Cars started lining up on Tarboro’s Main Street about 2 p.m. Tuesday, full of Princeville residents who been barred from their homes for the two weeks since Hurricane Matthew flooding forced them to evacuate.
Word had spread for much of the morning on Facebook and elsewhere that State Highway Patrol troopers and the National Guard would open the bridge across the Tar River to allow free travel through the small Edgecombe County town.
“It looked like a funeral of a very important person,” said Betty Cobb, 69, a Head Start teacher who grew up in Princeville. “With all those cars being led by the troopers and National Guard, moving slowly across the bridge. That’s what it looked like.”
Many Princeville residents returned home to find their furniture, appliances and other belongings tossed and turned by the raging floodwaters. The fire station was in ruins. Bent garage doors and cars slammed up against each other were reminders of nature’s power.
Cobb found her home so filled with mold, mildew and water damage that it had a Federal Emergency Management Agency red tag on the front door signaling it was too dangerous to live in.
Though there was much to lament on the Princeville side of the Tar River bridge, many residents were not ready to concede the death of a town whose past has been prologue. Princevillle, believed by some to be the oldest town in the country incorporated by African-Americans, has been submerged before, most recently in 1999 after Hurricane Floyd deluged Eastern North Carolina.
Cobb lived in Princeville when the Tar River spilled through a hole in the dike then, forcing the some 600 residents there to find temporary housing, fill out reams of paperwork for government agencies and then decide whether to rebuild.
When warnings of the rising Tar River started coming this time, the town heeded the calls and mandatory evacuations were ordered. Cobb and her husband relocated initially to a hotel. After spending nearly $1,000 waiting for the river to crest and then for emergency crews to give the OK to return to Princeville, Cobb and her husband found new shelter in a rental her family had in Greenville.
“I’m not sure I’m going to come back,” Cobb said as her daughter, grandchildren and friends helped recover items they had put up high before fleeing. “There’s a lot of talk about the history, but as far as I’m concerned – and some people aren’t going to agree with me or like to hear this – that history has been washed away. All you can remember is the flood keeps coming.”
“They say you get used to it,” Cobb added. “But you don’t. You make do, but this is stressful.”
Toby Saunders, 38, stood outside the house his mother left for him after her death in February 2015, vowing to return despite the red FEMA sticker on his door.
Saunders’ sister, Theresa Williams, a Princeville resident whose home was flooded just a few blocks away, had been inside their mother’s home, surveying the damage and collecting what she could with her son, Justin Williams, 22.
The floodwaters had been powerful enough to move the refrigerator out of its space and upend the heavier of the TVs inside while the lighter one inexplicably stayed where it had always been.
Saunders left the home with a portrait that one of his brothers had painted of their mom. Williams collected framed photos, diplomas, important documents for her work as a notary and other mementos.
Rico Lynch, her 28-year-old nephew, had been reluctant to enter as the overwhelming, dank stench of mold, mildew and other detritus left from the receding floodwaters knocked him back a step or two. He tugged the strings of the dust mask that all Princeville residents were urged to wear before entering enclosed areas and moved inside to hunt for salvageable items.
After a few minutes inside, the family came back out, dabbing at tears from what they had seen but finding some humor in the situation.
Lynch held five light bulbs from inside the house between his fingers.
“Five ideas,” he said, a smile emerging across his face no longer shielded by the mask.
“They brighten his day,” Theresa Williams added with a grin to counter the tears she had dried.
Yolanda Hyman, whose home was across the street from the gutted Princeville Elementary School, crossed the bridge Tuesday expecting the worst.
“I’m grateful,” Hyman said mid-afternoon, noting how the flooding from Matthew had not matched what Hurricane Floyd left on her property. “I’m blessed.”
The difficult circumstances that Princeville residents have been juggling since the first week of October include more than housing concerns.
Some have either been unable to work or missed out on paychecks from businesses that had to close temporarily after the flooding.
Naquila Long, 29, moved some of the belongings from the top floor of the townhouse she had been living in, uncertain of whether she wanted to come back.
Not only has Long had to miss work to fill out paperwork related to the flood, she also had to drop out of the community college classes she had been taking toward the criminal justice degree she was on schedule to receive in the next year.
Long did not know whether she will get the temporary unemployment benefits she applied for, nor does she know whether she will have to pay for the classes she had to abandon midterm.
“I’m waiting to hear,” she said.
As Princeville residents pondered the next steps in a rebuilding process that could take months, Marwin Moore and Jasper Alston took a break from their work to get the elementary school up and running as quickly as possible. By looking at some homes across the street that had ben hit harder than others, they tried to fathom how the floodwaters moved through town.
“Seeing these porches gone,” Moore said, pointing across the street. “That’s what’s amazing. That water was powerful.”