Floyd…Ten Years After

Published 9:38 am Thursday, September 17, 2009

From a standpoint of wind, he was a wimp.

In regards to rainfall, he was a fierce warrior.

Hopefully, there will never be another one like him.

The Roanoke-Chowan area, as did most all of eastern North Carolina, suffered through its worst natural disaster 10 years ago this week when Hurricane Floyd made landfall near Wilmington, coming ashore at Cape Fear at 2:30 a.m. on September 16, 1999. From there, Floyd charted a northward course, bringing what was deemed as the “Storm of the Century” over the Albemarle Sound region.

In his wake, Floyd left local damages in excess of $105 million. What that damage did not take into consideration were the emotional scars etched deep into the souls of Floyd’s victims. Many lost their homes along with prized family treasures; some small business owners never recovered and forever closed their stores; and a few local farmers suffered such staggering losses that they opted to never again till the soil for a living.

For those caught by complete surprise at the rapidly rising waters, they managed to escape harm with nothing more than the clothes on their back.

Agricultural losses ($35 million) alone made up more than one-third of the total damages. Northampton County farmers experienced the most damage where losses to the cotton, peanut and corn crops were estimated at $14.5 million. In Hertford County, major damage was reported to the corn, soybean and peanut crops. In all, the county suffered $11 million in agricultural losses. Bertie County lost 30 percent of its peanut, corn and cotton crops. Coupled with damage to tobacco and soybeans, Bertie was hit with $9.5 million in crop losses.

While the names of other hurricanes come quickly to mind when thinking of storms bearing intense winds – Hazel (1954), Donna (1960), Fran (1996) and Isabel (2003) – none compared to Floyd’s soaking rains. The storm moved slowly and dumped upwards to 25 inches in some areas of the state. The R-C area didn’t quite see that record-setting amount, but it did experience rainfall totals in the 12-to-15 inch range. Compounding those flooding rains was the fact that eastern ‘Carolina was still drying out from a 10-inch soaking two weeks earlier from Hurricane Dennis.

By the time Floyd arrived, the ground could not absorb any additional water. Local streams, creeks and rivers quickly reached flood stage and the areas located near these waterways paid the price.

“Damage wise, Floyd was the worse I’ve seen in my 25-plus years on the job,” Hertford County Emergency Management Director Charles Jones said. “Plus it was the most challenging storm I’ve ever dealt with. If a tree falls across a road, you can remove the tree, but you can’t remove water. Transportation in our county was greatly affected.”

Jones recalled that 42 boat rescues were performed as the result of Floyd’s floodwaters.

Downtown Windsor was under water as the normally peaceful Cashie River spilled its banks. The tops of buildings, mostly businesses, were the only thing visible along King Street. One man died when he was swept away by the rapid waters of the Cashie River. Another man stood in water up to his neck behind the Hallmark Nursing Center before being rescued by the National Guard. The Lawrence Memorial Library lost 30,000 books, some one-of-a-kind treasures. Windsor’s total losses exceeded $30 million.

“We had 200 homes and numerous businesses destroyed or damaged in Windsor in an area eight blocks wide and 22 blocks long,” said the town’s longtime mayor, Bob Spivey, as he reminisced about the 1999 storm. “I had 42 inches of water inside my home, and I feel I was one of the luckier ones.”

Mayor Spivey recalled that the town’s commissioners met every day in the weeks following the storm…“they stayed on top of the things that needed immediate attention. There were so many in our town who lost everything and they needed help.”

Despite even the best efforts, some Windsor businesses eventually opted to permanently close.

“We lost some strong businesses,” Spivey said. “Even with federal help, two of them eventually closed down for good and that was sad to see.”

The R-C area’s largest town, Ahoskie, did not escape Floyd’s wrath where 106 single-family homes, 34 mobile homes and three businesses sustained damage to the tune of $5 million. An entire neighborhood was lost in the Edgewood Drive/Lakewood Drive area adjacent to the Ahoskie Creek. That property was eventually purchased by FEMA, turned over to Hertford County and then back to the Town of Ahoskie. Now, that neighborhood has transformed into the Ahoskie Creek Recreational Complex.

In the rural areas of Hertford County, nearly 50 homes were impacted, including the complete loss of Stoney Creek Mobile Home Park on US 13 South. In the Ebo community off US 258 between Murfreesboro and Como, 42 residents were escorted to safety after their homes were compromised by the rapidly rising waters of the Meherrin River.

“One thing we haven’t improved upon since Floyd is how to quickly judge how fast water is rising in our local waterways,” Jones noted. “Weather forecasting has improved, but predicting the movement of water has not. We need river gauging devices…it gives you some advance warning that will save lives and personal property.”

On the positive side, Jones said there were valuable lessons learned from Floyd, noting the new floodplain maps, which are vital when judging the importance of having flood insurance.

Northampton County’s residential and commercial business losses were not as great as their R-C area neighbors. However, some Northampton residents were caught by surprise with the fast-rising waters and had to be rescued from their homes. One of the hardest hit areas of the county was in the Severn community, located near the Meherrin River. Rich Square, as the county’s lowest lying area, also suffered flooding problems, as did the Woodland, Conway and Jackson areas.

“I vividly remember those days during and after Floyd,” said current Northampton County Manager Wayne Jenkins who, in 1999, was Director of the county’s Public Works Department. “We were on road, traveling over flooded highways and bridges to keep our water and sewer systems operational for our citizens.”

As with most county officials, Northampton personnel learned valuable lessons from Floyd.

“Since that time we’ve built and opened up an emergency operations center and implemented 9-1-1 and Code Red (an emergency notification system),” Jenkins observed. “Under the guidance of our county commissioners, we’ve worked very hard over these last 10 years to ensure the safety of our citizens. We’ve revamped and rewritten our flood damage prevention ordinance and strengthened our building and zoning ordinances to prevent construction within a flood plain. We’re much stronger now; we’re more prepared to handle disasters.”

Floyd’s flooding rains also greatly impacted local roads. Portions of the R-C area became islands, inaccessible by vehicle. This was especially true in Windsor due to the Cashie River; near Lewiston on NC 11; in Ahoskie with the Ahoskie Creek flooding; on the Menola-St. John Road near the Cutawhiskie Creek; NC 561 East at Bear Swamp; and Murfreesboro, with floodwaters from the Potecasi Creek covering NC 11 and US 158 and a huge washout on Wynn Street Extension leading to the Vaughan’s Creek Road. Northampton County travel was just as bad…portions of NC 35 near Woodland, Potecasi and Severn were completely closed; US 258 near the Pinetops community flooded at the Potecasi Creek; and the Boon’s Mill area near Jackson on US 158 completely caved in.

Meanwhile, most all back roads were impassable due to floodwaters. Some bridges were completely covered in water. Some sections of roadbeds completely caved in, compromised due to the rushing water.

Due to the road conditions and power outages, all local schools were closed the week following Hurricane Floyd.

And, as it always seems to be during times when Mother Nature deals a bad hand, there are countless heroes to thank. Locally, that honor belongs to every local Emergency Management office, all branches of law enforcement, the fire departments and rescue units. Even local families and individuals pitched in to help those in need. Then there were complete strangers who sought to offer aid, many coming from other parts of North Carolina. Church groups from as far away as the mountains, even a few from out-of-state, sent teams of volunteers to help rebuild the R-C area.

“We were very fortunate in regards to the outside assistance we received in Windsor and Bertie County,” Mayor Spivey said. “We had vans coming in daily from Edenton to set-up and cook for our citizens. And it was unbelievable the number of strangers we had had come in from other parts of the state to help us rebuild.”

If there was one major lesson to be learned from Floyd, it’s that there’s always a silver lining to every sad story.

“Tragedy is always a tough thing to go through, but I think we all became stronger because of Hurricane Floyd,” concluded Mayor Spivey. “I know here in Windsor we became a closer community, all sharing a common bond, due to that storm.”

Another blessing was that the flooding also opened the eyes of residents and business owners as they saw the need for changing how local buildings are constructed as well as how property is insured.