Kelly Thomas stood at the yellow crime scene tape on Thursday afternoon and looked down Grifton’s South Highland Boulevard. The brown floodwater glided slowly around her restaurant. There was water inside it, too.
“We’re thinking right now about two feet,” she said.
Thomas has been coming here two or three times a day since Sunday. At first, she waited for the high water everyone knew was coming down the Contentnea Creek. Then, on Tuesday morning, she watched it rise up around her Highway 55 Burgers Shakes & Fries franchise.
On Thursday, she returned to look, even though nothing much was going on. She couldn’t do anything, even wade out and check inside. But she needed to see it.
“I know that some people think that it’s devastating,” she said. “But for me to be able to process it, I kind of have to see it and see the progress of where it’s at so my mind can process ‘Hey, this is what’s happening’.”
Hurricane Matthew brought severe flooding to several major cities in central and eastern North Carolina. The damage is places like Fayetteville and Greenville has received a lot of attention, but small communities are also suffering.
A reporter visits his hometown
Grifton is my hometown. A classmate won the contest to give it a slogan: “The family town.” A pretty basic slogan, nothing fancy.
And that’s our town. About what you expect from a place of 2,700 people: A small Main Street, a handful of shops and restaurants that aren’t making anyone rich. A few churches.
Every spring brings a run of a fish called the shad up that creek. And in the early 1970s, town leaders decided that could be a good theme for a festival. The Shad Festival has since become a kind of claim to fame, and prompted other towns nearby to start their own festivals. But the creek doesn’t just give, it also takes from the town.
Hurricane Matthew's aftermath stirs memories of another storm
In 1999, flooding from Hurricane Floyd was even worse, almost filling the restaurant Thomas now owns.
“Sixty-three inches, inside,” she said of that flooding.
Floyd also took dozens and dozens of homes. This flood has damaged perhaps 20 to 30 homes, and most of the town is still without electricity, said the man who’s trying to hold things together, interim town manager Mark Warren.
Warren is worried that some residents of the damaged homes might not return. And long-term, there’s another potential problem.
“The only grocery story we’ve got is under water,” he said. “So that makes food that much more an important item to get down here…The only clothing store here is the Dollar Store. That’s under water. So it’s important we get some Red Cross help and they’re here.”
Grifton gets help from neighboring towns
The good news is, the people of Grifton aren’t alone. Charities are helping out. And so is the nearby town of Ayden, seven miles north.
Ayden has sent police officers and firefighters and utility crews.
Grifton has just 15 town employees and a budget that’s only big enough to buy one house in a fancy Triangle neighborhood. But it and Ayden have had to team up for so long it’s automatic. They even share the high school I graduated from, Ayden-Grifton High.
On Thursday, two churches set up tables at Ayden Elementary School, feeding whoever was hungry from both towns.
"Sweetheart, are you hungry, would you like something to eat?” said a church volunteer. “Ok, I need a regular plate for someone.”
Steve Tripp, the mayor of Ayden, watched as people lined up for spaghetti, boiled cabbage and fragrant chicken and rice. He said a lot of the outside attention was going to the floods in Greenville to the north, and Kinston, to the south. Cities with a lot more ability to handle a disaster. But Ayden and Grifton have something else.
“You know, we may not have the resources and the manpower in the town to do things, but … we have volunteers and people in the community who reach out and become very active I think more than would in a big city,” Tripp said.
Because this is family. This is people we see every day. This is people we live with every day, this is people, we know the families, we know the people’s names, we know the children, we know where they are in life.
As he spoke, the church volunteers fixed stacks of takeout plates, and loaded them onto a small bus to take them to a Grifton nursing home that had been without power for days.
It’s not clear if the Piggly Wiggly grocery and Dollar General in Grifton will reopen. But Thomas knows what’s going to happen to her Highway 55 restaurant, though.
“Oh, we will be here,” she said. “We will rebuild and get back open and we’ll be okay.”
And in April, the shad will come up the creek again. And The Shad Festival will be back too, for the 47th time.