Associated Press

Florence Poses a New Threat for Rural, Struggling Towns

Many people with limited means will struggle to escape Florence, or build back when its damage is done

James Howell Jr. lost big two years ago when Hurricane Matthew swelled the Tar River, less than a half mile from his home. Finally persuaded it was too dangerous to stay, he returned two days later to discover that two feet of standing water had turned his insulation moldy, forcing a rebuild of his living room.

Now a sofa and other furniture rest under tarps on his small front porch as he and his wife Gloria prepare for Hurricane Florence, which is shaping up to be much bigger and wetter, dumping rain that could be measured in feet.

"It's scaring me to death," Howell said. "If I lose my place, I ain't coming back. I'm not coming back to Princeville no more."

Howell figures he has two options if he needs to flee. His daughter lives about 30 miles west, away from the river. That's where he said he'd be taking his most prized possessions, already loaded aboard his pickup. His granddaughter, meanwhile, is staying in a secure motel thanks to her retail employer, so he and his wife may be able to rest there.

The rich have long claimed higher ground along waterways. That left freed slaves to build their homes on bottomland. That's where Princeville became the country's first town incorporated by black Americans. The land about 75 miles (121 kilometers) east of Raleigh has been repeatedly inundated by the Tar River -- at least eight times before Matthew. In 1999, Hurricane Floyd's rains overwhelmed a dike and submerged the town in water 23 feet (7 meters) deep in spots.

Many people with limited means, like the disabled Howells, will struggle to escape and rebuild after Florence's damage is done.

The median household income of Princeville's 2,300 residents is about $28,000 a year compared to the statewide $48,000, and almost six of ten town residents had public health insurance such as Medicare, Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program in 2016, according to the US Census Bureau.

Forecasters are warning anyone living near waterways in the Carolinas to seek higher ground, and that means trouble for some of the poorest communities in eastern North Carolina and South Carolina where black people have faced historic inequality.

"What I'm fearful about is there are a lot of people who are not going to be OK because they don't have elevated structures," said Susan Cutter, director of the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina. "They're in low-lying flood prone areas and they didn't leave because they had nowhere to go and no resources to get there."

People still haven't recovered fully from Matthew in small, economically struggling communities across eastern North Carolina, from Seven Springs and Windsor near Virginia's border to Lumberton along the South Carolina line.

Gov. Roy Cooper, elected weeks after that hurricane hit, promised Tuesday that low-income people won't be left to fend for themselves during this storm. The state is using detailed mapping to pinpoint potential flooding from Florence, and sharing that information to help local authorities warn people to move.

"The idea is to have those shelters available to people on higher ground, and no matter what their income, we want to get people out of places that may be flooding," Cooper said.

In Beaufort County, more than 100 miles (161 kilometers) east of Raleigh, emergency management officials will use school buses Wednesday to move residents living in flood-prone areas to higher ground in Washington, the county seat, where a high school will shelter up to 500 people. The county is split by the broad Pamlico River and some of the 45,000 residents lack vehicles to reach the shelter on their own.

"We are trying to provide transportation where they do not have transportation," said Carnie Hedgepeth, the county's emergency services director.

Retired sisters Clydie Gardner, 71, and Dorothy Pope, 78, ran in 2016 as floodwaters spread toward their home, just before a massive oak tree, its roots loosened by Matthew's rain, toppled onto the building. They're seeking shelter this time in an aunt's home on higher ground across the river.

"They're saying it's 400 miles wide. There's no telling what it might do," Pope said. "When the water starts coming and I see it coming, I'm moving."

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