Floyd tests the resilience of North Carolinians

Edgar Earl Rackley always thought he had seen the ultimate storm. The year was 1929, and he watched as roiling black floodwaters swept away what little his family had in the Depression years in North Carolina.

But even that flood, as well as a string of hurricane-induced deluges since, doesn't compare to the devastation unfolding across eastern North Carolina in the wake of hurricane Floyd.

"I don't think the rest of the country knows how bad it is here," says Mr. Rackley, standing on the gravel driveway of his business, the R&H Oil Co., on the edge of Greenville.

Indeed, the legendary resilience of North Carolinians is being severely tested as residents struggle to cope with the worst storm in state history.

Up and down the state, residents are pulling together to help each other clean up - and, in some cases, just survive.

Many grocery stores are giving out free food and water. Locals are plying the muddy waters in flat-bottomed fishing boats, ferrying supplies to stranded residents. Work crews stage all-night vigils, laying sandbags to save communications towers or braving dangerous waters to retrieve family keepsakes.

"My guys have been working 12- to 16-hour shifts for four days" - and they still won't quit, says Michael Hopper of the Goldsboro Police Department.

But even with North Carolina's deep-rooted sense of resilience and community, it will likely take years to clean up after Floyd's fury. Indeed, as the floodwaters begin to recede, the full economic and social impact of the storm is just beginning to emerge. Preliminary estimates put the damage at $6.5 billion, but it is expected to go much higher. Experts say it could take a generation to fully recover.

The cost will add up in many ways - from the need to rebuild washed-out roads to the hundreds of small business owners, like Rackley, who will have to refurbish their enterprises and keep employees going during the down time.

Normally, construction crews and landscaping trucks would be lined up in Rackley's driveway to gas up trucks and equipment.

Instead, on this day, he is surveying the damage to his home and business as city employees in yellow slickers fish out debris nearby.

"When you think of floods, you think of 100-year floods," says Lisa Schell of the North Carolina Department of Environmental and Natural Resources. "This is a 500-year or even a 700-year flood."

Virtually everything east of Interstate 95 is affected. By some estimates, the 3,000 people still living in shelters will grow to nearly 4,000. The state is constructing villages of trailers to serve as temporary housing.

According to Eric Tolbert, the state's director of emergency management operations, some 30,000 homes have been flooded. At least 2,000 will have to be razed.

"First and foremost, we need to take care of all the folks that have been displaced by the storm - make their homes livable again," says Ms. Schell.

In addition to homes washed away, many damaged factories and small businesses remain idle. "I haven't worked since last Wednesday," says Roland Smith, who works in a dry-cleaning shop in nearby Tarboro. "I'm looking at moving to Raleigh."

Agriculture has been one of the hardest hit areas. Entire crops - including cotton, some tobacco, sweet potatoes, and peanuts - are all but a total loss.

At the same time, centuries-old oak trees - some with trunks the size of a pickup truck - and other woodlands have been destroyed by the flood waters.

"As bad as it is here in Wayne County," says Wayne Aycock of the Wayne County flood command center, "it's a lot worse in other areas."

The damage this time around will undoubtedly exceed past storms. In nearby Pitt County, hurricane Fran three years ago caused an estimated $6 billion in damage. This storm is expected to far surpass that.

Residents in coming weeks will be looking for additional help.

The US Department of Agriculture will provide low-interest loans to farmers to rebuild, as well as money to replace millions of lost farm animals.

As many as 3 million hogs, chickens, and turkeys were drowned as flood waters swept through paddocks and poultry houses. The National Guard has set up temporary incinerators to deal with the remains.

"We're talking about a third of the state" in terms of the area affected, says Michael Walden, professor of economics at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. "Many of those counties have had 25 inches of rain over the past month. When you combine Dennis and Floyd, the ground just can't hold it."

As tenuous as the coming days and weeks are expected to be, the full impact of the flood on the state's economy will take even more time to seep in.

Consumers are expected to spend heavily on repairing homes and businesses, creating temporary jobs. But a year to 18 months from now, the region "will be doing very poorly" says Mr. Walden. "People will have spent their life savings and will have nothing left to spend."

"It will be at least weeks, but most probably months before everything starts to get under control," says John Spurrell, environmental policy analyst for the North Carolina League of Municipalities. "But I'm heartened to see in the bigger cities, there's been quite a response. In almost every office building, there are boxes overflowing with donations" for people displaced by the flood.

"Everybody's trying to do what they can," he says.

Rackley, too, refuses to give up. He is planning to reopen the energy business he has operated since 1956. On this day, even though there is no gas to pump, his five employees, dutifully dressed in their starchy gas station uniforms, are cleaning up around the station and preparing for the day when they can take customers again.

"We are glad to be getting back to work," says Rackley.

Floyd's impact on North Carolina Rainfall: Up to 20 inches Total est. damage: $6.5 billion Confirmed deaths: At least 41 Animal losses: Poultry: 2.4 million chickens 500,000 turkeys Hogs: 110,000 Total est. crop and farm struc-ture losses: $333 million Homes flooded: 30,000 Homes destroyed: 1,600 Rivers at flood stage: Tar, Neuse, Waccamaw, Cape Fear, Lumber Roads closed: 650 Damaged facilities: 22 water-treatment plants, 209 sewage plants 430 animal-farm operations 400,000 water wells Environmental impact: Rivers are polluted with untreated human and animal waste, and littered with animal carcasses. Other problems are seepage of gasoline and pesticides, and caskets washed from low-lying cemeteries. Crime: Scattered looting in Hertford and Duplin counties Power outages: 9,300 Telephones outages: More than 6,100 homes Number of people in shelters: 3,100

Source: Compiled from news services

*Staff writer Yvonne Zipp contributed to this report

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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