Flood victims move to higher ground

In wake of hurricanes, Carolinians abandon low-lying areas permanently,

In this flood-buckled Tar River town, hundreds of locals are giving up their centuries-old wrestling match with flood waters and moving to higher ground for good.

Battered by hurricanes Dennis, Floyd, and Irene - and with more torrents predicted - they are expected at a community meeting tonight to sign up for a federal buy-out program. In exchange for a bid based on pre-flood prices, these residents will leave their mold-ridden houses and swamped lawns to nature.

For the riverine people who have spent their lives on the Tar, it's a concession of defeat to the Piedmont's soaked alluvial soil and insatiable Cape Hope downpours. But they are joining more and more Americans, who, menaced by swollen rivers and flash floods, are giving up stubborn resistance to plans to redefine, elevate, and even relocate entire towns.

Many residents continue to resist, concerned about the loss of historical buildings and property-tax revenue. Yet disaster victims from the coastal lowlands of North Carolina to the heartland of North Dakota are increasingly taking government money and abandoning oft-flooded areas.

"An awful lot of people are starting to line up for this program," says James Lee Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), referring to Tarboro's buy-out. "It's getting aggravating and frustrating for a lot of victims, who have been through so much and are still asking, 'When is this going to stop?' "

In North Carolina alone, federal emergency-relief money to relocate homes and towns could reach nearly $500 million. Here in Tarboro - where dirty waterlines on modest ranch homes mark the waters' crest, nearly 40 feet above normal levels in some places - the money to begin rebuilding can't come too soon.

But about 50 miles to the southeast, the small swamp-ensconced town of Belhaven is an testament to how far some towns will go to get out of hurricanes' cycle of destruction. After hurricane Fran's bashing in 1996, city officials decided to elevate the town 10 feet.

"This is an opportunity for us as planners to give some direction as to how to create flood-resistant communities," said Reed Whitesell, vice president of Holland Consulting Partners Inc., the Wilmington, N.C., firm helping Belhaven with its project.

Other towns have had to take similarly radical steps in the wake of flooding disasters. Using federal money, the Tulsa, Okla., community bought a swath of land after the Mingo Creek flash floods, turning it into a park for soccer and barbecues. Moreover, it left the foundations of washed-away homes as markers of the flood.

In North Dakota, whole sections of Grand Forks have been moved up the Red River valley walls to avoid the kind of damage that resulted from flooding in 1997.

This season's hurricane destruction in the Carolinas has given Mr. Witt of FEMA fresh examples to bring to the House Banking Committee when he testifies there next week. He plans to back a bill that would encourage landowners to move away from dangerous flood plains by penalizing people who repeatedly make flood-relief requests, yet do not move.

Witt also hopes Congress will boost the annual budget of the eight-year-old Project Impact from $20 million a year to $200 a million. The program focuses on mitigation planning and education.

For many towns and industries, this year's hurricane season could be a lesson in how to better prepare for flooding. Critics have charged that developers and farmers, including hog farmers, have built irresponsibly into established flood plains, causing massive amounts of liquid manure to contaminate the environment.

In response to such damage reports, some cities have already begun to take preventive steps. On Monday, the Charlotte, N.C., City Council approved stringent building regulations that demand the first floors of new homes begin nearly six feet off the centurial flood line.

But some towns have been wary of doing what flood-control experts are advising. In Princeville, N.C., the first town chartered by African-Americans, FEMA officials want Mayor Delia Perkins to persuade residents to rebuild the historic town a few miles down the road. The current town center would then be turned into a monument.

On Sept. 17, nearly two days after the landfall of Floyd, flood waters crested a nearby levee for the fifth time this century, forcing the town's 2,100 residents to flee. Despite these repeated problems, though, Mayor Perkins worries that an important part of history will die if the town is moved, says one FEMA official.

Of course, there have been other Princevilles. One Louisiana town was wiped out when the levee near New Orleans was dynamited during the 1927 floods. It was a last attempt to save the city from the Mississippi River. As the blasts went off, one town official yelled, "You are witnessing the public execution of a parish!"

There are financial concerns, too. Mr. Whitesell says North Carolina stands to lose tax revenues and jobs by leaving estranged residents to fend for themselves. The loss of businesses and jobs would create a new problems and costs. "Just imagine a whole town leaving their jobs and having no place to go," Whitesell says. "That's what would happen if you let a place cease to exist as a working locale."

But FEMA's Witt says these experiences show that America must learn to build more wisely. "If we think about how it happened, we've done a lot of this to ourselves," he says.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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