Henry Pitt has lived all of his 41 years in Princeville, the oldest town in America that was founded by blacks. But now he is eager to leave his flood-prone home for good.
"To me, the history of the town doesn't matter anymore," said Pitt, as he waited today outside the three mobile units here in neighboring Tarboro that serve as the makeshift offices of the Princeville town hall. "My life is what matters. I've got to get out of Princeville, start my life over, and let it go."
These are tense, anxious--and rumor-ridden--times for the 2,100 displaced residents of Princeville as they debate the future of what is now their ghost town. While some local officials, led by Mayor Delia Perkins, are encouraging the reconstruction of the homes and businesses ruined last month in the mammoth flooding brought by Hurricane Floyd, others, like Pitt, are just as convinced that a government buyout is for the best.
Pitt, a sewing factory worker, was among the first to sign up to show his interest in a possible buyout of his property, after an emotional town meeting--the first since the disaster--indicated that many residents think they must focus on themselves and their families instead of worrying about what becomes of the historic black settlement.
"We have to do what we have to do," said Kashela Bailey, a teacher's aide, at Monday night's meeting as her husband, James, nodded agreement. "We have lost everything. We have no desire to go back to that flood zone."
State and federal officials are working on what could be one of the largest government buyouts in U.S. history in the flood-ruined farmlands and communities of eastern North Carolina. No other town, however, was as demolished as Princeville, where houses were swept from their foundations and only rooftops were visible at the flooding's peak.
Founded by freed slaves in 1865 and chartered in 1885, Princeville has seen its share of civic turmoil, as well as destructive floods. After the last major flood in 1958, the Army Corps of Engineers constructed a levee that was meant to lessen the possibility of the Tar River spilling over again. But Floyd shattered that illusion of security.
The point of the buyout program--which is largely funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and managed by the affected state--is to remove as many residences and businesses as possible from the path of future floods. In Grand Forks, N.D., where the Red River overflowed in 1997, certain neighborhoods were bought out. After the 1993 Mississippi River floods, the entire town of Valmeyer, Ill., population 500, was moved to a safer spot along the river bluffs.
Here in North Carolina, officials were still dealing with the ravages of the flooding spawned by Hurricane Fran in 1996 when Hurricane Floyd struck. About 3,000 homes, mostly along the Neuse River in Goldsboro and Kinston, were bought or moved after that earlier disaster, said Tom Hegele, spokesman for the state emergency management division.
State officials have estimated it could cost as much as $500 million to buy out every eligible victim of Floyd, Hegele said.
Under the program, residents are paid the pre-flood fair market value of their property. Once a property is bought, the damaged buildings on it are demolished, and the plot can only be used in the future as parks or grasslands.
"The buyouts are voluntary--no one is ever forced to sell," said James McIntyre, a FEMA spokesman.
But as much as an individual may want to participate, he can only do so if his local government applies for the program. And that is what is causing such turmoil among Princeville residents. Although officials in Tarboro and other nearby areas already have applied, Princeville officials have not, saying they need more information.
Mayor Perkins, in particular, has come under fire. In an article published Saturday in the News and Observer of Raleigh, it was reported that Perkins had asked disaster officials not to discuss the program with her constituents. She was quoted as saying, "They didn't understand it, and anything that you don't understand you fear," adding later that she did not fully understand the program either.
At Monday night's meeting, Perkins explained to the indignant, overflow crowd of 500 that town officials had to work first to set up a temporary town hall before they could turn their attention to anything else. A lineup of federal, state and local disaster officials was on hand to answer questions, and Perkins later informed residents they could sign up to show how much interest there is in a buyout.
But the damage apparently was already done. As Perkins spoke of her hopes of building a new town hall and a new senior citizens center, some residents in the crowd could be heard muttering that she considers herself "the boss lady."
Many agreed there is no turning back.
"The black history in Princeville has passed," said Kashela Bailey. "I don't mean to be disrespectful, but Princeville is gone. The storm made it go. And now we've got to wake up."