First African American incorporated U.S. town mulls federal buyouts

PRINCEVILLE, N.C. (AP) – When Dianne Hines pulls up to her flood-damaged home in Princeville, North Carolina, she has no interest in going inside.

Her ruined furniture, books, pictures and other belongings lie stacked at the curb, left there by volunteers with Samaritan’s Purse. They’ve placed family photos that might be saved on the porch. Glassware, a girl’s pink-and-blue bicycle and a walker sit outside.

Hines doesn’t even go on the porch; she doesn’t want to live there again.

The small, one-story house was built on the same spot as her previous home after Hurricane Floyd knocked the old structure off its foundation in 1999. Now that Hurricane Matthew has made her rebuilt home unlivable, the 63-year-old domestic worker is ready to move away from Princeville altogether.

“I feel like its time to make a change,” she said.

That decision, however, doesn’t entirely rest with her, or with hundreds of other Princeville residents who might consider moving after the October storm.

Instead, under Federal Emergency Management Agency rules, the four-person town council will vote soon on which of three options to offer homeowners: elevate homes, repair damaged homes or let FEMA acquire the homes of people who want out. FEMA would demolish those homes and turn the land into green space that can never be built on again.

And there’s the rub for a small town with an annual budget of less than $1 million: Princeville would be devastated, if not lost entirely. Green space is un-taxable property, which hurts Princeville’s bottom line, and the town will have to maintain that property, too.

“Our tax base is already small, and if we allow people to leave and they will never be able to come back to that property, then we’ll never be able to bring more citizens in,” Mayor Bobbie Jones said at a meeting in early December where locals learned about the options.

A state Division of Emergency Management spokeswoman said she was unaware of any other governments wrestling with the decision.

There are approximately 750 single-family homes in Princeville, a town of about 2,200 on North Carolina’s coastal plain.

Town manager Daniel Gerald said 241 homes had major damage and 229 others had less severe damage.

Settled at the end of the Civil War by freed slaves – the first town in the U.S. incorporated by African Americans – Princeville is still almost entirely Black and has a per-capita income less than half the national average. The entire town is in a flood plain and has repeatedly flooded over the years, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

State historians say there’s some evidence that White landowners encouraged the freed slaves to stay on that swampy, unusable land, away from the White residents of Tarboro just across the Tar River.

After Hurricane Floyd struck in 1999, city officials rejected an “all or nothing” federal buyout. Instead, the council wanted to keep the town intact and use the federal money to extend and improve the town’s protective dike.

Those improvements still haven’t been made, Jones said. A March 2014 report from the Army Corps of Engineers outlines multiple studies that have been done on the project over the years. It said the Corps had permission in 2012 to move forward with its preferred plan with an estimated cost then of $21 million.

Corps officials have said Matthew’s floodwaters wouldn’t have reached Princeville if the dike had been upgraded, Jones said.

Edgecombe County has a sign-up sheet for people who want FEMA to acquire their homes, and Jones said about 40 Princeville residents are on the list. He thinks some are renters who lack the authority to sell the homes, and some of the others may not understand the terms of a buyout. For example, any debts such as a mortgage or a Small Business Administration loan are deducted from the payout to homeowners.

“FEMA’s not just handing out money,” Tiffany Parker, a hazard mitigation expert, said at the December meeting. “There are stipulations to that money that you want to take into consideration.”

Walking away from Princeville isn’t even a consideration for Sheila Robinson, 58, a retired nurse and Army veteran.

“That’s my home. That’s my land,” she said of the mobile home where she lived with her Maltese dog named Rocket. “That’s something that was given to me, passed down from my grandmother to me that was given to her by her father. It’s my home, and I’m going to give it to my children. And I’m going to have it so they can’t sell it so it will continue to stay in the family.”

Hines said she would consider renovating and renting her home, but she and her husband are definitely not returning to Princeville. They are already looking at land where they can build a new house. Those who stay can maintain the town and its heritage.

She gazed a long while at the items beside the house, remembering where she got them.

“People gifted me with that,” she said, pointing to a glass bowl with a red stripe and fruit painted around it.

Then she walked toward her car to drive about 20 miles to Rocky Mount, where she now splits time between living in a house with relatives and in a motel.

“One day, everything is here, and then the next day … the next day, it’s not.” she said, shrugging her shoulders, the house at her back.


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