“What kind of backyard is this?” asked Ja’Leah Whitehead, a seven-year-old Princeville resident, as she walked down partially flooded streets of Tarboro. “It’s more like a swimming pool!” She jumped over puddles and asked her older cousins, Jeremiah Sellers, 9, and Elijah Sellers, 12, for piggy-back rides.
This, because it had to be, was their Friday. Jeremiah and Elijah’s mom, Sheila Cook, knew their home was flooded when the news showed aerial footage of Princeville Elementary underwater. Cook said their apartment is within walking distance of the school. Her sons used to attend Princeville but now go to Martin Millennium Academy, which is in Tarboro and was largely unaffected by the storm.
North Carolina, especially the historically poor eastern region of the state, was hit by Hurricane Matthew the hardest in the country. On Saturday, Governor Pat McCrory said the state’s death toll had risen to 26. Just as the rest of the state was regaining power and withstanding minor damages, hundreds of Princeville families were displaced from their homes.
Cook says she heard of the town’s mandatory evacuation on Sunday. She packed up Jeremiah’s baby pictures and as many of the kids’ clothes as she could. She said, in the moment, she didn’t know exactly what was most important.
As an entire community waits for the water to recede, they know the town that emerges won’t be the one they left the week before. But on Friday, life for Cook was on pause in many ways. There was nothing she could do about the struggles that would remain when the water left.
As a substitute teacher in Edgecombe County Schools, Cook was out of work for the week, unclear when work will be steady again. For now, her and her children are staying with her mom in Tarboro. They will soon have to choose to rebuild their home or move away from family.
“It’s stressful,” Cook said. “I try not to let it become overwhelming.”
Schools remain closed. The gyms of both Martin Millennium Academy and Tarboro High School are set up as makeshift shelters — together serving more than 300 people. Elijah has spent hours volunteering there since last Sunday.
Patillo Middle School was surrounded by flooding, although superintendent John Farrelly said there is no damage inside the school. And flooding has nearly destroyed Princeville Elementary School. The following are pictures taken by Farrelly on Thursday from an Army National Guard boat.
For now, school leaders are scrambling for solutions for 220 pre-K through fifth grade Princeville Elementary students without a building, textbooks, materials, desks, or any sense of normalcy.
Edgecombe County Schools public information officer Susan Hoke said district leaders are searching for an alternate location but have to get the school board’s approval before anything is official. The school board is meeting Monday, Hoke said, to make some decisions on next steps.
“For a lot of those kids, that was their safe space,” Hoke said. “So hopefully that’s what we can provide for them in the days ahead.”
Marie Gianino, who has taught pre-K at Princeville for over 10 years, described the school as the hub of the town.
She said she just keeps imagining her classroom floating. The past and current students’ projects previously hung on walls. The chairs she and her husband refinished and painted as a project this past summer.
“I know that there’s going to be some very frightened little children,” Gianino said. “And we have to figure out what best we can do to kind of take away what Matthew has exasperated for them.”
As an early childhood educator, Gianino knows the importance of children’s social and emotional needs. Before worrying about academics, she said she first works to build a sense of security in her students, then independence, and then self-identity. Then, she said, the learning begins.
“And now, all of a sudden, we’ve kind of been caught right in the middle of that,” she said. “So we’re basically going to start all over again.”
When Hurricane Floyd hit in September of 1999, the people of Princeville were told that they lived in a 100-year flood zone. Many lost everything. Fifty-two people died in North Carolina, and the flooding filled even more of Edgecombe County’s streets. But none suffered like Princeville.
For Bertha Hines, long-time Princeville resident who has been sleeping on a Red Cross cot in the Tarboro High School gym, this isn’t the first time she has found herself without a home, wondering what to do next. Hines said she couldn’t believe she was back in the same position, only 17 years later.
“They made a lot of promises that didn’t nobody keep,” Hines said. “They had chances to prepare us — to be able to protect us better than what they did (in 1999).”
Richard Joyner, a Conetoe pastor and founder of the Conetoe Family Life Center, was part of the 1999 recovery efforts in Princeville. Joyner said the local government made wrong moves with tons of money flowing in from around the country. The promises Hines remembers, Joyner said, were made too quickly.
Joyner said trauma services will be desperately needed along with temporary housing and donations for food and clothing. He said one of his biggest regrets, back in 1999, was not providing counseling for individuals. He feels the storm’s terror had lasting effects on the minds and hearts of the town. Joyner said he hopes local and state leaders take a minute before rushing forward in the recovery process and making empty promises.
“We’ve got to embrace the tough questions and not run from them,” Joyner said. “We have to sit in this for a while. Inhale it. Embrace it.”
For many, the question of whether or not to restart in Princeville or move away is an excruciating one. Princeville is the oldest African-American incorporated town, founded in 1885 by freed slaves. Generations of families have stayed in the area.
Both Cook and Hines will probably move on. The risk of managing the coming weeks, getting back on track, repairing and rebuilding a home — and then losing it all again — is too great. Cook said it’s just not worth it for her.
“I just can’t picture starting over with the possibility of all of this happening again.”
Correction: In an earlier version of this article, Tarboro High School was identified as North Edgecombe High School.