Severe NC flooding gets worse


NORTH CAROLINA (Sept. 18, 1999) -- Flooding described as "catastrophic" is getting worse, even though Hurricane Floyd is long gone. Rivers such as the Tar River will take several more days to crest. That's bad news for towns like Wilson and Rocky Mount, where 30 to 50 percent of the town is below water.

"We have no idea at all how many homes are under water," said Charlie Moeller, a Church World Service disaster resource facilitator. "It's just a massive number."

With entire towns still submerged, it is impossible to even begin estimating damages, but officials predict property damage will end up in the hundreds of millions. Thousands who evacuated can't return because their houses are under water or the roads leading home have washed away.

Church World Service has issued an initial emergency appeal to its member denominations for $100,000 to support forming interfaith response committees and transporting material assistance. A much larger appeal is expected once more detailed assessments can be made.

"We have been without power and water, and it will be that way for days," said Dr. Ed Gunter, chairman of the department of pastor care for Heritage Hospital in Tarboro. More than 250,000 people are still without power, and 77 shelters are still holding 4,128 people. Six Southern Baptist Relief feeding units have set up in the state.

"This time most of the problems are not in Wilmington," said the Rev. Mike Queen, pastor at the First Baptist Church in Wilmington, which hosted Southern Baptist Disaster Relief units. "This time most of the problems are outside of Wilmington in the more rural areas. I believe this time we are going to be delivering food to people further out than we've done before."

The best way to help hurricane survivors is to make a cash contribution, according to response workers. "At this moment, volunteers from outside the affected areas are not needed," said Gil Furst, director of Lutheran Disaster Response. "The greatest needs are for continuing prayers and offerings for emergency cash grants."

Moeller is also concerned about volunteers arriving unannounced. "What they don't realize is that: one, the water hasn't gone down; and two, the organization isn't in place to coordinate those efforts," he said.

A meeting of North Carolina's Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) is tentatively scheduled for Monday, with interfaith interests gathering afterward to begin planning a response. Federal Emergency Management Director James Lee Witt visited the state on Friday to inspect what damage he could.

The storm also was harsh to the state's farmers. For example, in Duplin County, although farmers already harvested two-thirds of the county's tobacco and corn crops, what's left in the fields is 80 to 90 percent lost. Add those losses half of the entire planting of 74,000 acres of soybeans and all of 23,500 acres of cotton, and Duplin County farmers are in for tough times, said Ed Emory, the county's agricultural cooperative extension agent. Similar losses can be expected in other counties.

"If there is anything left in the ground, there's no way to get to it," he said, noting the high standing water throughout the county from 19.5 inches of rain. Livestock hogs and turkeys reportedly drowned, Emory added, and feed trucks can't get around to make deliveries to surviving animals.

Floyd's agricultural legacy is historic erosion and flooding that could take the county's 755 farmers months or years to recover, said Emory. About half of the losses will be covered by insurance, but you can't put a price tag on soil erosion, he added. It's too early to tell whether winter crops will get planted.

North Carolina's agricultural community already is reeling from some $43 million in losses from Hurricane Dennis. While Duplin County escaped major damage in that storm, farmers are not so lucky this time.

"This, added on to already depressed markets and with cuts in the tobacco quota programs, is just a devastating loss," he said.

Some North Carolina residents are simply grateful for escaping with their lives. In a state that has seen hurricanes Fran and Bonnie tear up communities the past two years, Floyd's potential power was still stunning. "Everybody's awfully grateful the storm did not come in with the intensity and size that was anticipated," said the Rev. Roger Paxton. "We felt that's Providence at work and a lot of prayers were answered in regards to that."

But there is a long road ahead, said Paxton, vice chair of disaster preparedness for the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.

In Kenansville, where Paxton oversees four UMC parishes, Floyd's torrential rains caused the nearby Goshen Swamp to overflow. "We've had homes that never had water in their yards collect three to four feet of water in the home," he said.

While North Carolina has been a bulls-eye in recent years, Paxton noted that old timers still mark a hurricane's impact with Hazel in 1954. With the amount of recovery uncertain until water recedes, he won't say yet if Floyd becomes the new marker. Many people remark that, given the strength and size of Hurricane Floyd, it could have been worse.

"Yes, it 'could be worse,' " said Furst. "But for thousands, it is bad enough."

Updated Sept. 18, 1999

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