Rosetta Johnson and her husband John ignored evacuation orders in 1999 when flooding from Hurricane Floyd spread the Neuse River all over Eastern North Carolina. They stayed in their house on Goodwin Road until Rosetta got up one morning to find the river at her back door.
They got out with a few clothes. Nearly everything else in the house was lost.
“We said then, when we stayed here like that, we’d never do it again,” Johnson said Monday as a half dozen relatives and friends picked up everything she owned, piece by piece, and stuffed it into a truck and trailer parked outside. “They told us to get out, and to get out today. We’re getting out.”
The city of Kinston and Lenoir County issued a mandatory evacuation order Monday for all residents living along the Neuse River in anticipation of massive flooding following Hurricane Matthew. The storm dropped 10 to 15 inches of rain in central North Carolina, and all that water is now making its way to the coast by way of the Neuse, Tar and Cape Fear rivers and hundreds of smaller streams.
Floyd was one of the costliest storms in state history. In Kinston alone, it flooded hundreds of homes and businesses. No matter how high the water comes this time, most of those homes and businesses will not be affected, because they’re no longer there.
After Floyd, North Carolina committed to an unprecedented effort to reduce the amount of harm any future flood could do by removing buildings that would be in the way of rising waters.
To do that, state and local governments relied heavily on the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Hazard Mitigation Program, which buys properties that lie in the flood plain and keeps them from being developed again. Kinston and Lenior County’s mitigation project was one of the largest ever undertaken, according to a FEMA report, costing about $31 million. Of that, $4 million was state money, and the rest came in hazard mitigation grants, Community Development Block Grants, and disaster recovery money from the federal Housing and Urban Development agency.
The money was used to buy more than 400 residential structures in the city and county, three mobile home parks and 68 vacant lots. Where houses used to be, the city and county now have parks and green spaces.
The city bought many of the homes of Johnson’s neighbors and tried to buy Johnson’s house, too. But her late husband had a massive heart attack a month after the flood, and his health declined rapidly. Doctors told Johnson that if she could save the house, he would fare better there, amid familiar surroundings, than if the couple moved to a new place.
The house had to be taken down to the studs and rebuilt, then refurnished. Flood insurance paid for about half, Johnson said. They used savings for some and borrowed the rest.
Johnson, now 90, wept Monday to think she might lose the house again.
“It hurts,” she said. “You work your whole life just to see it, whoosh, gone.”
Most of the places here that flooded after Hurricane Floyd flooded again with Hurricane Matthew, and will get even more water – much more – as the Neuse crests later this week. Current projections by the National Weather Service are for the river to peak overnight Friday at 26.3 feet, which would be about a foot below the level from Hurricane Floyd.
That would bring it back up into Roland and Pansy Chadwick’s house on N.C. 11.
“The last time, I rode a boat right up on my front porch,” Roland Chadwick said.
Monday, friends and relatives helped the Chadwicks clear out the house and their neighboring tire and automotive business. By late afternoon, all the tires had been lashed down in a storage building, and Chadwick’s tools and equipment were safely stowed. At the house, it was down to the washer and dryer and the spices in the kitchen cupboard.
The Chadwicks’ home would have been eligible for a buyout through the mitigation program, but the couple said they didn't feel the offer was high enough. Plus, the land and business had been in Pansy Chadwick’s family, and she didn't want to leave.
She was emotional Monday about the prospect of rising water.
“It’s bad enough to lose your house or your business,” she said. “But we could lose both.”
Bahjat “Bob” Zayyad and his daughters were shuttling back and forth across U.S. 70 Monday afternoon moving the inventory from his used-car business to a property on higher ground across the highway. The water was rising so fast behind his business, it was possible to watch it as crept up the pavement on a street that has been closed now that the neighborhood, which lay in the flood zone, has been taken out.
“I keep watching the water, hour by hour, coming and coming and coming,” Zayyad said.
Zayyad’s car lot is just down the street from the Ultimate Body Shop, in a building David Wiggins bought six years ago. He knew it had flooded during Hurricane Floyd, “But they said that was a once-in-a-hundred-year storm,” he said. “Well, I must be getting old. A hundred years sure went by quick.”
Sunday, Wiggins went on Facebook to ask for help, and a couple dozen people came out, some with trucks and trailers to haul away cars that were in his garage, along with tools and gear. Monday afternoon, the place was nearly bare.
Nothing to do now, he said, but wait.
News researcher Teresa Leonard contributed.