TARBORO, N.C. — The evacuated residents of Princeville, N.C., are stuck here on the other side of a swollen river, trying to make sense of what might happen to their threatened town. All roads to Princeville are blocked and all views from bridges are obscured, so they sit at a high school that’s been turned into a temporary shelter and check their phones for news about the Tar River.
A dike protecting their town stands 37 feet.
The river, on Wednesday, was at 36.2 feet. On Thursday morning, 36.3 feet.
“Another nightmare,” said Timothy Lyons, 54.
In an increasingly close call that residents here are struggling to fathom, the flooding is again endangering low-lying Princeville — a town that was decimated by rainfall from Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and then rebuilt. Officials in Edgecombe County say they think Princeville will escape without major damage, but water began entering one section of the city Wednesday morning.
“It’s ankle-deep in the back of town,” said William Johnson, Edgecombe County’s assistant manager.
This town was one of many facing historic flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, which killed more than 500 people in Haiti before inflicting destruction on beaches and coastal communities from Florida to Virginia. The storm dumped massive amounts of rain onto inland North Carolina starting Saturday, and the full river basins have been rising ever since.
Some rivers are expected to remain at major flood stage until the end of next week.
The storm’s death toll is at 22, Gov. Pat McCrory (R) said Thursday, and officials have continued to warn that more of those reported missing may be found drowned. The governor said one victim drowned when the car they were in went around a barricade and encountered a washed-out road. A second victim died when he walked into a hole from an uprooted tree and couldn’t get out.
Sections of Interstate 95, one of the nation’s major arteries between Maine and Florida, remained closed, and thousands were still in shelters in North Carolina. McCrory said the state’s top priority was getting people into hotel rooms or rental properties and then into temporary housing provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
However, he warned that the storm’s impact could last for a year for those who lost homes and businesses. After days of visiting towns that sat eerily quiet with brown still water covering their streets and house porches, McCrory said, “It’s a surreal experience to see this on a sunshiny day.”
The meandering Neuse River, expected to crest in Kinston on Friday, has taken over the communities that line its banks one by one. On Wednesday, rescue workers and sheriff’s deputies persuaded the last woman in Seven Springs to leave the only home she had ever known.
The mayor predicted that the scenic place once known for its mineral waters might never be inhabited again.
“It is unreal,” said Iris Hudson, who lives opposite Seven Springs on high ground. “They said it would never happen again. And hello, here we are again.”
The specter of a new disaster is particularly troubling to Princeville, because the town is only slightly better fortified against flooding than it was two decades ago. In the aftermath of Floyd, President Bill Clinton created a new council to draw up a plan to better protect the town, citing its “unique historic and cultural importance.” The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers made a few modest and immediate improvements, but a more extensive construction plan — detailed in a December 2015 feasibility report — is still awaiting funding from Congress. The Corps of Engineers says the dike protecting Princeville is no higher than it was in 1999, when the Tar River crested at 41.5 feet.
“We met with the Army Corps of Engineers this summer” about the new improvements, said Princeville’s mayor, Bobbie Jones. “But they were going back to Congress to get the funding. We don’t want to blame anybody, but it has to deal with Congress.”
“It takes years and years to get these things up and running,” said Lisa Parker, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokeswoman. “Everybody is fighting to get at the trough. There’s a vetting process. They’re looking at cost and environmental impact and it has to be funded.”
Although the dike — a crown-like cap at the north part of town — has held as designed, water is entering a side where the dike tapers off. Princeville town manager Daniel Gerald said water was also being pushed into town through a storm drain, “reverse-vacuumed in” under pressure from the Tar River.
Princeville is thought to be the first town in the United States settled by freed slaves. After Floyd, up to 20 feet of water covered the town for 10 days. Coffins were dredged up from the soil and floated across the water like canoes. Nearly every home was destroyed. The town remained uninhabited for months, with people relocating to FEMA trailers, and residents briefly debated whether to accept a government offer to federalize the property and tear everything down. But they decided not to, and the population rebounded.
“Princeville looked so pitiful, whew,” said Annie Battle, 63.
She recalled returning to her single-wide trailer after the water receded.
The furniture was warped. Dark mold covered the walls.
“I had to wear a mask and boots,” Battle said. “And a smock, like in an operating room. I took some family photos and that was all.”
In the years after Floyd, some federal money did pour into Princeville. Town hall was reconstructed. So was a senior community center. An African American museum was rebuilt — though with only a few original items from Princeville. Damage to Princeville from Floyd was estimated at $116 million.
On Wednesday, Battle and more than 100 others were at Tarboro High School, which sits on higher ground across the river from Princeville. Data from the National Weather Service projects that the Tar River is on the verge of receding. But if it reaches 37 feet, “failure may be expected at the Princeville levee,” the agency said, “and flooding begins in the town.”
“Common sense would have told you, they could have made the dike higher by now,” said Terry Brown, 55, a Princeville resident who sat on a cot next to Battle.
“I know,” Brown said. “What were they thinking? Did the people involved even care?”
Arelis R. Hernandez in Seven Springs, N.C., and Angela Fritz in Washington contributed to this report.