Editorial: Now more than ever, Floyd should be the measure
Sunday, September 15, 2019
It was daytime when the first bands of Hurricane Floyd began lashing eastern North Carolina and the Greenville area on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 1999, 20 years ago today.
The Tar River was nearly 5 feet above flood stage already, thanks in good measure to two passes by Hurricane Dennis two weeks before. Law enforcement officers fanned out to distribute pink evacuation orders on scores of front doors.
Winds that reached 75 mph downed trees and snapped power lines. By the time Floyd made its exit Thursday afternoon, it had dumped 15 inches or more of rain and swollen local creeks to levels never seen before.
The first person killed here was trying to drive across 10th Street near Oxford Road, which had been overrun by Hardee Creek. The storm and subsequent flooding would kill a total of six people in Pitt County before the waters withdrew.
As the creeks drained, the Tar River rose, as did the Neuse and its tributaries, including Contentnea Creek, which flooded Grifton and Farmville. Six days after Floyd’s arrival, on Sept. 21, the Tar finally crested at 29.74 feet, nearly 17 feet over the 13-foot flood stage and 5 feet above the 100-year flood mark. It remains the river’s highest recorded level. It would be another week before it returned to its banks.
By the time the last rescue helicopter flew away and the last shelter had closed, the storm and flooding damaged more than 4,000 homes and buildings countywide, disrupted power and water service to tens of thousands, forced more than 2,000 to take refuge in local schools and thousands more to stay in hotels or with family and friends.
Initial property damage estimates totaled more than $65 million in the city and nearly $200 million in the county, including agricultural losses. Later estimates put total local losses at $1.6 billion. That doesn’t include damage across the state, where neighboring communities suffered similar damage and disruption. In all 35 North Carolinians were killed.
Communities took steps to prevent such damage from occurring again. Greenville Utilities has fortified its water treatment facility, which was finally overrun despite valiant sandbagging efforts, to withstand another Floyd. It has built new power transmission facilities so its customers hopefully will never have to depend again on a single line strung inches above floodwaters to feed them power.
Working with FEMA, local governments bought out flooded properties in the lowest lying areas, creating green spaces that today boast some of our most popular parks, including the Tar River Greenway, the community garden and city dog park — places that can be flooded with much less concern. In the immediate aftermath, rules were put in place to restrict development and ensure structures in high-risk areas were elevated.
But the pressures of growth and commerce have often proved irresistible in the decades since. Rules were relaxed in the 500-year floodplain to allow apartments that likely will be stranded if not flooded in future Floyds. Massive development in Greenville has laid down acres of impermeable surface that will test retaining ponds built to mitigate the runoff into the city’s overstressed streams.
And most importantly, the city, county and country have done little to mitigate mankind’s contributions to climate change, which scientists say is contributing to larger and more frequent storms.
We would be smart to use this 20th anniversary of Floyd as a reminder of the damage it did and to use it as a minimum measure by which we make decisions for our community and future generations. It’s especially important to look back now because many of our residents and even some of our leaders were very young and living elsewhere when it occurred.
It’s important now to remember because the chances of it never happening again seem much less likely. We need to look no further than Dorian, Florence or Matthew to remind us it could.