Florence poses a new threat for rural, struggling towns

PRINCEVILLE, N.C. (AP) — James Howell Jr. lost big two years when Hurricane Matthew swelled the Tar River less than a half mile from his home. Finally persuaded it was too dangerous to stay, he returned to Princeville days later to learn that the two feet of standing water surrounding his home caused the insulation to mold, forcing a rebuild of his living room.

Now a sofa and other furniture rest under tarps on his small front porch as he and his wife Gloria prepare for Hurricane Florence dumping on eastern North Carolina rain that could be measured in feet.

"It's scaring me to death," Howell said. "If I lose my place, I ain't coming back. I'm not coming back to Princeville no more."

Howell figures he has two options if he needs to flee. His daughter lives about 30 miles west, away from the river. That's certainly where his most prized possessions loaded aboard his pickup are likely going Wednesday, he said. And his granddaughter is staying in a secure motel through her retail employer's largess, so maybe Howell and his wife could rest there, he said.

The rich have long claimed higher ground along waterways, and that left freed slaves to claim bottom land that made Princeville into the country's first town incorporated by black Americans. The land about 75 miles (121 kilometers) east of Raleigh was inundated by the Tar River at least eight times before Matthew. That includes 1999, when Hurricane Floyd's rains overwhelmed the protective dike and submerged the town in water 23 feet (7 meters) deep in spots.

Many people with limited means like the disabled Howells will struggle to escape Florence, or build back when its damage is done.

The median household income of Princeville's 2,300 residents is about $28,000 a year compared to the statewide $48,000, and almost six out of ten town residents have public health insurance coverage like Medicare, Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program in 2016, according to the US Census Bureau.

Florence's predicted path means trouble for some of the poorest communities in eastern North Carolina and South Carolina, said Susan Cutter, director of the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina. Dozens of poor black communities like Princeville across the region will have a harder time coping with Florence "partly because of the historic inequality that was there," she said.

"What I'm fearful about is there are a lot of people who are not going to be OK because they don't have elevated structures," Cutter said. "They're in low-lying flood prone areas and they didn't leave because they had nowhere to go and no resources to get there."

Smaller and economically struggling communities across eastern North Carolina from Seven Springs and Windsor near Virginia's border to Lumberton along the South Carolina line continue working to recover from Matthew. But Gov. Roy Cooper, who was elected weeks after that hurricane hit, promised Tuesday that low-income people won't be left to fend for themselves. The state is using detailed mapping to pinpoint where potential flooding could occur and will share that information with local governments who will warn people they must move.

"The idea is to have those shelters available to people on higher ground, and no matter what their income, we want to get people out of places that may be flooding," Cooper said.

In Beaufort County, more than 100 miles (161 kilometers) east of Raleigh, emergency management officials will use school system buses on Wednesday to move residents living in flood-prone areas to higher ground in Washington, the county seat. There, the local high school will shelter up to 500 people. The county is split by the broad Pamlico River and some of the 45,000 residents lack vehicles to reach the shelter on their own.

"We are trying to provide transportation where they do not have transportation," said Carnie Hedgepeth, the county's emergency services director.

Retired sisters Clydie Gardner, 71, and Dorothy Pope, 78, ran in 2016 from the flooding spreading toward the home their shared before a massive oak tree, its roots loosened by Matthew's rain, toppled onto the building. They'll flee again to an aunt's home on higher ground across the river. For now, there's nothing to do but wait to see if Florence threatens them again.

"They're saying it's 400 miles wide. There's no telling what it might do," Pope said. "When the water starts coming and I see it coming, I'm moving."

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Follow Emery P. Dalesio on Twitter at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio . His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/emery%20dalesio .

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Associated Press writers Seth Borenstein in Washington, D.C., and Gary D. Robertson in Raleigh contributed to this story.

For the latest on Hurricane Florence, visit https://www.apnews.com/tag/Hurricanes .