Town escapes rising water

BY DANIEL R. GANGLER | PRINCEVILLE, N.C. | October 29, 1999


PRINCEVILLE, N.C. (Oct. 29, 1999) -- Like their ancestors a century before, residents of this black community crossed the river to safety in a moment's notice when the floodwaters rose last month.

Their narrow escape was eloquently relayed by nationally-known storyteller Donald Davis, a North Carolina native who told Princeville's real-life drama during the National Storytelling Festival Oct. 5 in Jonesborough, Tenn.

The 10-minute story left his audience quietly reflecting on the emotional devastation people face from floods. Several listeners were so moved that they contributed money to relief efforts, though Davis never asked for

contributions.

Remarking on the devastation caused by Hurricane Floyd, which dumped

more than 20 inches of rain on already water-soaked North Carolina last month, Davis told the story of Princeville, one of the state's oldest black communities that was completely submerged by floodwaters for more than two weeks.

Davis said he felt compelled to tell Princeville's story because "often in disaster news stories, we don't see people as being just like us. That's what I wanted to capture with the Princeville story," he said.

Princeville is one of those little-known places, said Davis. It's across the Tar River from Tarboro, which also was submerged by floodwaters. Princeville was

incorporated in 1885 as the first black community in North Carolina, founded 20 years after emancipated slaves crossed the Tar River from Tarboro to find refuge at a Union Army camp in what is now Princeville.

Last month the modern-day inhabitants of Princeville left their historic community with only the clothes on their backs. Davis said the mayor of Princeville was reported to have said, "We leave carrying no more than what our enslaved ancestors brought."

Princeville flooded 10 times from 1865-1965. Then the U.S. Army Corps of

Engineers built a dike ostensibly to protect tiny Princeville from that day on. Then came the worst flooding in North Carolina's history when the waters of Hurricane Floyd drenched most of North Carolina and washed over the dike, sending millions of gallons of water into Princeville and neighboring Tarboro.

Inhabitants could only watch in disbelief as rising waters claimed their town.

"Too often disaster stories talk about the statistics of people, houses, and animals lost, leaving them abandoned emotionally," said Davis, a retired United Methodist pastor. "I want people to be remembered."

He continued, "Last Sunday coming from my home (on Cape Hatteras), I came

through deep waters to flooded areas and saw mile after mile of soaked houses, with yards filled with furniture, ruined toys, mattresses, appliances, everything sitting outside.

"It's at times like this that people discover the strength of each other. I noticed the importance of community. Even if people didn't have to do so, they went to the Salvation Army shelters daily for meals because it was there that they found community."

Davis said the real pluses become community, solidarity, appreciation, and the

letting go of old hurts and disagreements. He said he has told stories all his life, but has focused on storytelling the last 20 years and has told stories full-time the last 11 years.

Flooding caused by this season's storms has damaged thousands of homes and forced 42,500 people to apply for state and federal assistance in North Carolina alone.

Floyd is expected to be the most expensive natural disaster in that state's history, topping the $6 billion price tag from 1996's Hurricane Fran.

Agricultural losses in North Carolina are expected to top $1 billion. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved more than $4.3 million in direct aid to those affected by Floyd, and insurance companies are extending premium due dates.


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