Princeville residents rely on strength, loyalty to town 5 years after Hurricane Matthew

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— Princeville, once called Freedom Hill, became imprisoned by the wrath of a river.

This town, the first in America founded by freed enslaved people, became a place to escape. Because in October 2016, the deluge came to Princeville, forcing Jimmy Hilliard out of his house for two months.

“I had to replace everything and that was my second time doing that,” Hilliard said.

The first time was in 1999 when Hurricane Floyd hit.

For the second time in 17 years, a hurricane, this one named Matthew, swamped this town of about 2,000 people.

Hilliard said the water in his home got as high as the bed frame. He fled to his son’s home, then to a hotel, until his house could be repaired.

After living through two historic floods, he harbored doubts about returning.

“Yes, I did. but this is where I’ve been most of my life,” he said. “And I had everything I own paid for. I chose to stay. I got too old to start over again.”

Wander the streets of Princeville now and you’ll notice most homes have a lived-in look about them, though here and there is a deserted shell with an overgrown yard.

Dorestine Wiggins lost her own house. It was condemned.

“It’s been five years and we’ve still got abandoned houses and people wanting to come back,” Wiggins said. “But they ain’t got no help. Some didn’t have insurance, so it’s kind of hard.”

She’s now renting and continues to wait for government grant money to buy or build a new home.

“But it’s been five years! I’m still waiting to hear something.”

The Tar River is low and calm on this day, but five years ago it was high and hell-bent on destruction. The levee designed to protect Princeville was no match for what Matthew wrought.

Last year, the Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would spend nearly 40-million dollars to upgrade the levee.

Recovering from the deluge has demanded patience: It took more than three years before students could return to a renovated Princeville Elementary.

And on Oct. 30, Princeville will celebrate the opening of its new town hall and senior center. The building is raised to protect it from flooding.

For Faye Johnson, to move out of this town she grew up in is unthinkable.

“As long as there’s a Princeville, I’ll be here,” she said. “We came back because we love Princeville. I love Princeville. This is my home.”

This town, once called Freedom Hill has risen above, once again.

“This is a strong town, strong people here,” Johnson said.