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After Hurricane Matthew, Town Wonders: Rebuild Or Relocate?


Now to an historic town in North Carolina that's facing a difficult question. The town of Princeville was founded by former slaves in 1885. It's considered one of the oldest towns chartered by African-Americans in the U.S. Hurricane Matthews (ph) devastated Princeville two weeks ago with massive flooding from the local river. It's the second time in 20 years Princeville has almost been washed away, and now there's debate about whether they should rebuild at all. Leona (ph) Inge from member station WUNC reports.

LEONEDA INGE, BYLINE: It's something to see - water rushing back into the Tar River as it's being pumped out of the streets of Princeville. The National Guard has worked day and night to move 75 million gallons of floodwater from the town back to the river. Most of the 2,200 residents still haven't been able to return home to salvage what's left, but they've tried. Bobbie Jones is the mayor of Princeville.

BOBBIE JONES: I had one person call me and asked me about the goldfish. They want to get back in there so they can get their goldfish. I said, ma'am, the goldfish can swim. Let's talk - let's get the people out first (laughter).

INGE: Jones has spent the last several days looking over at Princeville from the Tar River Bridge. He had to take a boat to go see his home.

JONES: And it is underwater.

INGE: When you say underwater, like, how much...

JONES: About three-fourths.

INGE: ...Underwater?

JONES: About three-fourths.

INGE: The last time Princeville was flooded like this was in 1999 after Hurricane Floyd. In some areas, the water rose 23 feet above the streets. Jones remembers being plucked out of Princeville by helicopter. Still, he says, he can't imagine living anywhere else.

JONES: Not going to happen. We will not leave the town of Princeville. We're the oldest town chartered by blacks in America. Nobody else can say that.

INGE: Whether it's the oldest or not, the decision to rebuild Princeville or relocate residents will be a political one. Here's North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory.

PAT MCCRORY: And we're going to have that discussion. If we do rebuild, where and how? And what methods do we use to rebuild? And I think that question needs to be asked in every area that has constant flooding.

INGE: Hurricane Matthew dumped a tremendous amount of rain across the eastern part of North Carolina, flooding out dozens of towns. Some people are still living in shelters today. After Hurricane Floyd, the Princeville town council chose not to accept a buyout from FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and decided to rebuild. If they had taken that money, it would have meant the land would be cleared and so would generations of history. Willie Battle says he would hate to see that happen. Most of his family lives here.

WILLIE BATTLE: You know, we don't do nothing but go one house to another, you know, friend, friend. I mean, like I said, I've been there all my life, and I just - you know, I just like it, but - and I'd hate to leave.

INGE: For the past week, inspection teams have been going neighborhood to neighborhood to determine the status of each piece of property. Town officials say at least half the homes are completely destroyed. Initially, they feared more than 80 percent would have flooded out. William and Sheila Johnson are still contemplating what to do next.

Your husband wants higher ground.


SHEILA JOHNSON: And his wife do, too. I'd like my house to be sitting on the stilts, if they can. I sure would because, you know, it's just a devastating thing to have to go through twice.

INGE: Here in the town of Princeville, which was founded by slaves, close to one-third of residents live in poverty, which makes the decision to move or stay in this low-lying area even harder. For NPR News, I'm Leoneda Inge. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leoneda Inge is WUNC’s race and southern culture reporter, the first public radio journalist in the South to hold such a position. She explores modern and historical constructs to tell stories of poverty and wealth, health and food culture, education and racial identity. Leoneda is also co-host of the podcast Tested, allowing for even more in-depth storytelling on those topics.