N.C. -- When you walk up Main Street in this charming town
on the Tar River, past the plaque that commemorates George
Washington's visit in 1791, past the "We accept Red Cross
vouchers" signs in store windows, and past the office
of the insurance agent who didn't have flood insurance, you
detect the odor of mildew and chlorine bleach -- the legacy
of the flood six weeks earlier.
This town had never recorded
a cataclysm before or since Washington's visit at the dawn
of the republic. At least, not until September, when hurricanes
Dennis and Floyd dealt a one-two punch to eastern North Carolina,
sending the Tar River far over its banks after Floyd and pouring
20 inches of rain onto saturated ground.
Most business owners in the area did not
carry flood insurance, forcing them to seek loans.
Even the Barnhart Insurance Agency on
Main Street in Tarboro didn't have flood coverage, Robert
Barnhart says sheepishly as he surveys his just-installed
the business heart of Tarboro beat again
A month after the water receded, the town's commercial
district has begun to recover.
Shop owners scrub walls with bleach to
kill mildew. Rolls of soiled carpet lie slumped on the curb.
In shop doors, fans the size of train wheels propel musty
air into the street. Appliance stores sell washers, dryers
and refrigerators in exchange for vouchers given by the Red
Some of these businesses will die.
Despite the cleanup effort, and despite
the availability of insurance and government aid, some businesses
won't recover. Communities that go through calamities this
severe typically lose 20 to 30 percent of their small businesses,
according to James Lee Witt, director of the Federal
Emergency Management Agency.
Rex Browning expresses determination that
his jewelry store three blocks from the river will not join
the ranks of business failures. But the 66-year-old owner
of Rex Jeweler's faces a task akin to repairing a Rolex with
In fact, he confronts exactly that problem.
Browning reaches into a drawer in his workbench and pulls
out what looks like a lump of rusted pig iron, something you
would pick up in a railroad yard. It consists of -- or consisted
of -- an assortment of steel watch-repair tools.
No one can repair the tools, and Browning
will have difficulty replacing them. The same goes for his
watch timer and other implements of his trade, many of them
The flood destroyed much of the store's
inventory, too. Clocks and watches that people left for repair
-- gone. He had placed some items in Zippo display cases atop
4-foot-high counters. The water got them.
"They just all tumbled over,"
he says. "I had watches and rings and envelopes floating
all over the place."
After borrowing all that the bank would lend, Browning
needed more money. He approached the Small Business Administration,
which extends two kinds of business loans after disasters.
One kind pays for damage to buildings, tools, inventory, furniture
and the like. The other kind compensates for economic injury
so businesses can continue to pay leases, wages and certain
Browning asked the Small Business Administration
to assess the damage to his shop and estimate how much the
agency could lend him. He still awaits a reply. Browning feels
his livelihood slipping away.
"I can't wait," he says, fixing
his gaze on me. "My paycheck quit and you're still getting
one. Look at the people from the SBA. They're still getting
Across the river, just outside the village
of Princeville, Charles R. Dew expresses similar frustrations.
His auto-repair shop, Dew's Garage, which his father founded
in 1945 and which Dew has operated since 1978, suffered devastation.
The floodwater destroyed 15 vehicles belonging to customers.
The two-week immersion coated his tools in rust. A white line
of mildew far above his head marks where the water crested.
When the Small Business Administration
offered a loan at 4 percent interest, Dew declined.
"I can't afford a loan," he
says. "I'm going to clean my tools, hope I can get my
lights cut back on, and do what I can do. If I can't make
it, I'll get a job down the road there." He gestures
down the highway toward Tarboro's main street.
road back is long, and longer for some
A little farther up the highway, Hilda Pierce's beauty
shop is under renovation, thanks to an SBA loan. Just a couple
of weeks after she applied, she got the $50,000 check to pay
for repairs. Without the SBA loan, Pierce could not afford
to restore her business.
The 15-year-old cinder block building
and its contents practically washed away in water six feet
deep. The inundation wrecked the hair dryers, chairs, shelves
-- everything. Pierce's adjacent house suffered a similar
fate, but her first priority is to reopen the business. While
renovation goes on, she makes ends meet by cutting hair three
days a week at someone else's beauty shop in Tarboro.
While Pierce works in town, a Methodist
church volunteer from Asheville, N.C., hammers at wall studs
in her house. A few yards away, repairmen have taken a break
from their work on the beauty shop, where they have stripped
the walls and floors to bare concrete and scrubbed the surfaces
Pierce hopes to reopen by mid-December,
three months after the flood.
Three miles away and across the river,
Browning says he doesn't know when he will reopen his jewelry
store. He can't let the business die, for a couple of reasons.
First, he wants to leave the store to his daughter. Second,
at age 66 he has not saved for retirement, so he needs the
income that the shop provides.
"It took me 42 years to get this
far," he says without a trace of a smile, "so if
it takes me another 42 years, I won't be nothing but 108 years
-- Posted: Nov. 18, 1999