W hen Hurricane Florence crashed into North Carolina’s coastline last week, just a tree or two fell in this tiny town along the Neuse River, 70 miles inland. Soon, the power went out. As high winds and storm surge battered eastern cities such as Wilmington and New Bern, the residents here — those who hadn’t already moved away — left for higher ground to wait out what appeared to be a weakening tempest.
The storm then spun out over the state and broke up, unleashing massive rains before it moved on. When President Trump flew to North Carolina under sunlit skies five days later, evacuation orders were lifting, and people were beginning to go back home.
But here, in Seven Springs, the menace was mounting steadily. It seeped up Main Street, past the shop by the boat landing that sells fishing tackle, through the fire station, into Mae’s Restaurant.
When the Neuse finally peaked at three feet above major flood levels on Thursday, the mayor, who had not left his house since Monday, sat stranded on his front porch where Main and Easy streets meet. He eyed a ripped plastic bag of kitchen trash bobbing in the murky torrents whooshing by, a two-feet-deep brew of urban waste and everything else the Neuse picks up as it wends past hog farms and chicken houses on its 275-mile journey through North Carolina.
After Seven Springs, the swollen river flows by Kinston, where it is expected to crest early Saturday, and then New Bern and James City and on into the Pamlico Sound at the foot of the Outer Banks.
This, Potter said, is the real disaster, just like before, with Matthew in 2016, Floyd in 1999, and Fran in 1996. It comes on a time-delay, long after the winds and the rains have dissipated and attention has been diverted. The original assault over, the river completes a stealth attack, rising relentlessly out of its banks, lapping over curbs, inching its way onto porches and through doorways, and creeping up the riser onto the fourth of the new front steps that Potter had built two years ago.
Some roads around Seven Springs became impassible Thursday evening. Residents in parts of Bladen County to the south faced new mandatory evacuations as the Cape Fear River also continued to rise, with a crest expected during the weekend. Floodwaters breached a dam near a Duke Energy power plant on Friday, the company said, sending material from a toxic coal ash basin flowing into the Cape Fear River.
The river rises were predicted given the amount of rain Florence and its remnants dropped across the region — more than 30 inches in some places — and state officials have long been saying that the water, not the storm whence it came, was the real threat.
Small towns such as Seven Springs are paying the price; it has become more difficult to anticipate when the Neuse will crest, let alone how high.
“The flow of water changes every year,” said J. Mac Daughety, a county commissioner from neighboring Lenoir County who stood beside rescue vehicles on a short, dry stretch of Main Street, where a single brick marked the highest point the water has reached this time around.
During the flooding two years ago, Carolyn Griffin, 85, reluctantly agreed to let the National Guard carry her out of her stately Victorian house on Main Street. Her grandparents owned it once, and it had never taken in a drop of floodwater until the end of the century, when Floyd sent the river into its foundation.
Then Matthew slipped straight in through the front door. Florence is further confirmation of what Griffin already knew: She won’t be moving back. Even the handsome family furniture she rescued is bleached and cracking from the soaking it took.
“I think it’s a little bit too late for an ark,” Griffin said.
Potter, from his elevated perch across the street, tells a similar story. He purchased the old family home in 1992.
“In 100 years, it had never had water in it until Floyd,” he said. He gave the old frame away to one of Griffin’s daughters and had a new house built in 2000, elevated four feet above ground. That took in a foot of water in Matthew, and he has since rebuilt, this time another four feet higher.
Water wasn’t always such a foe here. The town was named after seven springs that were believed to have medicinal properties. Doctors would prescribe a visit to the hotel (now closed) so patients could ingest a concoction from the dipping wells: one scoop of water from Spring 1, mixed with two scoops from Spring 3 and half a scoop from Spring 5.
“If we are going to survive, we need the river to be our friend again,” said Potter, who has a vision for combined residential and recreational redevelopment.
That could be a challenge in a town that has been in a long retreat. Seven Springs, which hit its peak population of 207 in the 1960 Census and had 163 residents in 1990, saw nearly 50 percent of its population flee by 2000, the year after Floyd. More have left since, Potter said.
The fire station is flooded, and its new building on higher ground is not yet completed. Volunteer firefighters line up behind the brick high-water marker on Main Street, ready to attempt a rescue or occasionally ferry food supplies or guests to Potter and his mother, their dog, three cats and a feral feline who took refuge with them.
The rescue center — also being rebuilt on higher ground — is acting as a temporary shelter, providing evening meals for anybody who shows up hungry,
Jackie Rouse — who laments that there are now two feet of water in her restaurant, Mae’s — donated ham biscuits, potato salad and chicken. She has reached out to her landlord to ask about reopening. So far, she said, he is waiting to see what it looks like when the water recedes.
The post office, which operated out of a mobile unit after Matthew, is temporarily closed. The bank has gone. And it looks as if more residents could move away, too.
Carolyn Griffin walked back into her family house Thursday, water knocking on her front door. She was wary of the fire ants that invaded “by the billions” two years ago. This time, she was marveling at how the mold “keeps right on and on, going up.”
The skeleton of century-old studs and joists is on display now that the plaster has been ripped out, but the shapes of the rooms bring back old memories of sitting by the wood stove and pushing back her grandmother’s dining room table to create a dance floor.
Two out of a couple hundred sandbags that she and her daughters filled to keep Matthew out lay the patio, which was once ablaze with bright azaleas.
“We used to know our floods,” Griffin said, repeating what she has often told neighbors. But she sounds a little weary when she tries to explain the repeated recent inundations now. “I’m gonna have to keep me a log.”
The fate of the family house — and several other buildings that surround it — remains uncertain: “The way we were raised is you don’t sell family land,” said her daughter, Karla Griffin, noting that the home has been in the family for four generations. But neither Karla nor her two sisters have children — “We have no heirs,” she said.
It is not clear that anybody would want to buy it. They have looked into grants for having the property restored, and they have resisted letting it be torn down.
The same uncertainty comes up about the town. Nobody seems quite certain even how many people still live here.
Potter, who has invested heavily in elevating his house so it can survive a storm like Florence, puts the number at 60. Others say it’s closer to 25 or 30.
Karla’s sister, Allie Price, begins counting out on the fingers of two hands the families who still live in central Seven Springs, pointing out their houses as she goes.
Karla, a town commissioner, interrupts with one number she is sure of: “Fourteen registered voters,” she said. “And that includes me and mom.”