During the week of September 12, 1999, eastern North Carolinians were bracing themselves for an impending hurricane. As in preparation for any hurricane projected to make landfall on our great state, many residents did the usual to prepare—food necessities like bread and bottled water were purchased, windows on homes and businesses up and down the coast were covered with plywood, boats were securely docked at their harbor homes, flashlights and kerosene lamps were readied, pets were brought indoors, and loose outdoor items were secured. Little did anyone know—or suspect—that the storm itself and its aftermath would be the greatest natural disaster to hit North Carolina in recent memory.Sitting Duck
In the days before Hurricane Floyd reached shore, Hurricane Dennis hit North Carolina. If the storm had simply swept through and dissolved, Hurricane Floyd might not have had such an impact. But, Hurricane Dennis was not through with North Carolina after its initial blow on August 30. Rather, it stalled off the coast of Cape Hatteras, building strength and power, only to return on September 5 as Tropical Storm Dennis with winds of 70 miles per hour and torrential rainfall—saturating the ground to the point of no return. Meanwhile, Hurricane Floyd was looming—just waiting its turn.
“The hurricanes that swept over eastern North Carolina that fall were devastating in their cumulative effect,” said Dr. Richard “Dick” Eakin, former chancellor of East Carolina University. “We all speak of Hurricane Floyd as the precipitating event, but the hurricane [that preceded] Floyd set the stage for the flooding that followed Floyd. We prepared for these hurricanes, but no one could have predicted the flooding that occurred.” It was as if the perfect storm was not actually one pinpointed occurrence, but rather several smaller occurrences that brewed over time, lingering to make the atmosphere, soil, and water table such that eastern North Carolina was a sitting duck.
“Floyd’s origin can be traced to a tropical wave that emerged from western Africa on September 2, 1999. Tropical Depression Eight formed September 7 about 1,000 miles east of the Lesser Antilles. The system was upgraded to Tropical Storm Floyd on September 8. Floyd became a hurricane at 8:00 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) on September 10. Early on September 12, Floyd turned west and began a major strengthening episode. Hurricane Floyd reached its peak intensity on September 13 when sustained winds reached 156 miles per hour and the central pressure dropped to 27.20 inches of mercury. This was at the top end of Category 4 intensity on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale.” (Event Summary from the National Weather Service, Raleigh, NC http://www4.ncsu.edu/~nwsfo/storage/cases/19990915/) Storm of the Century
Hurricane Floyd was a monstrous storm, twice the size of the typical Atlantic hurricane; it stretched over more than 580 miles from Florida to Canada when it finally reached the East Coast. After building in the Atlantic, Floyd first hit the Bahamas at a top-level Category 4 intensity, the second highest categorization given to hurricanes. As the storm drew closer to the United States, it lost some strength and was categorized at a level two with maximum winds of 104 miles per hour. It was late afternoon on September 15 when Floyd’s outer bands reached Greenville and the University—and a long, rainy, windy night was in store for all who endured the storm’s wrath. It was around 3:00 a.m. on September 16 that Hurricane Floyd officially made landfall near Cape Fear, NC. (Some information from “Hurricane Floyd’s Lasting Legacy: Assessing the Storm’s Impact on the Carolina Coast” by David Herring. http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/FloydIntro/)
Layton Getsinger ’69, who was associate vice chancellor for Administration and Finance and executive director of Business Services during that time, knew the drill for his staff—they’d been through this before. Employees from Parking and Traffic to Risk Management and the University Police Department spent countless hours readying the campus for the hurricane, including securing buildings, evacuating low-level parking lots, and ensuring that remaining students were in the safest possible places. Getsinger was with his family when Hurricane Floyd actually hit. “I was at home watching the weather outside and realized that we were experiencing something different. I was watching television when it was announced that a man and his pickup truck had been swept off the bridge just outside the entrance to Brook Valley on Highway 33 (10th Street extension)…the man was the first victim [in North Carolina] claimed by Hurricane Floyd.” The flash flooding had begun, and he would be one of 35 residents, including East Carolina student Aaron Child, who lost his life because of Hurricane Floyd.
The storm dumped 15-20 inches of rain in most parts of eastern North Carolina as it made its way north-northeast. This, after roughly six inches had been left by Dennis. Despite the storm’s intensity, many in eastern North Carolina ventured out to work and some to school once the sun shone through on September 16, unaware of the danger growing in the Tar, Neuse, Roanoke, and Pamlico Rivers and their tributaries. It wasn’t until that night that the rivers crested, having overrun their banks, and slowly crept into urban areas. (Some information from “Hurricane Floyd’s Lasting Legacy: Assessing the Storm’s Impact on the Carolina Coast.”)
The 500-year Flood
Jane Stancil Walton ’00, ’04, former ECU cheerleader, lived at Tar River Estates on 1st Street just blocks from campus with another squad member and two other friends that year. “University officials instructed us to go home before Hurricane Floyd hit. My parents lived in Kinston, NC so it was easy for me to get home quickly. Before leaving Greenville, my roommates and I unplugged all electrical appliances and boxed up our personal items that were valuable to us, like pictures and jewelry, which we took home with us. We put other items in high places, such as on the beds and at the top of closets. My roommates and I thought that if our apartment flooded that it would only be a couple of inches at the most. Our apartment was two stories and my bedroom was the only bedroom downstairs. Since we were located next to the Tar River, I assume our apartment complex was one of the first places to flood. A day after the hurricane a friend of mine called me to tell me how bad the Tar River apartments had flooded and asked me if he could go into my apartment and try to save anything for me. He told me the only way he could get to my apartment was by boat. He was able to find a canoe and paddled up to the back door. He told me everything in my room was floating and the water was waist deep at that time. Somehow, he got into my apartment and was able to save anything he could get his hands on—CDs, clothes, shoes, etc. The water eventually rose up to the second floor, level with my roommates’ beds. When I was finally able to come back to Greenville and see my apartment, I was devastated. Everything was ruined, including my great grandmother’s bed, which was a family heirloom. But it wasn’t as bad for me as it was for many others. I remember feeling so badly for the families that lived around me. They had lost literally everything they owned—their cars, photo albums, furniture, clothing—it was horrible.”
The Tar River in Greenville reached an astonishing 24 feet above flood stage. “I remember being overwhelmed by the vastness of the flooding and how incredibly high the water rose, especially north of the river,” commented Getsinger. “It seemed like it would never end—seeing images on television of airplanes at [the Pitt-] Greenville Airport completely under water, seeing videos of people and livestock on the roofs of homes and barns, seeing dead livestock floating in the water, seeing motor boats plying throughout the area and watching the occupants duck to get underneath power lines…I vividly remember the feeling of helplessness and hopelessness, knowing that we were experiencing something catastrophic and of biblical proportions.”
Dr. Eakin kept constant watch on the University campus and surrounding areas, knowing that many students lived in the path of the rising flood waters. “I was shocked to see the magnitude of the flooding and how quickly the water rose in Green Mill Run across from the campus and in the Tar River. I was taken on a tour of the campus in a truck the next morning. Green Mill Run had overflowed its banks and had become a raging torrent of water that flowed into several campus buildings along 10th Street. It struck me as remarkable that many parts of Greenville seemed untouched by the storm and its aftermath, while the wailing of sirens and the sound of helicopters overhead signaled that many of our students and eastern North Carolina’s citizens were in desperate need.”A University of Compassion
ECU acted quickly to aid its students, faculty, and staff—and even those Greenville residents that lived close to campus. “The University offered immediate aid and comfort to students in the aftermath of the storm,” said Eakin. “Todd dining hall was opened to anyone who needed food and water. Emergency water supplies were brought to the campus for distribution. We knew that many students, especially those who lived close to the Tar River, had been displaced and had lost books and other belonging to the flood waters. [We knew] they would require assistance with both temporary housing and emergency financial assistance.”
As director of the Center for Counseling and Student Development at the time, Dr. Lynn Roeder, who is now associate vice chancellor and dean of students, not only had to assist in all emergency efforts in response to the flood, but also direct an impromptu counseling program to assist more than just East Carolina’s affected students. “Many of the University’s staff lost a lot of things, too. The people that lived north of the Tar River completely lost everything. So we weren’t just dealing with students, we were dealing with employees too. We were quickly able to get a crisis center up and running in Sweetheart’s and the Red Cross came in, we had Financial Aid there, the Counseling Center was there, our Student Health was there, Housing, Dining—anything we could think of to help the University community,” Roeder recalled.
For Walton, one of the displaced students, the services provided by and the great care and concern ECU showed during the aftermath was a relief. “ECU gave me several hundred dollars. Classes were cancelled for several days or maybe even weeks. Many professors cancelled projects and really showed a lot of compassion and empathy. We were given vouchers to area businesses and I was able to replace the computer that was destroyed, clothes, furniture, and essentials like shampoo. FEMA came in to assess the damage to my apartment and we were allowed to enter then. I had to wear a facemask, rain boots, a rain coat, and gloves for protection. I remember touching the wall in my room and it being so wet and soggy that it almost caved in.”
The mess left after the flood waters finally receded was not only unbelievable and intimidating, but hazardous as well. “People were warned not to drink or bathe in water from taps for fear that it may harbor dangerously high levels of fecal coli form bacteria. Brown sediments clogged coastal estuaries a week after the storm…along with dirt swept away by the flood waters, the estuaries filled with human and animal waste, fertilizers, and pesticides.” (“Hurricane Floyd’s Lasting Legacy: Assessing the Storm’s Impact on the Carolina Coast”)
It wasn’t only material things that were damaged. In total, 57 deaths were directly related to Hurricane Floyd—one in the Bahamas and 56 in the United States. Inland, freshwater flooding caused 48 deaths, including the ECU student’s. “There was a student that was missing,” recalled Roeder. “His brother was a junior, and this young man was a freshman. He was from Wilmington, and although Greenville was an island for part of the time while the flood waters were at their peak, his parents had managed to get to the brother’s apartment. At this point, their son Aaron had been missing for five days. The police had informed me that they had found a body at the bottom of College Hill, an area where fast current had swept through when the flooding began. I was taken to the brother’s apartment to meet with Aaron’s parents and we were able to identify him according to specific things the family told us about him and dental records they provided. Of all the things I’ve had to do in my career, and unfortunately I’ve had to tell parents that their student has died, that was my first and my worst. It was so traumatic.” A memorial service was held at the University shortly after classes resumed in Child’s honor for his family, friends, and fellow students to grieve and say goodbye.
Parts of eastern North Carolina were declared disaster zones by the United States government, and estimated damages statewide totaled more than $6 billion. Damage statistics in North Carolina included: 7,000 homes destroyed; 17,000 homes uninhabitable; 56,000 homes damaged; most roads east of I-95 flooded; more than 1,500 people rescued from flooded areas; more than 500,000 customers were without electricity at some point; 10,000 people were housed in temporary shelters; and there was severe agricultural damage throughout eastern North Carolina. (National Weather Service, Raleigh, NC)
Healing through Football
“The University matured in many respects as a result of this disaster. The genuine coming together of the University and the community in the face of hardship was a bonding experience whose legacy lives on,” commented Eakin. “The amazing contributions of faculty and staff volunteers to assist our students were heartwarming and incredibly helpful. I believe that those of us who witnessed that spirit of volunteerism were strengthened by it, and it helped us recommit ourselves to serving ECU and her students.”
The purple and gold spirit and unquestionable Pirate pride instilled in so many alumni and Pirates fans was evident in the face of tragedy. Since Hurricane Floyd hit during football season, the Gridiron Pirates were hoping to keep to their game schedule. “When the hurricane and flood hit, the football team was away from the campus for a game in South Carolina. The next game was to be at home against [ironically] the University of Miami Hurricanes. Unable to return home to practice or play the game, the team stayed in South Carolina. We decided that the game should be played if only to take our minds off of the dreadful conditions in Greenville for a few hours,” remembered Eakin. “North Carolina State University graciously offered its stadium and the game was played.”
“Although most everyone was affected in some way by the flood, people actually turned out in record number for the game. Everyone was ready for some diversion as well as relief from the flood recovery,” commented Getsinger. Eakin added, “After being well behind at halftime, the Pirates came back in the second half to win one of their most stirring victories ever.”
It wasn’t just football that helped heal the University, community, and the Pirate Nation. A number of significant gifts were given from the University itself, individuals, and groups to assist flood victims in need. ECU Foundation committed $100,000, another $100,000 was given by an individual, and the ECU Parents Group contributed $33,500. “Overwhelming support came from outside the region by concerned fellow Americans. [There were] trailers full of food, water, and supplies, coupled with physical labor to get homes that could be reoccupied repaired and restored,” said Getsinger. “The local population reacted and pulled together to recover.”
Ten years after the flood, East Carolina is well equipped with not only emergency plans for hurricanes, but also for flooding. The University’s Office of Environmental Health and Safety Web site has instructions for everything from office preparations, residence hall safety preparations, and a University hurricane prep checklist to links to the National Weather Service, documents with advice on surviving the storm, and a disaster recovery plan. (Visit http://www.ecu.edu/cs-admin/oehs/emergency/severe-weather.cfm to review this information.)
With the 2009 hurricane season upon us, let’s hope Mother Nature’s fury does not affect East Carolina University and the residents of eastern North Carolina like Hurricane Floyd did. For those who lived through the experience, another 500 years before a flood of that magnitude will be a welcome relief.
Letters from Alumni
As part of this story, we asked alumni who were students at ECU during Hurricane Floyd to write us and tell us their memories of the storm. While it was not possible to publish all of them, a few of them can be found here