Unseen Recovery: Greenville Takes Stock After Tar River Floods

Oct 24, 2016

The Tar River in Greenville is under flood stage for the first time since Hurricane Matthew hit the region. Now residents directly and indirectly impacted by the storm and its subsequent have begun recovering.

The Tar River flooded Pitt County at levels approaching the record set in 1999 by Hurricane Floyd.
Credit National Weather Service

On Oct. 17, the Greenville City Council held a special session, during which Mayor Allen Thomas gave an update on the flooding situation.

Mayor Allen Thomas: "River levels within the City of Greenville, the Tar River, are currently around 22 feet. As we know, that is significantly into flood level – major flood level stage….”

The river crested Oct. 14 at 24.46 feet. Though it came about 5-and-a-quarter feet away from record levels, flooding was widespread – putting parks and apartment complexes underwater for days and blocking major roadways. It’s unknown exactly how much of a financial impact Hurricane Matthew had on the city.

On Wednesday evening, I visited the King family – Maggie, Daris, and their 4-year-old daughter, Ella. They live in the flood zone, just outside of the city’s limits. Their home, and their lives, were unscathed. But the flooding was close. Very close.  

“The water came up probably within 3 feet of our house…and the houses in our neighborhood. We are directly beside a golf course and a pond at the beginning of the neighborhood as well. So, all of that, including the street that leads up to our neighborhood, was completely underwater, I would say a good 5 to 6 feet. The road that leads out.”

The flood waters had receded but the swampy, pungent smell still lingers.

The storm was a first for Maggie and she said it was a jarring experience – especially after first responders canvassed her neighborhood Sunday, telling residents to get out and find shelter elsewhere.

“It was scary. I’m from Charlotte so we really don’t have situations like this happen really…and especially when the hurricane happened and we didn’t even lose power. It was…just very abrupt and it felt like we were a last minute thought to come and warn us, you know, like that.”

They stayed with a friend for more than a week. Many of the streets leading up to their home were impassable.

“The road that leads out to our neighborhood still is covered in mud and soot from it just receding, I think, just within the last 36 hours.”

As the week progressed and the water receded, more residents returned home to assess the situation and figure out what comes next.

Mayor Allen Thomas: “Recovery: we now move on to the next stage of this process as we work to get this community back to a sense of normalcy as best possible…”

Recovery may be more intangible than tangible for the King family in Greenville. While their belongings were unharmed, their psyches are shaken.

“I felt like this was a trial by fire in eastern North Carolina life [laughter]. You know, I’m a little less willing to feel comfortable about the water now. You know, I think that I’m always going to be on the verge of knowing this could happen at any time just so I’m prepared. I definitely think if another storm like this happens I know, like ‘look, we need to go ahead a pack up’ because we know that this is going to affect us this way.”

That’s not to mention the recovery needed in Goldsboro, where Daris is from and where members of his family still live.

“They were without power for two days. The grocery store was flooded. But my mom was able to go to work but my stepfather was not so he has to work in Wilson because his job’s underwater still cleaning it out.”

Daris remembers Floyd and its aftermath and he worries some things will repeat themselves – mainly, the neglect and, at times, hostility shown toward the city’s most vulnerable residents.

Recovery, they believe, lies in visibility and empathy.  

“I remember people on the other side of the bridge blaming the people on the north side for crime and things like that. There wasn’t a lot of understand that their homes were gone, their businesses were gone and mentally what that does to someone. So, the main point is, with recovery, is hoping that that doesn’t happen again – that everyone on this side is taken care of as well as the people who live in the heart of Greenville who are by the university and things like that.”

At a restaurant in downtown Greenville, Dave Nelson expressed a similar concern. He works with the TSA at Pitt-Greenville Regional Airport. He also worked at the Wellcome Middle School shelter in the town’s northern end.

“I went back up there, even though the shelter’s closed down and I talked to some people along the affected areas and I want to do whatever I can to make sure they get whatever resources are available because they had little before and nothing after.”

Nelson said working at the shelter was a physically and emotionally taxing experience…

“It was very exhausting emotionally and physically for them as well. Even though they had a safe place and they had regular meals and all that they…they just seemed drained and we did everything that we could for them.”

Like the King’s, Nelson believes recovery isn’t simply settling back into normalcy – especially for those effected most keenly by the storm. It will be a joint, community effort.

“You know when I’ve done disaster response in the past, I’m there for a while then I leave. And you always kind of wonder ‘how’s it going to turn out?’ But now I think it’s going to be easier because – well, one, the loss of life and property was relatively contained but the other is I’ll be able to see how it turns out.”

Eastern North Carolina made international headlines during and immediately after the storm. For most, though, Hurricane Matthew is “yesterday’s news”

But the work is just beginning for some. Matthew, like Floyd, has left a permanent mark on the region – from the lives it claimed, to the billions of dollars in damage it caused, to the incalculable affect it will have on the minds of its witnesses.

Maggie King worries especially about the latter.

“You know, it really affected our daughter…she was just like the rest of us, just trying to keep a happy face on – but you know, we all hit our times during last week where we just kind of broke down. I just see this life out here as a little more fragile. But on the other hand it has given me such a good view of the kind of people who live out here, the kind of people who band together and make sure you’re okay and what I have, as little as it may be, I will share it with you to make sure that we are all okay.”