After the flood

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The Neuse River flooded its banks after Hurricane Matthew dumped rain across eastern North Carolina in October. 


It’s been six months since Hurricane Matthew menaced eastern North Carolina, the latest in a long list of storms. But where Fran and Floyd went before, small towns talk this time of pulling up stakes. Even in larger cities, entire neighborhoods where homes and businesses once stood remain abandoned. These are places where poverty rates are among the highest in the state after weathering economic tsunamis caused by tobacco’s decline and the migration of textiles and other manufacturing. About $500 million in aid, along with massive private donations, helps. Are they enough to turn the tide?

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Environmental Impact Matthew vs. Floyd

By Edward Martin

The bottom line, Rick Dove says, is 1,000 feet below the wing of the Cessna. Looking down on Duplin and other eastern North Carolina counties, ponds shimmer in the afternoon sun. “The basic problem is, you can’t store all this fecal waste in open cesspools, which is what hog lagoons are,” he says. “You can look out the cockpit, 360 degrees, and in some places in eastern North Carolina, count 100 or more of them at one time.”

Dove made such flights regularly in the days after October’s Hurricane Matthew dumped record downpours, a week after storms that had saturated the soil and filled many lakes and streams.

Fortunately, Matthew was less devastating than Hurricane Floyd in September 1999, branded the state’s worst natural disaster. More than 50 people died in the earlier storm, compared with 28 in Matthew. Floyd cost about $11.3 billion in 2017 dollars, more than triple Matthew’s losses.

Industry and state officials credit dozens of reforms sparked by Floyd as limiting the impact of the recent storm. Yet the earth and sky east of Interstate 95 remain a sparring field between environmental groups including The Sierra Club and industry groups such as the N.C. Pork Council, while state authorities are seemingly caught in the middle.

Dove says the state hasn’t acted quickly enough. A former Neuse River riverkeeper and retired Marine Corps colonel who is now senior adviser to the national Waterkeeper Alliance, he photographed the impact of Floyd and, 17 years later, Matthew. “My bottom line is, we are in only a little better shape than when Floyd came,” he says. “But have we really made the kind of progress that protects the waters of eastern North Carolina? The answer is no.”

After Floyd, North Carolina spent about $20 million to shut down 43 hog farms with 106 lagoons that were judged most likely to flood again, says David Williams, a deputy director at the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Computer modeling shows 32 would have been flooded by Matthew. The buyout program forbids sellers from re-establishing industrial swine farms.

The changes have paid off, says Andy Curliss, CEO of the N.C. Pork Council, the chief advocacy group for the state’s 2,100 hog producers and  related parties. “Matthew was simply not an issue for the North Carolina pork industry.”

Floyd destroyed $1.1 billion in crops, livestock and farm buildings, adjusted for inflation, compared with $544 million for Matthew, says Brian Long, a spokesman for the agriculture department. About 2.9 million chickens and turkeys died, compared with 1.8 million, and more than 21,000 hogs, compared with 2,800.

Curliss rails at lack of media attention on flooded municipal systems in Kinston, Raleigh and elsewhere, which dumped more than 100 million gallons of human waste into streams after Matthew struck. “That’s more than the hog industry has emitted in our lifetime.” A spokesman for the Department of Environmental Quality says many municipalities have beefed up their water and sewer systems.

Pork remains a big force, with about $8 billion in annual revenue and 46,000 employees, many working at packing plants. Yet the industry’s stagnant growth is overshadowed by the state’s poultry business, which doubled production to about 1 billion chickens annually over the last two decades. Dove worries that poultry’s impact is underestimated. “When we go up in the air, everywhere you see a factory hog farm you see a factory poultry farm right next to it,” Dove says. “We now not only have a swine-waste problem, we have a poultry problem.”

Floyd may have taught lessons, both sides agree, but Matthew’s greatest takeaway might be that there’s little common ground on what they were.

Tarboro_Ernest VinesCindy Burnham

Ernest Vines stands in the middle of the Princeville auto repair shop he has owned since 1968 with what is left of his tools.

Fight or flight

Princeville came back stronger after the first 100-year flood, but twice is proving too much for many in the historic town.

By Allison Williams

Ernest Vines has been here before, mopping up after the floods of a devastating storm.

The first time, in 1999, he took a Small Business Administration loan and rebuilt his auto-repair shop off Main Street in Princeville. Next door, his wife did the same at Vines Beauty Shop. The Vineses were still repaying loans from Hurricane Floyd, a once-in-a-lifetime storm, when the waters of Hurricane Matthew washed away their businesses for a second time 17 years later. Vines can only stand in the sunshine, surrounded by flooded cars he can’t sell, and shake his head. “One hundred years came back so fast, it wasn’t even funny.”

Mrs. Vines isn’t coming back — in early February, her sinks stood empty — and her husband isn’t sure what to do. At 70, he says he’s too old to take out a second loan, but he still needs to work.

On this side of the Tar River, time stands still. But on the other side, downtown streets are busy in Tarboro. It’s a scene that plays out across eastern North Carolina six months after the storm where a few miles, or even blocks, may mean the difference between business as usual and whether business will return at all. Here in Edgecombe County, less than a mile separates Tarboro from low-lying Princeville, on the wrong side of a bend in the river. Some say this is no accident: African-Americans were able to settle what is believed to be the oldest U.S. town chartered by freed slaves because white landowners in the 19th century did not want it. No one has tamed the Tar since.

The sign at shuttered Princeville Elementary School announces a fall carnival. Windows are still pushed open to dry out house after empty house, some with ruined belongings piled on the curb. Some residents are back, but most of Princeville feels like a ghost town. After Floyd left Princeville underwater the first time, President Bill Clinton signed an executive order to rebuild the historic town and protect it from future floods. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers launched a study in 2001. When it was released in December 2015, less than a year before Matthew, it found flaws in the nearby levee and called for extending it. The swollen Tar didn’t breach the levee in October — the water went around it.

It touched east Tarboro, too, but the town that served the region’s tobacco, cotton and peanut farmers was largely spared. Though tobacco is no longer king in eastern North Carolina, Tarboro retains some of the golden leaf’s grandeur with homes lining Town Common, a green swath of 15 acres of park laid out when the town was chartered in 1760. It has hovered between 10,000 and 12,000 residents for decades but has one of the largest downtowns in the state, 45 blocks. You’ll need a reservation if you want a weekend farm-to-table dinner at On the Square, the downtown restaurant and wine shop Stephen and Inez Ribustello opened in 2002 after honing their culinary talents in New York City.

One of the few visible signs that anything is amiss in Tarboro is the banner in front of the two-story brick building at one end of Town Common welcoming Princeville Elementary. This is one of three buildings for about 225 displaced children, many of whom ride buses dispatched to five counties, though Principal Annette Walker is grateful they could be kept together.

“I’m really torn about what should happen,” she says. “I think the community will ultimately have to drive that decision. If there are no children, if the population shrinks, if enrollment shrinks, operating a facility our size …. We would hope that we would go back to Princeville Elementary we love so dear; it’s a pillar of that community. [But] we have to see what our fate is.”

Princeville Mayor Bobbie Jones is determined those families will have a town to return to, but he says that nearly 200 people have already applied to sell their homes to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, an option town leaders voted down in 1999. A buyout prevents anyone from building again on the flood-prone land and therefore means a reduction in the town’s tax base.

But homeowners at least have more choices, Jones says, including grants that would allow them to repair and elevate their homes. “Businesses, they get no assistance with the exception of loans,” he says. “Nobody has an answer other than the SBA.”

The state has discussed grants for businesses as well, says Mike Sprayberry, N.C. Emergency Management director.

A slim business community was a problem even before Hurricane Matthew, Jones says. “If we reflect back to 1885 when we first became a town, we had 35 black-owned businesses within the city limits.” Now, it’s a handful.

Residents like Jones, an assistant principal at Tarboro High School, and business owners like Ernest Vines are determined to stay. Jones says the town grew after Floyd — it had 2,100 residents in 1999 and 2,200 before Matthew — and he expects it to rebound once again.

“I could not imagine understanding what our forefathers went through,” Jones says. “Here we are in 2017, and we’re going to turn our backs on them? I can’t do that.”

FairbluffCindy Burnham

Downtown Fair Bluff is a ghost town six months after Hurricane Matthew left businesses in ruins, including a florist, top, and Ellis Meares & Son True Value Hardware.

It’s not fair

Towns like Fair Bluff were so badly damaged by Matthew, their leaders wonder if it’s better to start over somewhere else.

By Kevin Maurer

The neon “open” sign hanging next to Yokos Hibachi is the only light on Main Street in downtown Fair Bluff.

The small town was devastated by floodwaters during Hurricane Matthew. Six months later, Yokos is the first sign of recovery. On a late February afternoon, the restaurant sits empty between the lunch and dinner rush, but Kellie Boswell says residents in Fair Bluff and the surrounding area were excited to see the open sign. “We got 60 orders the day we opened,” she says.

Business usually picks up around dinner, but it hasn’t reached pre-storm levels yet. Boswell works the counter and waits on guests. “Business has dropped off since we opened,” she says. “Now, we get 20 orders.”

But Boswell is happy to just have a job. Even before the storm, Fair Bluff was struggling. Between 2008 and 2015, the town’s population dropped by almost 30%, from 1,200 to 860 residents. Fair Bluff’s peak came in the 1960s and ‘70s before an exodus of tobacco farms and warehouses in southeastern North Carolina. The advent of big-box stores in Myrtle Beach, a mere hour away, also took its toll on Fair Bluff’s merchants. Its only bank left town.

In the early days, the railroad and the Lumber River were the community’s lifeblood, supporting logging and trade. Now, the river may be responsible for its demise — Fair Bluff is discussing turning its downtown into green space, and it’s not the only one, says N.C. Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry.

The 2016 N.C. Disaster Recovery Act provides money for redevelopment plans in 50 counties, including Columbus, with help from the UNC System. Graduate students have already suggested moving Belvoir residents, outside Greenville, away from a floodplain. Fair Bluff, Kinston, Lumberton, Princeville, Seven Springs and Windsor — some of the hardest-hit towns in the state — are receiving attention, too. What to do with any recommendations is up to the communities.

“It is heartbreaking,” says Jennifer Holcomb, president of the Columbus County Chamber. “As a community, I know they have a lot of pride in the town itself. The concern is they’ve lost a lot of residents, and the residents that remain now have additional challenges. There is some grit, but Fair Bluff is nowhere near there. They’ll have to celebrate the successes as they come, but be realistic. The successes will be long term and few and far between.”

Holcomb says with the exception of Fair Bluff, the recovery in Columbus County has gone well. Public agencies dominate Columbus County’s 10 largest employers, though Ply Gem Industries, the Cary-based maker of patio doors, vinyl siding and other products, expanded its manufacturing operations in Fair Bluff in 2013. “Most, if not all, of our business is up and running at pre-hurricane levels,” she says.

In downtown Fair Bluff, evidence of the flood is still stark. The hardware store — Ellis Meares & Son True Value — has a buckled floor and a broken window. Thick brown stains on the walls of the abandoned buildings are a reminder of just how much water flowed through Fair Bluff. A foot of rain swelled the Lumber River. As the water submerged homes and businesses upriver in Lumberton, it swamped Fair Bluff, too. State officials evacuated about 400 people. When the rain stopped, Main Street was a canal of waist-high water.

“We were just devastated,” Fair Bluff Mayor Billy Hammonds says. “At peak level, we got somewhere between 4 and 5 foot of water. We had 3½ foot of water that sat here for days. It just sat.”

Boswell started working at Yokos in September, a month before Hurricane Matthew. After the storm, she and her boyfriend paddled down Main Street to shoot pictures of the damage at Yokos for the owner.

“It looked liked the buildings came out of a lake,” she says. “At one point, the water stopped flowing, and it looked like a mirror. I had lakefront property. Too bad I was in the lake.”

It took them a month to return Yokos’ tile floors and concrete walls to a pearl white. But the restaurant’s neighbors look like ruins. Before the flood, Main Street had a beauty salon, a pharmacy, the hardware store, a computer repair store and a senior center. Town officials say the senior center is expected to reopen, but the fate of the other businesses on Main Street is in doubt. Karen Grainger, operations manager at Ellis Meares & Son, says all of the store’s inventory was destroyed. “We’re still waiting to settle insurance. There are still so many ifs.”

A town council member reopened a small engine repair shop, and the post office is back in business. Just north of downtown, Fauzi Salah, an immigrant from Oman, runs his brother’s gas station and convenience store. He was working the night of the flood and lived at the store for five days until the water receded enough for him to leave. He says business is nowhere near as busy as before the storm, but it is picking up with each passing day. “I believe it is going to be all right.”

As Boswell waited for the dinner rush, she didn’t sound optimistic about the town’s prospects. The floodwaters may have ebbed, but the memory hasn’t.

“I like Fair Bluff,” she says. “It was a nice little town. The river is beautiful, but it is scary now.”

Gerald TynerCindy Burnham

Gerald Tyner continues to clean up after Hurricane Matthew, which scattered giant tractor tires and other equipment across the farm.

Under water

After the second catastrophic flood in 20 years, North Carolina farmers dig in once again, this time with more at stake.

By Edward Martin

Falling in sheets, it drenches the flat terrain, blotting out the two-lane country road a half-mile away across a field. Like many eastern North Carolina farms, a neat, white frame house nestles in the middle of a complex of dozens of equipment sheds, bulk tobacco barns, grain bins and other buildings that Gerald and Judy Tyner have spent most of a lifetime building. “Once you start farming, you just keep trying to advance yourself, adding on, always moving ahead,” Gerald Tyner says, “day and night.”

Quickly, the rain overwhelms the soil, and in the woods a few hundred yards out back, where the cussed beavers are making matters worse with their dams, Town Creek and the swamp are rising. As the rain falls harder, rushing their tractors, combines and other motorized equipment to higher ground, the Tyners don’t have time for woolgathering. If they did, Gerald would think back to a 1999 storm named Floyd.

Seventeen years earlier, he’d looked back when his small boat reached dry land, seeing the house, buildings and crops underwater. “Well, that’s it, everything’s gone, and there’s nothing I can do about it,” he recalls thinking. The Tyners, however, did do something.

They went back to rebuilding, adding on, moving ahead.

Hurricane Matthew would dump 11.95 inches of rain in a span of 24 hours on this farm community near Elm City, on the county line between Wilson and Nash and north of Goldsboro, which got 15.24 inches. The Tyner rain gauge could measure only 4 inches before overflowing, but when the National Weather Service later generated a color map of Matthew’s deluges, an angry magenta blob would hang menacingly over the Tyner farm.

Six months after Hurricane Matthew, like thousands of other eastern North Carolina farmers, the Tyners — Gerald, Judy and their strapping sons Gerald Jr. and Donnie — are still taking stock. “You’d be amazed at stuff you wouldn’t believe that floats,” Gerald Tyner says, stopping in the middle of building an earthen berm, or dike, around the house. During Floyd, water destroyed the floors and floor joists. This time, it rose high enough to destroy the heating and AC systems, about $38,000 in damage. Tyner estimates the storm caused another $40,000 in damage to farm shops and equipment. The remainder of roughly $250,000 in losses was in crops, including grain and tobacco. Water stood three feet deep in the bins and barns and swamped the soybean fields. All of it was insured, but crop insurance typically pays about 65% of the value.

Overall, Matthew’s destruction pales in comparison with that of Floyd. That storm destroyed $813 million in crops, livestock and farm buildings, compared with $544 million for Matthew. Inflation adjusted, Floyd’s losses would be $1.1 billion now. Livestock losses were greater in Floyd, too. It’s Matthew’s timing that is a painful reminder about the reality of farming.

This is twice now that the Tyners faced the threat of losing the cumulative value of a lifetime of hard work. With the cost of land, financing and equipment, most farms are inherited rather than started from scratch. Last year, the Tyners farmed about 530 acres of tobacco and 2,500 acres of row crops such as cotton, corn, soybeans and peanuts, including about 100 acres of sweet potatoes. Gerald, 67, Gerald Jr., born in 1974, and Donnie, born in 1978, live within a few miles of each other and farm together, though each also farms other acreage.

Like many farmers, Gerald never had a master plan. “When I started farming, I had 7 acres of tobacco farmed on halves,” he says. “I didn’t have help. Well, my wife’s father and a friend helped some, and we managed to survive and just kept going and going.”

Tyner would borrow operating money from what was then the Farmers Home Administration, finally getting far enough ahead to get an FHA loan for $43,000 to buy his first farm, 50 acres. “From then on, when we’d get out of debt, we’d buy another.” Today, he owns about 1,000 acres of the more than 2,000 he farms. Farm values vary widely, but a 1,585-acre tract of mostly uncleared timberland without buildings in southeast Wilson was recently on the market for $5.2 million.

Farming grows almost unnoticed into big business. The Tyners have five employees, plus H-2A workers, temporary immigrant laborers they hire at peak harvest times. In another six months, fall and prime hurricane season will come again. Until then, the Tyners will do what they’ve spent lifetimes doing. “In the summer, you work 18 hours a day, every day, lots of times including Saturday and Sunday,” Gerald Tyner says. “You get back to the house at dark, then get up to check the tobacco barns at midnight, then get up the next morning before light and start again.”

There’s no guarantee against another Matthew. “But it’s something in you and you love it,” Tyner says. “Everybody I’ve ever known in farming feels like that. Even the ones that went broke at it.”

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