The Future Of Princeville: Rebuild Or Relocate?

Oct 20, 2016

Residents in a small, mostly African-American community in eastern North Carolina are still waiting to see what’s left of their flooded homes since the wrath of Hurricane Matthew.

Princeville is home to about 2,200 people. The National Guard has been working day and night pumping millions of gallons of water out of the town. This is the second time the town has flooded in 20 years, and questions are beginning to arise - should Princeville rebuild or relocate?

“Not gonna happen. We will not leave the Town of Princeville,” said Princeville Mayor Bobbie Jones. “We are the oldest town chartered by blacks in America. Nobody else can say that.”

But it’s unclear what will happen once residents return to the flood-damaged town.

Cleanup continues for town residents

On a recent day, water rushed back into the Tar River as crews pumped water out of the streets of Princeville.

State Trooper, Sargent Garrett Barger was impressed.

"That’s what they’re doing, yes ma’am, pumping it out of town and into the Tar River," Barger said.

The dike level in Princeville is 37 feet. Hurricane Matthew produced 36.1 feet of water, enough to swell from the sides into town. It’s enough to make you cry and laugh when you can.

Mayor Jones said many resident have still not returned to their homes.

“I had one person call me and ask me about the goldfish,” he said. “They want to get back in to get their goldfish. I said ‘Ma’am, the goldfish can swim, let’s get the people out first’."

Jones has spent a lot of time standing on the Tarboro side of the Tar River Bridge – which links Tarboro to Princeville. He was recently taken by boat to see his home.

“And it is underwater, about three-fourths," he said.

Related: Small Town Of Grifton, NC, Still Swamped After Floods

Nothing to laugh about. This time, Jones evacuated with a few items, like suits for his job as mayor and as an assistant principal at Tarboro High School. Seventeen years ago when Hurricane Floyd stormed through, he had to be plucked out of Princeville by helicopter. Even with such memories and realities, Jones said he will never leave Princeville.

But there will likely be a lot of politics surrounding whether to rebuild Princeville or relocate its residents. It was a topic of discussion at this week’s gubernatorial debate. Incumbent Governor Pat McCrory said he has started having this conversation with Princeville residents, including Mayor Jones.

“We’re going to have that discussion,” McCrory said. “If we do rebuild, where and how?"

Gubernatorial challenger Attorney General Roy Cooper said he lived through Hurricane Floyd, and remembers it was a good decision to not rebuild in some areas.

“There were some places that were not rebuilt and it was a wise thing because they were flooded again," Cooper said. "But clearly we have some places like Princeville and others that were hit twice and we’re really going to have some strong conversations about that.”

While a team of experts and community stakeholders begin to meet in Raleigh, Princeville residents like William and Sheila Johnson just want to go home – to see their home.

Princeville residents William and Sheila Johnson want to keep their home but are willing to relocate to avoid future flooding.
Credit Leoneda Inge / WUNC

Inspection teams are going neighborhood to neighborhood, using a color-coded system to determine the status of properties around town. Green means residents are cleared to re-enter their home; yellow means they can go inside and salvage what’s left; and red means they can’t enter the condemned property. At least 50 percent of the homes in Princeville fall in that last category.

The Johnsons have lived in Princeville for decades. Like Mayor Jones and several other Princeville residents, they’re standing near the Tar River Bridge, looking over at Princeville.

“If it’s green, I’ll stay, if it’s yellow, I’ll go," said William Johnson.

Sheila Johnson said it would be hard to weather any more flooding.

"I would like my house to be sitting on stilts if they can, I sure would because it’s a devastating thing to have to go through twice," Sheila Johnson said.