A family in a boat rescues a man trapped on his roof by rising waters.
Dave Gatley, FEMA News Photo.
Hurricane Floyd caused problems before it even arrived. Early forecasts predicted that Floyd would hit Florida. As Floyd tracked north, more and more areas were issued hurricane warnings, which caused more and more evacuations. In total 2–3 million people evacuated their homes because of Floyd. At the time, it was the largest evacuation in US history. With so many trying to evacuate, the roads became clogged in massive traffic jams. In Charleston, SC, traffic was moving less than 4 miles per hour. Frustrated drivers left their vehicles, and fist fights broke out in the median.
Ironically, while many had evacuated the coastal areas, it was the inland areas where the true disaster would occur. After the storm passed, the rivers began to rise. People went to sleep that night, unaware of the danger until they were awakened by water splashing over their beds. Some of those who had evacuated from the coast were flooded out of their hotels. As the waters continued to rise, people spent the night trapped on their rooftops or clinging to trees and make-shift boats.
The day after the storm, 1,500 people had been rescued from rooftops, and by the second day, that total had increased to 3,500. Hundreds of helicopter flights were staged from the Army National Guard Logistical Staging Area in Kinston. Coast Guard Lt. Robert Keith flew rescue missions for 19 hours straight. He told the Virginian-Pilot, "We'd be flying to one spot where the sheriff said someone was waiting for us, and we'd fly over all of these people—rows and rows of people with flashlights, waiting on their rooftops, click, click, clicking for us to come help."
A car and a fire truck plow through a flooded street in Greene County.
Dave Saville, FEMA News Photo.
Cots for 270+ people line the halls of Wellcome Middle School.
Dave Gatley, FEMA News Photo.
Army National Guard soldiers unload a Chinook helicopter full of water and ice.
Sgt. 1st Class Eric Wedeking, National Guard Bureau, Public Affairs Support Element.
Hundreds of FEMA trailers provide temporary housing in Rocky Mount.
Dave Gatley, FEMA News Photo.
"Several of the helicopter crews involved in the rescue missions were later honored by the Army and Navy for their heroism during the floods. They were recognized for saving scores of lives, for dropping rescue swimmers into dangerous areas, for flying as close as five feet from high-tension electrical lines, and for the great compassion they showed for the victims they rescued" (Jay Barnes, North Carolina's Hurricane History, p. 235). High school senior Derek Latham was so inspired by seeing his mother and two sisters rescued that he told the News and Observer that he'd decided to join the Navy himself.
Other rescues were not so successful. On the night of the flooding, Pinetops resident Ben Mayo launched a small flat-bottom boat from his home and rescued eight of his neighbors by taking them to higher ground. On his second trip, Ben picked up his wife (Vivian), his daughter (Keisha), his fiver-year-old granddaughter (Teshika), and several neighbors. But the boat was too small for so many people, and it capsized, dumping everyone into the stormy water. Only six of the passengers survived. Ben and his family and two neighbor children (Cabrina and Destiny Flowers) all drowned.
Nearly 50 people died in the flood's deep waters and swift currents. Some, like Ben, drowned trying to rescue other flood victims. But most lost their lives trying to drive through flooded roads, not realizing that just two feet of water can carry most vehicles away.
Those who survived the initial days of the flooding still had an unpleasant experience ahead of them. Over 24,000 home were destroyed or unlivable, forcing tens of thousands of people into temporary shelters. The Red Cross alone housed 50,000 people in its 235 shelters. But even if a family found shelter, they likely had no electricity and limited food and water. With nearly all major roads flooded, many towns were isolated and some shelters could only be reached by helicopter. Many towns remained flooded for weeks.
This town of 2,100 residents was founded on the banks of the Tar River by former slaves after the Civil War. It was also one of the worst flooded towns during Hurricane Floyd. A protective levee broke in seven places, allowing the water rush into town where it rose to 30 feet in some locations. In the local cemetery, sealed caskets floated out of their graves and drifted all over town. Of the 224 recovered caskets, only 174 were identified.
The waters didn't recede from Princeville until the end of September. At that time, over 300 people were still sleeping in a local gym as waves of looting swept the town. Six hundred homes were destroyed, and everything was coated in foul-smelling mud. FEMA offered buyouts to relocate people out of the flood plain, but the town decided to preserve their historical roots instead. They asked to have the levee repaired, and it was rebuilt by the summer of 2000.
Just across the river from Princeville is Tarboro. Here, the Tar River crested 22 feet above flood stage. Unable to live in their homes, 2,000 evacuees took shelter in the Tarboro High School, but the school had no running water or electricity and was short on food, water, and personal supplies. Hundreds of others slept in their cars in the K-mart parking lot. They had to break into the store to use the bathroom.
Because boats and helicopters could only carry a few people at a time, women and children were rescued first. Men could be rescued hours later and taken to different shelters. Families became separated, and there were no records being kept to tell them which shelters other family members had been taken to.
In Greenville, the rising Tar River flooded portions of the East Carolina University (ECU) campus. Nearly 5,000 students were forced out of their apartments, and an additional 6,000 homes were damaged. Though the water didn't flood all of the city, its effect was felt everywhere. The day after the storm, the rising water short-circuited Greenville's power supply, leaving the entire city dark.
The National Guard set up on the ECU campus, and starving residents wielding guns and baseball bats chased down an unarmed food convoy. Two days later, the city's water plant shut down.
Things finally began returning to normal when ECU resumed classes on September 29, two weeks after the storm.
In Rocky Mount, a 90-acre undeveloped industrial park became known as "FEMA City" as it filled with 300 trailers provided by the government. Mattie Jones was one of the evacuees living in a FEMA City trailer. She told the News and Observer, “It may not look like much to other people, but to me it's a castle. First thing when I got the keys in my hand, I said, 'Oh, thank you God, a house, a bathroom, a bed, quiet.' "