville in the aftermath of Hurricane Floyd, which cost many residents their houses and nearly all their hard-earned possessions. At left, Yvonne Person tries to console her brother, Eddie Bell, who was moved to tears as he revisited his ruined home in an emotional and ultimately disappointing attempt to salvage some personal items.