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Remembering Hurricane Floyd

Hurricane Floyd hit the coast of North Carolina near Cape Fear on September 16, 1999. The heavy rains it brought to an area already saturated by Hurricane Dennis just a couple of weeks before contributed to the disastrous damage inflicted on the state. This month, Documenting the American South remembers the aftermath of the deadliest and costliest hurricane in North Carolina in the 20th century.

Other states were badly damaged by Floyd, and deaths were reported in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, Delaware, New York, Connecticut and Vermont. North Carolina, however, suffered the brunt of the damage. Of the 57 deaths directly caused by the hurricane, 35 occurred in North Carolina. The monetary cost of the damage—the totality of which is estimated to hover around $6 billion in adjusted dollars—was more than $3 billion in North Carolina. Two-thirds of the counties in North Carolina were named disaster areas: millions of hogs, chickens, and turkeys were killed; over $800,000,000.00 worth of crops were destroyed; approximately 8,000 homes were destroyed; and more than 50,000 additional homes were damaged. What was anticipated to be a 100-year flood became, in fact, a 500-year flood.

Interviews with flood victims put a human face on the anguish that these statistics cannot convey. For those like Edith Warren, a resident of Farmville and a state representative in North Carolina's eighth district, the novel sight of floodwater left them dumbfounded. "I just could not believe what I was seeing," says Warren in an interview. It was, she says, "A trauma. We all just cried and cried and cried." Many flood victims had the support structure provided by their faith communities knocked out from under them. Clyda Coward, a resident of Tick Bite, North Carolina, recalls that "our churches was a central location for so long. And our churches have gotten destroyed." At the time of this 2002 interview, Coward laments that "our particular church is not built back yet."

Like the great majority of the people whose homes were destroyed or damaged, Florence Dillahunt did not have flood insurance. In addition to losing "maybe over half" of her tobacco crop to the flooding, she lost her home. "I didn't have no flood insurance on that," she says. "So I didn't get nothing there. So that's how come we ain't got our house back." In addition to homes, many businesses were hurt by the storm. Steve Holland found himself in the strange position of seeing the damage to his business on television from his hospital bed. "They showed a roof and I recognized it as my business. Some friends came [to the hospital]. They didn't want to tell me about it because I was kind of in bad shape." The full impact of what had happened hit him when he went to inspect the site. "[I]t was devastating. After I saw the store and the campground, I went to my house. I couldn't go to the farm because I just couldn't face one more thing in the same day."

Bert Pickett, a pastor and Vietnam veteran who lost his home and most of his material possessions, mourns the loss of the photographs of the soldiers he fought with in Vietnam. "You are talking about thirty years ago, '66, '67, '68. So that's gone. All you've got are memories." Indeed, the devastation and loss that Floyd brought was for Pickett "the worst thing since Vietnam."

The interviews quoted here—along with others on the topic of Hurricane Floyd—are part of Documenting the American South's Oral Histories of the American South project, which has made available online over 530 oral history interviews selected by the Southern Oral History Program.

Mike Millner