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Victims of Hurricane Floyd offer perspective

Residents of Princeville, N.C.,  a poor, black community flooded by Hurricane Floyd in 1999, feel a special connection with storm-battered New Orleans.
Jessie Murphy sits at her kitchen table in Princeville, N.C., on Dec. 8. Murphy was among the last to evacuate as Hurricane Floyd approached in Sept. 1999, dumping rain that overran the levees of her historic hometown. Gerry Broome / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Jessie Murphy rebuilt her wrecked home after Hurricane Floyd dumped rain that overran levees and inundated her historic hometown.

Today she wonders if she should have bothered. And she worries that the victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans will someday feel the same way.

“Because had I been thinking right ... I probably wouldn’t even have came back here,” said Murphy, 64. “Then I got to thinking about how my husband built this house. ... But see, he’s not here. I’m the one left with the bills.”

Their town of about 2,000, about the same as before Floyd, is tiny compared with New Orleans, but the people of Princeville — a poor, black community flooded when water topped river levees — feel a connection with New Orleans.

Many lessons learned
And they have advice for the Big Easy:

Don’t let sentiment take over when deciding whether to return home, because the cost of trying to rebuild what you once had can be devastating. Expect the stress of life as a refugee to take a toll on your health, as the even the sound of raindrops can bring all the memories rushing back. And be aware that the sense of unity that a disaster brings to a community won’t last.

“When disaster comes ... walls are down,” said Princeville Mayor Priscilla Everette-Oates. “Religions come together. Nationalities come together. I mean, people don’t think about but one cause. And they’re accomplishing it.

“Then they go back.”

Hurricane Floyd dropped more than 20 inches of rain on eastern North Carolina after making landfall in September 1999. Much like in New Orleans, it was the flooding that caused the damage, forcing more than 100,000 people into shelters, destroying 7,000 homes and damaging 56,000 others.

Few residents insured
Flooding destroyed 90 percent of Princeville’s buildings, but only seven homes were covered by flood insurance.

Murphy moved into one of the mobile homes provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It was placed in her front yard, where she could watch over the reconstruction of the house she was committed to rebuilding at any cost. One contractor ran off, leaving work unfinished, after taking more than $6,000; others in Princeville also suffered from fraud.

Murphy now struggles to pay two loans on the three-bedroom, two-bath house, and narrowly avoided foreclosure earlier this year.

It’s not an uncommon problem in Princeville, where the homes of about 35 residents have been in foreclosure this year, said Emma Davis, the town’s housing case manager. Most, if not all, of the financial problems are related to Floyd.

People without flood insurance still had to pay their original mortgage, then took out loans to rebuild, often borrowing extra cash for improvements such as central air conditioning, Davis said. But the improvements boosted the value of the property, which raised the homeowners’ taxes.

Storm impacts slow to recede
Daisy Staton and her husband are still dealing with extra mortgage payments, and their credit suffered because they decided not to finish paying for things that were lost in the storm. She said she is still so weak emotionally that she can’t work, she was diagnosed with breast cancer six months after Floyd and her husband has been diagnosed with prostate cancer. He recently left home, she said, driven by the stress.

“You’re going to see a little bit of everything,” she said. “People are going to find ways to survive that you don’t understand. You don’t know what you’d do if you were in it.”

Cancer, hypertension and chronic pain are all diseases that the medical community recognizes as being related to stress, said Beverly Thorn, professor and director of clinical psychology at the University of Alabama.

To avoid becoming physically ill, victims of disasters such as hurricanes should take care of themselves by eating right, exercising and taking control of any small part of their lives that they can, she said.

“It’s the worst feeling in the world to feel out of control of your entire life,” she said.

A driving force in the decision to rebuild Princeville was its historic significance as the nation’s oldest town founded by freed slaves, and the history of New Orleans is often cited as a reason to rebuild there. But Stanley Riggs, a geology professor at East Carolina University, said no amount of reverence for history can overcome the fact that both communities will someday flood again.

“They had an opportunity to get out of the flood plain,” Riggs said of Princeville. “They could have memorialized that history with an incredible park. But no one has any business being down in the flood plain if they don’t want to get flooded.”

Despite the problems, some said the town’s recovery also can be an example to victims of Katrina.

Princeville “has come a long way from a town that at one time appeared it was so damaged that there was no way to repair it and make it whole again,” said David Kelly, who led recovery efforts and now directs the western office of the state redevelopment commission. “But the people of Princeville wouldn’t let that happen, and I hope the people of New Orleans do the same.”