A Flood of Memories

Look What Floyd Has Done

My son, Devin, next to City Lake in Rocky Mount, NC after Hurricane Floyd in September, 1999.  Cannot distinquish between the lake and flooded Sunset Avenue, a main thoroughfare in Rocky Mount.
My son, Devin, next to City Lake in Rocky Mount, NC after Hurricane Floyd in September, 1999. Cannot distinquish between the lake and flooded Sunset Avenue, a main thoroughfare in Rocky Mount.

It has been such a tremendously busy week that I’m not quite sure where to start. Once I develop a workable routine, I hope to become more efficient and better able to relate my activities to those of you who care about the trials and tribs of the sister from da hood.

I’ll start with the Hurricane Floyd commemoration on Wednesday morning at the Imperial Center. On Tuesday, I look on the local newspaper’s website, The Rocky Mount Telegram, and I see that registration to the commemoration event is closed because enough people have registered. I really wanted to attend this event because this flood figures so prominently in my memory. I did my part and more during this flood, didn’t I? I had put on my rescue worker hat and was out in the community doing my part. I deserved to be at that event dammit!

So I emailed Megan Hanks. The flood article asked that Megan be called or emailed to confirm registration. I hadn’t registered but I thought, maybe, just maybe someone had called and registered me. Perhaps Megan would just go ahead and put my name on the list since I emailed her. Megan’s reply back to me was that no, my name was not on the list, but I should come anyway and try to find a place to sit in the overflow section because registration was closed and they expected a full house. So I decide, with Megan’s blessing, to just show up - like Southern folk do at RSVP events.

I knew the parking lot of the Imperial Centre would be filled so I didn’t even attempt to park there. Instead, I parked a few blocks away at Mount Zion Baptist Church, Aunt Nancy and Uncle Buddy’s church and the oldest Black church in Rocky Mount. I parked there and walked down to the Imperial Center. News trucks, emergency equipment, Red Cross vehicles, fire trucks, a Black Hawk Helicopter (woo hoo!) and other equipment that I remember seeing around the city during the flood were on the grounds of the complex. I immediately felt a sense of being catapulted back 10 years earlier when the flood took place. One stroke of irony that I must mention is that while I took that 10 minute drive from home to the Imperial Center, it began to rain a little. Not a downpour or anything – just a sprinkling. Jah is something else. Such an incredible sense of humor!

So I walk into the Imperial Centre, pass the Buck Leonard display on my right. Buck is posing with the members of the Negro League Baseball Team, the Grays. They all watched me as I passed by. They always watch me whenever I enter the Imperial Centre. Buck and all the Grays just watch me pass by. They never speak, or nod, or say a thing. They just watch me pass with those eyes. I’ll look over to let them know that I know that they’re watching me, but they still don’t say anything, so neither do I. I always feel the need to look, though and acknowledge them.

I look over to my left and see Mr. Belcher, the owner of the Café at the Imperial. I wonder why he’s sitting down chilling. Shouldn’t he be preparing our lunch? Well ‘their’ lunch because I hadn’t registered and was told that I wouldn’t get lunch. Only registered participants would get lunch as I was informed by Megan. That was cool with me because I could dash home (10 minute drive), make a sammich and dash back for the rest of the presentation if they weren’t going to give me lunch. That was all covered. No harm. No foul.

So I get to the registration table and of course my name is not on any list. I tell the lady at the table that I’d spoken with Megan who’d told me that it was cool just to show up. I ask her where Megan was and I swear she said, “Megan is floating around here somewhere.” I found humor in that response. She said it so deadpan. I asked her if that was her attempt at flood humor. I don’t think she “got” it.

So I walked into the theatre where the presentation was being held, expecting to see people standing around – not being able to find a seat. But there were plenty seats and I went all the way down front and sat behind former Mayor Fred Turnage – the comedian. I really like Mayor Turnage because to me, he is Rocky Mount, I did know one other mayor of Rocky Mount before Mayor Turnage and that was Mayor Minges. I was all up in Mayor Minges’ house one time. I was attending day camp at the YWCA and Mayor Minges daughter, Margretta was my camp counselor. One day, we (that is me and Yvette Battle) were the only two campers to show up that day, so Margretta took us to her house. The Mayor's house! So Yvette Battle and I got to hob knob with the Mayor and his family at his house. See. Another Forrest Gump moment!

I sat in front of Nash County Commissioner Fred Belfield, a cousin by marriage. He’s always at the family reunions so he is a cousin. Actually his wife, Ernestine is the cousin. He just happens to be married to her. Senator Burr’s aide sat on the row in front of me and a few seats down from the comedian, Mayor Fred Turnage. Another state representative’s aide, a beautiful sister that I remember seeing on television when the ConAgra plant in Garner had an explosion. She was wearing a beautiful long-sleeved suit. I had no sleeves, dressed in my bohemian attire, and we both complained of being cold. I think it was cold in there to keep us awake. The presentation was not boring by any means. But just like the night of the hurricane, I couldn’t sleep the night before and had been up all night.

This was an extraordinary program that apparently a lot of planning and hard work went into. I don’t know what I expected, but nothing this extravagant. Displays from NOAA, Rocky Mount Telegram, Rocky Mount Police and firefighters, American Red Cross and many other agencies that figured prominently in helping during the rescue effort.

Comedian and, former Mayor Turnage, led a panel discussion about the flood. Joyce Dickens, CEO of Edgecombe Community Development Corporation; Mayor Delia Perkins of Princeville; Frank Edwards, owner of Riverside Printing; Rip Woodin, Publisher of the Rocky Mount Telegram and Rev. William Smyth, the rector of the Calvary Episcopal Church discussed their memories of the flood. I learned a lot about the flood that I didn’t know. I don’t know a lot about the flood, because I was working during the flood. The only thing missing I think, were stories from members of the community. So much loss. So much displacement. So much damage. So much panic and anxiety. Rev. Smyth said something about one of his churches being flooded and Mayor Turnage called it a “Mass Baptism”. I just be cracking up when that man speaks. That’s his second career – stand-up comedian. He’s very quick-witted like my old boss at the library, Steve Farlow. Mayor Turnage’s humor is kinda dry, where Steve’s is a bit slapstick.

Program began with a very heartfelt and inspirational prayer by Councilman Reuben Blackwell. Mayor Combs introduced the panelists and told of his own flood story which is very similar to mine. He woke up looked out and saw nothing more than a few limbs scattered around in the yard. He got dressed and drove a little ways around in his community and saw that his neighbors’ basement was flooded. He said that he and his wife, Katherine, helped the neighbors attempt to salvage some property.

My story, if memory serves me correctly, is very similar. I actually couldn’t sleep the night of the hurricane. I got up about three in the morning and started doing some work. I was working on a position and salary description for work. I had taken it upon myself, as I sometimes do, to research salaries for similar positions to my own because my annual performance review was approaching. Rather than have the company give me a twenty-five cent increase per hour in pay, I was going to be armed with quantitative data showing that I and my co-workers, deserved more. (That backfired on me like you wouldn’t believe!)

I can never sleep during hurricanes. Truth be told, I find hurricanes exciting. I will go outside and feel the tropical warmth in the air, feel the wind and rain and watch the trees supplicate to our Maker. It is amazing to watch the trees during a hurricane. They bow all the way down to the ground like President Obama to King Abdullah. I know hurricanes are dangerous and destructive but there is a certain thrill I feel when they come through. An eldritch phenomena, weird as hell and I can’t explain it.

Well I spent the night researching and typing (and smiling). By the time the sun came out and it was time for the day to begin, the power went out. So I thought, okay, no power, this must be pretty bad. Well I went outside and the ground was just only soaked and tree limbs were all over the place. There are some twenty trees in my yard and after a hurricane; we have the back-breaking task of cleaning up all the limbs and pinestraw from the yard. I was grateful that there was no more damage than that.

In 1996, during Hurricane Fran, a pine tree fell on the house. Tree fell right towards my bedroom. The top of the tree which was only pine needle brush fell into the screen of the window. My kids were sleeping in my bed because they were afraid to sleep in their room during the storm. If the tree had been a few inches taller, it would have come through the house … I don’t even want to think about that. My kids are alive and well today thanks to a mere nine inches.

I called my mom to make sure she was okay and she said that water had come up to her porch. Well, Jean Joyner, who I call Mary Tyler Moore (who can turn the world on with her smile?) tends to exaggerate so I went over to see for myself. On the drive over, I noticed very little damage. Mama lives only 5 minutes away so I didn’t have to go far. She lives in the middle of Planters Street. The ends of the street apparently are on higher ground than the middle of the street where she lives. As I turned onto the street and looked ahead, I could see the flood waters standing in the middle of the street. When I got to mama’s house, sure enough the water was up to her porch. I have pictures - somewhere.

Mama and I visited briefly and then I wanted to go see the other parts of the city. I got in the Jeep Cherokee with oversized tires. (Wonder how it just happened that I had a vehicle with oversized tires?) This jeep sat up high off the ground. Looked like something a drug dealer would drive. That’s what everybody said. But it served me well during that flood.

We went down Fairview Road approaching Raleigh Street. The Weeks-Armstrong Projects on Raleigh Street were underwater. OMG! Not in my wildest imagination would I think that I’d ever see anything like this. The people in Weeks-Armstrong were already struggling from day to day to survive. Now they have to deal with this! But one thing about project folk is that they know how to survive. They are resourceful. I don’t recall knowing anyone in the projects at that time. My concern was all about my friend and co-worker, Faye and her fam.

I was able to drive down on East Grand Avenue to the East Grand Apartments where Faye, her son Chavon and daughter, Shannon and mom, Mrs. Ora were staying with Faye’s sisters, Lisa and Vida. Faye lived down on Leggett Road and she and her family had to evacuate in the middle of the night because Leggett Road is on the river and EVERYTHING on Leggett Road flooded. I know so many people who live on Leggett Road and they were all flooded out of their homes. Faye was concerned about her house and rightly so. She’d asked me if I could drive her over in the Jeep with the oversized tires. Of course, I would take her home. We were armed with a camera to take pictures for the insurance company, beach shoes and plastic bags so we could salvage whatever could be salvaged. She already knew there would be damage because the water was high when she and her family evacuated.

I don’t remember when we actually went to her house. If it were the same day or later in the week, but that trip was an adventure. Water came up literally to the windows of my Jeep Cherokee. We had to wade through the water to get from the Jeep to her house. We were lucky we didn’t encounter any reptiles. Just bugs. Water was full of bugs and other nasties, but we endured and went in her house and saved some food and a few other things. Faye is always dramatic and I couldn’t read her mood. She just kept saying, “My house is flooded. My house is flooded. What am I going to do?”

I didn’t see her break down or cry or anything. We just did what he had to do to take care of the situation at hand. Faye is a happy-go-lucky sister who I loved being around because she’s just crazy. One of those spirits you like being around because she is just a sweet spirit but will curse you out in a NY minute if you cross her. But I digress.

There were places in the city that we were unable to even see because the flood waters prevented us from driving down certain roads. Nashville Road to Bethlehem Road was flooded so I couldn’t get out to Easonburg to see Aunt Mary and Uncle Earl nor could they come into Edgecombe County. Church Street just across the tracks at East Grand Avenue was flooded, so I couldn’t go that way. I don’t think I could get to Nash County at all.

My then husband, James was working in Tarboro and I couldn’t get to Tarboro because there was a tree down in the middle of the road and I didn’t know any alternate route. Most of route 64 was flooded. Parts of Highway 301 were flooded.

I called Aunt Mary and she said that she and Uncle Earl were fine but that the Greystone Community had flooded. That really surprised me because I think of all of those big, fine houses and privileged folk as not having to ever deal with trials and tribs that us common folk have to deal with. The privileged, in my mind, always seem shielded against disaster. Whereas, disaster, crisis, emergency, catastrophe, misfortune, devastation, tragedy, calamity, etc. are all part of the daily lexicon of the poor and disenfranchised. But this hurricane was an equalizer.

Aunt Mary asked me if I would take water to my older cousins, Cousin Reba and Cousin Cat who lived in Mayview. These two older sisters remind me of the Delany Sisters. Ironically, the Imperial Centre is now doing a production of “Having Our Say,” adapted from the book of the same name.

Cousin Cat and Cousin Reba were both retired teachers who lived together for several years and both are gone now. I’m sure they also had some wonderful stories to recount. I took water to them. Uncle Buddy and Aunt Nancy were okay. Uncle Buddy was out delivering water and helping people as well. He would have usually been the one to take provisions to Cousin Reba and Cousin Cat but I was happy to be able to do it.

We had been told not to drink the water from the faucet. We were to use bottled water or boil our house water. The Red Cross or some agency was distributing water and we loaded up with all we could take. Katrina (my cousin Katrina - not the hurricane) or Trina was with me when we got water. She and Aunt Lit were okay as was most of my family. It was really those friends on Leggett Road that suffered the most.

Dorothy Hinton and her entire family took a huge hit. Dorothy and three of her sisters lived on Leggett Road and they all had to evacuate. Dorothy’s husband, Alphonso, worked at Honeywell as an accountant and they were very fortunate because Honeywell put them up in a hotel.

One of Dorothy’s sisters, Bay as we call her lived right across the street from Faye. A hard rain would come, and her house would suffer flooding and damage. I saw the disgust and sense of defeat in her face when she said, “I’m taking the buyout! I can’t go through this again! This is the last time I'm gonna do this!”

People on Leggett Road literally needed boats to get to their homes. I’d never seen anything like it, but at the time I was unable to process everything that was happening around me because I was just in a different mode. Not spectator/record-the-events-for-posterity mode, but a “doing” mode. We had to get the food out of Faye’s fridge. In her family, at least nine people were living in her sister’s two bedroom apartment along with the dog.

We had no electricity or cable and I really had no idea of the extent of the flooding. My friend, Marie,  from DC called to check on us and told me that Tarrytown Mall was underwater. OMG! Underwater! Not Tarrytown! This was one of Rocky Mount’s main commercial hubs at one point. On Saturdays, Tarrytown is where we’d go after the Saturday chores. We’d get dressed up and go out to eat and go to the mall. We’d shop a little, get ice cream and sit in the mall and watch people. Also in the summertime, Tarrytown was cool and air-conditioned. We had no air conditioning at home. Not even a window unit when I was small. It never really seemed all that hot like it does now. I don’t know if that phenomenon is a function of my being young or if it’s a function of global warming. But it was always exciting to go to Tarrytown Mall.

Montgomery Ward was the anchor store at Tarrytown back in the 70s. Roses, Mason’s Department Store, Roscoe-Griffin, Serotta’s , Rosenbloom-Levy, Bib ‘n Tucker and all those stores were at Tarryton also. Most all had relocated or eventually went out of business at the time of the flood. But the place that held all those great, youthful memories was now underwater.

The children’s museum was flooded. The children’s museum housed a python and an alligator and the rumor was that they both had escaped and a little bit of terror went through me. Suppose that python floated on over here where we were. I’d taken several tours of the museum throughout my lifetime and I’m not sure if that was the same python that was there when I was small, but that python had actually eaten a whole cow, we were told. OMG!

The Tank Theatre was flooded which was no surprise. The Tank Theatre and art center would also flood with a heavy rain. The two community swimming pools were flooded and this confounded me and still does to this day. How does a pool flood? I mean, doesn’t a pool hold water anyway? DUH! Well it has been explained to me several times about the damage to the mechanisms that do something that affects the whatchmacallit that controls the whiziwigs. Its greek to me. I still don’t know how a pool floods!

My now ex-husband managed a Popeye’s Restaurant in Tarboro at that time. He told me that Tarboro was flooded and he had to get the food out of the restaurant. He was able to cook most of the chicken using generators and feed the people in Tarboro who were without electricity. He brought home several pounds of chicken that he had not used and the shellfish part of me was grateful that we had enough chicken to last us probably until spring. We stored the chicken in Mrs. Nellie’s freezer.

God had different plans for that chicken. One night, while I was trying to sleep, I had a nagging feeling to go hang pictures that were stored in a box. When my then husband, James and the kids first moved back here to Rocky Mount, I didn’t unpack everything. Our plans were to live for a year at my daddy’s house and then buy our own home. (I guess God just laughs at all my plans.) Well that didn’t work. Three years later, we were still at my daddy’s house and I still had stuff packed. So this sleepless night, I started hanging pictures that were still packed away in a box.

One of my favorites is a picture of the last supper that I’d bought while living in Greensboro in 1989. At the time, I’d never seen a picture like this and had to have it. Paid a nice little penny for it and had it professionally framed. It’s Black art. A Black Jesus is sitting at the table in the middle of the disciples. The disciples happen to be Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, Mary McLeod Bethune, Paul Robeson, Nat Turner, W. E. B. DuBois, et al. Well while I am hanging the picture SOMETHING says to me, “Have supper?”

“Have supper?” I scratch my head. “It’s the middle of the night, Lord. I had a big dinner. I’m sure you must mean breakfast.”

“HAVE SUPPER!”

“OH! You want me to have a dinner for all my friends who have been flooded out? That’s what you want me to do?” (Why me, Lord? You know I’m slow!)

So the next day, James and I get the Popeye’s chicken from Mrs. Nellie’s freezer, fire up the grill and made dinner for several friends who had been flooded out. I envisioned all those friends sitting in our backyard family-style - eating together. But these folks just wanted a home-cooked meal. Didn’t want no conversation or camaraderie. Everybody dropped by at their convenience and packed plates and took the food back with them to wherever they were staying. As long as they ate was my concern. So much for my plans for a chicken extravaganza throughout the year from Mrs. Nellie’s freezer. Bon appetite mes amis!

The commemoration was wonderful. We had a good lunch, although Mr. Belcher at the Café at the Imperial could have provided a better lunch. That pasta salad at the Café is to die for. We had delicious lemonade at lunch which I thought was appropriate. The beautiful Imperial Centre is the lemonade from Hurricane Floyd’s lemons of damage.

The agencies and public officials had great stories, but the people’s stories – those in the FEMA trailer park, the dozens of families on Leggett Road, in Greystone and Princeville whose stories remind me of the 9th Ward of New Orleans when Katrina (not my cousin, but the hurricane, hit in 2005). Their stories need to be told. The Friends of Braswell Memorial Library published a book a few years back, “ A Flood of Memories,” which do recount many of these stories. Thank God for Friends and memories.

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Comments 2 comments

DonnaCSmith profile image

DonnaCSmith 6 years ago from Central North Carolina

Devin, this is beautiful writing. People helping people in hard times is what it is all about. I am glad you are recording this memoir.


jdove-miller 6 years ago

A wonderful re-telling. It's good to know that Rocky Mount and other towns commemorate Floyd. Such a testament of the human family's ability to resurrect itself.

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