Princeville adapts to worsening climate risks

Princeville adapts to worsening climate risks
Published: Nov. 15, 2023 at 7:43 PM EST
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PRINCEVILLE, N.C. (WITN) - Tyrone Pettaway, a Princeville resident of 46 years, says he could never just pack up and leave his home, a home with such a deep history.

“We never know what tomorrow might bring, but to prepare yourself a little bit better than you did last month,” Pettaway said. “We have endured too, but we’re still standing.”

Princeville is a small town, where driving through the town takes under ten minutes. The town was established by freed slaves after the Civil War in 1865 and was originally called Freedom Hill. State archives show the town was then incorporated in 1885 as Princeville, making it the first independently governed African-American community to be chartered in the United States.

According to the town’s historical records, the name was changed to Princeville in honor of Turner Prince, an African-American man who had been involved in building many of the community’s homes.

Geographically Princeville sits adjacent to the Tar River in a low-lying area that is downstream from both Rocky Mount and Tarboro. Due to the low elevation and proximity to the river, Princeville has flooded many times, including completely flooding seven times between 1800 and 1958.

To help control the flooding, the Army Corps of Engineers built the Princeville dike in 1965. However, In 1999, Hurricane Floyd caused heavy flooding along the Tar River from Rocky Mount to the coast, and flooding in Princeville caused the dike to fail, nearly completely submerging the town with water reaching a depth of 23 feet above the streets in some places. Records show it took 10 days for the water to drain back out of the town.

Scientists are saying that powerful hurricanes like Hurricane Floyd could get worse with global warming trends, putting low-lying Princeville right in a local climate bullseye.

Still, with Princeville being the first town settled by newly-emancipated slaves, residents like Pettaway say it is not that simple to just relocate and leave behind a town that carries such sentimental value.

“I was 21 when I built this house from the ground and like, it’s not, you know, when you get attached to something, you just get attached to it. The money that they wanted to give me for a buyout would only be about $10 thousand,” said Pettaway

Chad Carwein, the ECU sustainability manager says there is a reason why Princeville is the hot spot of the trouble zone of ongoing climate change.

“Stronger hurricanes, more precipitation, and so all of those forces are colliding in these low-lying coastal plain areas, especially communities that are located right on the river that feeds into the ocean,” Carwein explained.

Kathie Dello, a co-author of the national climate assessment report wrote to WITN, “In Eastern North Carolina there are people in harm’s way from flooding and extreme heat, and like we’re seeing this year, drought. Princeville is a community where adaptations have been made to make the community more resilient while preserving the cultural significance of the community.”

Homes in Princeville are now elevated as high as 12 feet to help defend them against possible future flooding.