July 24, 2024

Princeville, North Carolina, the oldest community in the United States founded by formerly enslaved people, has been caught in a cycle of disaster and disinvestment for decades. The town of about 1,200 people sits on a plain below the banks of the Tar River, and it has flooded more than a dozen times in the past century. The two most recent hurricane-driven floods, in 1999 and 2016, were the most devastating in the town’s history.

In the wake of Hurricane Matthew, which submerged the town under more than 10 feet of water eight years ago, Princeville’s residents debated three different options: stay on the town’s historic land, take government buyouts to resettle individual families elsewhere, or move the town itself to higher ground. But internal disagreements and a lack of funding have made it difficult for the town to move forward with any of those choices in a comprehensive way. As a result, the damaged town hollowed out as residents and businesses left one by one, becoming another example of how slow and painful disaster recovery can be for rural and low-income communities.

Now, nearly a decade after Hurricane Matthew’s devastation, Princeville’s fate is becoming clear — for better and for worse. The town just received millions of dollars in new funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, to build a new site on higher ground, offering hope for a large-scale resettlement. At the same time, a long-awaited waterfront project that promised to protect the town’s historic footprint has stalled, making displacement harder to avoid as another climate-driven hurricane season begins.

The idea of ​​relocating the town first arose after Hurricane Matthew, when the state of North Carolina helped Princeville buy 53 acres of nearby vacant land. The state also kicked in money to help town leaders plan a mixed-use neighborhood with new apartments and businesses, and it later bought another larger parcel adjacent to the 53-acre site. Earlier this month, FEMA officials announced they would send nearly $11 million to Princeville to build out the stormwater infrastructure for the new town. Construction could begin before the end of the year.

When the development is complete, it will contain the seeds of a new town center for Princeville. There will be a fire station and a town government building, as well as 50 new subsidized apartments to replace a public housing complex that was destroyed during Hurricane Matthew. City officials hope private developers will build dozens of single-family homes and businesses on the canal. That would make the 53-acre development nearly as large and well-appointed as the old Princeville, with as many shops and nearly as many homes.

In announcing the new funding, FEMA Administrator Robert Samaan praised “Princeville’s commitment to build outside the floodplain and protect their community” and said the decision to move to higher ground “is a testament to their resilience.” But that was somewhat misleading: Many residents and town leaders, including the mayor, tried for years to stay on the town’s original flood-prone site. In 2016, Jones even tried to reject a federal program to buy out flooded homeowners in the old city.

“We’re open to expansion, but we’re not going to leave,” the town’s mayor, Bobbie Jones, said in an interview with Grist.

But that option seems less viable than ever. Those who wanted to protect historic Princeville had long hoped that the federal Army Corps of Engineers would repair and expand the old levee that defends the town from the vagaries of the Tar River, whose overflowing banks have long been responsible for Princeville’s woes. The Corps’ original levee contained critical flaws that caused it to fail during floods in 1999 and again in 2016, but it took the agency until 2020 to secure funding from Congress to build a new and larger levee.

Jones touted this new waterfront project as proof that historic Princeville can survive, but earlier this year the Corps told residents it was going back to the drawing board to review the project. The agency discovered that building the planned levee would inadvertently cause flooding in the larger nearby town of Tarboro, on the other side of the Tar River. Officials said they can’t reduce flood risk in one place only to increase it in another. It’s a cruel historical irony: The founders of Princeville only gained access to the low-lying land in the 19th century because the white residents of Tarboro deemed it too flood-prone to use.

“Here we are in the middle of hurricane season again, and we’re just praying,” Jones said.

In response to questions from Grist, a Corps spokesman said the agency is committed to flood protection in Princeville and is seeking funds that will allow it to prepare a report looking at other options beyond the levee.

The setbacks to the waterfront project, combined with the sudden burst of progress on the new 53-acre development, appear to offer a bittersweet answer to the dark question of how Princeville will adapt to climate change. When completed, the new development will give Princeville a path to long-term resilience, one that doesn’t require keeping most residents on land destined to flood. But even this progress came at great cost: Almost eight years after Matthew, many displaced residents have moved on for good, and even the promise of a new Princeville on higher ground may not be enough to draw them back.

“I understand the government is moving slowly,” said Calvin Adkins, a former Princeville resident who took a government buyout and now lives across the river in Tarboro. “But when you talk about such a historic town, I just – in my heart of hearts, hoped that these things could have been done earlier.”

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