A couple of weeks after Hurricane Matthew sent floodwaters spilling into some of eastern North Carolina’s historic river towns, an old friend of Cal Bryant, editor of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, stopped by his office in Ahoskie.
His friend was from the nearby town of Windsor. The small, colonial-era town on the Cashie River had been inundated in September after heavy rains from Tropical Storm Julia sent floodwaters surging through the business district. In some places water was 10 feet deep. The Cashie (pronounced Ka-SHY) had finally receded and Windsor residents had just started drying out their stores and homes when Hurricane Matthew’s torrential rainfall put the town underwater again in October.
Such flooding is so rare that meteorologists and engineers refer to it as “500-year flooding” because it usually happens only once every five centuries or so.
Bryant nodded toward a chair in his office where his friend had sat. “He said ‘I don’t know how in the world I’m walking,’ ” the editor recalled. “I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Well, I’m a thousand-and-some years old, according to what they’re telling us about the 500-year floods.’ ”
Unusually heavy summer rains kept the ground soaked and many of North Carolina’s rivers swollen, setting the stage for the flooding. Besides the Cashie, the Cape Fear, Neuse, Tar, Lumber and other rivers and creeks in low-lying eastern North Carolina quickly leapt out of their banks as Matthew’s eye approached on October 8. The floods caused heavy damage in Lumberton, Kinston, Fair Bluff, Goldsboro, Greenville, Fayetteville—and Windsor.
As the waters rose, businesses in downtown Windsor were abandoned and animals in the town’s small zoo were removed. Some were packed into cages and trailers and hauled to higher ground. The zoo’s buffalo were allowed to leave their pasture and go to higher ground on their own.
The waters have receded and debris cleared from major highways in the region. But debris awaiting pickup still lines some secondary roads such as NC Highway 41 between Chinquapin and Beulaville in the southeastern part of the state. And residents of the flooded towns are still trying to put their lives back together.
In Windsor, some signs of normalcy are returning. Bunn’s Barbecue—a landmark restaurant in a state where cooking barbecue is competitive and often a contentious topic of conversation—has reopened on King Street. The animals—including the buffalo—have returned to the zoo.
But Windsor residents are uneasy. Bryant said flooding caused by Matthew was the sixth time Windsor has gone underwater since 1999, when Hurricane Floyd inundated the town.
Bob Spivey, who grew up in Windsor and served as mayor for 18 years, recalls occasional shallow flooding along a short stretch of King Street that often followed very heavy rainfall. “I can remember going down there as a boy and jumping in the water,” Spivey said. “It was just there (in that low spot). It didn’t get any farther up the street.”
The water usually drained off in a few hours, Spivey said.
Chamber of commerce director Lewis Hoggard, whose family has been in northeastern North Carolina since the 17th century, said there had been occasional flooding throughout Windsor’s history—but nothing like what has occurred in the past 16 years.
Hoggard and others are speculating about the cause of the frequent inundations. Bryant thinks logging—one of the major industries in the region—might be contributing to the flooding.
Removing hardwoods such as oak and poplar could be making the flooding worse, Bryant said. “The hardwood’s root system is so much bigger than pine’s,” he said. “When you remove oaks and poplars, you’re removing that root system that absorbs water. I’m not saying it could handle all of the floodwater, but it could handle some of it.”
Hoggard thinks more efficient methods of draining land for logging and agriculture—another major industry—could be contributing to the frequent flooding.
And Spivey, the former mayor, says he’s heard that construction of a new bridge over the Cashie and rerouting US 17 around Windsor is a cause of the flooding. But he thinks the main reason is simply too many unusually heavy rainfalls. “To me, it’s just a cycle of weather,” he said. “Up until 1999, I could never remember that much rain in that short period of time.”
Spivey said the US Army Corps of Engineers has recommended that a levee be built along a stretch of the Cashie to protect the town from flooding. But the town couldn’t afford to pay its share of the cost, he said.
There’s also been some talk of the Federal Emergency Management Agency stepping in to deal with the problem. In flood-prone areas of other towns, FEMA has bought out property owners and helped them move to new homes. Then the buildings have been razed and the land converted to a public park.
But Hoggard doesn’t think such a buyout will happen in Windsor. Other possible solutions are still being discussed with the Army Corps of Engineers, he said.
Until a solution is found, however, Windsor residents are going to be uneasy when heavy rains begin falling. If the flooding has happened so many times in the past few years, “it’s hard for me to think that it won’t happen again,” Spivey said.
Listen to author Willie Drye discuss his IPPY Award-winning book, For Sale-American Paradise, with host Frank Stasio on WUNC radio’s “The State of Things,” and with Joseph Cooper on WLRN’s “Topical Currents.” Follow him on Facebook.