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20 years later, River Park North flourishes after Floyd's destruction

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Floodwaters surround a stop sign near Santree Mobile Home Park off Mumford Road near River Park North after Hurricane Floyd in September 1999.

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Tyler Stocks

Sunday, September 22, 2019

The stench of brown contaminated flood waters filled the air.

People cried out for help from rooftops.

The loud whirring of helicopters could be heard in the distance.

Farmers rushed their livestock into trailers, and strangers in boats loaded people and their pets from front porches before taking them to higher ground.

When Hurricane Floyd drenched eastern North Carolina in September 1999, the subsequent flooding caught many by surprise and forever changed the lives of those who survived its devastation.

Six people died in Pitt County, including a freshman at East Carolina University, and an estimated 5,000 buildings were flooded, including 1,750 in Greenville. City inspectors were forced to condemn about 250 structures. The flood left at least 800 dwellings uninhabitable and in need of repair.

River Park North, a 324-acre nature park featuring a science and environmental education center on Mumford Road, was inundated.

Howard Vainright was the park’s coordinator at the time. Before Floyd’s arrival, he and other staff members were in the process of securing the park after Hurricane Dennis came in and saturated the ground.

“We were still trying to move things up, trying to get things higher, trying to anticipate more flooding from Floyd but we had no idea that it was going to dump that much more water on things,” Vainright said. “We had no idea (the water) was going to get to the (education center). We were thinking of things in the park. The building itself, we had not done a lot of preparation to that.”

Boating to work

Floyd hit on the afternoon Sept. 15, a Wednesday. Authorities had already issued voluntary evacuation orders for scores of residents in low-lying areas. By the time the storm finally left the area on Thursday night, it had dumped at least 15 inches of rain in the region.

The river, already 5 feet above flood stage before the storm, rose quickly, from about 18 feet to 26 feet by Sept. 17. It crested at 29.74 feet on Sept. 21.

The nature center, which housed prized collections of live snakes, stuffed animal and shell displays and other exhibits, took on more than 6 feet of water. Inside, water was 4 feet deep

“It was up to the door handles on the entry doors,” Vainright said.

“There were some snakes that were on display and their display cases were actually in water. Water came up into the cages and (the snakes) were able to get high enough and keep their heads above water and not drown.”

Some of the snakes didn’t make it, however.

Vainright lost two snakes who drowned because their cages were in a back room lower to the ground.

Many of the exhibits inside the nature center also were destroyed, and several animal displays, including a giant polar bear, stood in water for days. Once the storm was over, a taxidermist out of Kinston took the animals and repaired what he could. The rest were thrown away.

“As the water was coming up, I had a small boat that we used at the park for maintenance in the ponds and that sort of thing,” Vainright said. “I basically would take that boat home with me at night over at the south side of the river and in the morning, I would actually launch the boat at the Town Common. Water was way above the boat launch area but I would launch it at the parking lot.”

For three days straight, his morning commute became a rescue mission for people who lived in trailer parks along Mumford Road that had floodwaters had completely surrounded.

“I would pull up to their porches, and they would come out knee deep in water and get in my boat, and I’d take them to higher ground where they had people and buses and stuff to take them to shelters and such. I did that for two or three days,” Vainright said.

He also rescued animals that had been chained up or abandoned by those evacuating.

“We would come up and get them and put them in the boat and take them to people that were taking pets. Some we’d find on rooftops and places like that,” Vainright said.

When the river neared its crest, authorities had to halt all boat traffic in the area, fearing that the wake might catch a power line hanging inches above the water. The jury-rigged line was the only source of power to tens of thousands of residents to the south.

It would be a while before Vainright could get back to the park.

Rising from the waters

“Once the water had gotten back down, that’s when we got back and saw what was the result of all the flooding in the nature center,” the now-retired city employee said earlier this month.

“It was tough. River Park was bad, but it was nothing like what people had to deal with,” Vainright said. “The museum was destroyed but everybody over that way lost their homes and most of what they had in that flood zone was lost.”

The river did not return to below its 13-food flood stage until Oct. 10, nearly a month after Floyd hit and weeks after thousands evacuated. Communities across eastern North Carolina suffered tremendous damage. Flooding killed thousands of chickens and pigs housed in industrial farms; carcasses poisoned the water as debris was carried east and deposited here.

“All of that stuff came our way and floated downstream. In the recovery, we took hundreds and hundreds of car tires out,” Vainright said. “We found TVs up in trees 20 feet high. They were floating downstream and got caught up in the branches, and when the water went back down, that’s where the TV was left.”

Then there were fence posts, trash carts and lawn chairs scattered throughout the park.

“That park was littered with them. I can still probably go in that park somewhere and find some,” Vainright said.

“It took a whole lot longer to rebuild and reopen the nature center. It was a life-changing event for all of us,” Vainright said.

The current nature center — which features 10,000 square feet of space and includes a theater, an aquarium, classrooms and a North American mammal exhibit along with a turtle touch tank — opened to the public in 2005.

The biggest loss as far as the exhibits are concerned was the African mammal exhibit, which was destroyed by Floyd.

Today, the nature center at River Park North is raised on a concrete slab with stronger flooring. It was built with flooding in mind.

“If it ever flooded again, we didn’t want to have the building totally destroyed,” Vainright said.

Since Hurricane Floyd, River Park North has drastically expanded its program offerings. Between 50,000-70,000 people visit the site each year, parks coordinator Mark Tysinger estimated.

“The sheer amount of folks who pay visits to the park now is incredible,” he said.

There are exponentially more people visiting the park now than there were 20 years ago.

“I think this nature center has a lot to do with that, and I think our programming that we put on throughout the year has a lot to do with that as well,” Tysinger said.

The park features five fishing ponds, two piers, rental fishing boats, camping areas, a wildlife observation platform, hiking trails, fossil pit, picnic shelters with grills and a sand volleyball court.

It has emerged into a full-fledged recreation center yet still offers fun, educational exhibits and programs to many different age groups, from school children to adults.

Twenty years later, River Park North continues to evolve and change and though the loss of Floyd will never be forgotten, Tysinger said.

Signs mark high water marks on a popular picnic shelter and at the Walter L. Stasavich Science and Nature Center to remind visitors what happened.

But Tysinger said the community of Greenville and Pitt County has devoted itself to ensuring that the site can continue inspire future generations to take care of the earth and enjoy the wonder and beauty of nature.

For more information about River Park North and its programs, call 329-4560 or visit greenvillenc.gov. You also can follow River Park North on Facebook.

Contact Tyler Stocks at tstocks@reflector.com or 252-329-9566. Follow him on Twitter @Tylerstocks1987.

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