Linda Worsley had been trying to get back to her hometown of Princeville, North Carolina, for almost six years. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew overwhelmed the banks of the Tar River and submerged the town under more than 10 feet of water, destroying Worsley’s house and nearly 500 others. Worsley fled with her family, but she returned without one: Her mother, father, and husband all passed away before they could move back. Many of her closest friends had also died or moved elsewhere during her period of exile. Worsley and I sat on the porch of her parents’ house, less than half a mile from the banks of the Tar River, one hot afternoon in early June. I noticed the sounds of North Carolina’s swampy coastal plain region: huge wasps buzzing around us (Worsley doesn’t mind them), twittering birds darting around the porch, and a short freight train chugging past us, carrying scrap metal. Worsley, 72, mostly notices what’s gone silent. When she sits on the porch, the absence of passing cars and neighbors’ voices reminds her of how much she has lost; when she leaves the house and drives through the streets of Princeville, the rows of abandoned houses remind her of how much the small town of 2,000 has changed. “The caring is gone,” Worsley said. “In a way I’m glad to be back here, and in a way I’m not.” Linda Worsley stands on the porch of her parents’ home in Princeville, North Carolina. Grist / Gabrielle Joseph The flood caused by Hurricane Matthew was at least the 10th major flood in Princeville’s 150-year history, and the second in as many decades. It devastated the town, displacing hundreds of people and wiping away entire blocks. Since then, longtime residents like Worsley have been struggling to return and rebuild, waiting on the aid money the federal government is supposed to provide in the aftermath of natural disasters. Meanwhile, the houses they left behind have begun to rot and sag, their white slats turning fuzzy and green with mold. The cost of repairing their damaged houses made it impossible for many of Worsley’s neighbors to return until they received federal aid, but thanks to the government’s convoluted bureaucracy, much of that money is still in limbo. Some people sold their destroyed properties for pennies on the dollar. Many just walked away, renting in nearby cities like Tarboro, Rocky Mount, and Pinetops. The storm had exiled them from the town where their families had lived since the aftermath of the Civil War, when a group of emancipated Black people founded the town on abandoned land. “It’s God’s will, it’s not my will, and we just have to accept that,” Worsley said. “I have been gone from here up until last Monday. No way I could have foreseen that I’ll be gone that long.”

NC - America's oldest Black town is trapped between rebuilding and retreating

Linda Worsley had been trying to get back to her hometown of Princeville, North Carolina, for almost six years. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew overwhelmed the banks of the Tar River and submerged the town under more than 10 feet of water, destroying Worsley’s house and nearly 500 others.

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This story is part of the Grist seriesFlood. Retreat. Repeat, an exploration of how communities are changing before, during, and after managed retreat.

Worsley fled with her family, but she returned without one: Her mother, father, and husband all passed away before they could move back. Many of her closest friends had also died or moved elsewhere during her period of exile.

Worsley and I sat on the porch of her parents’ house, less than half a mile from the banks of the Tar River, one hot afternoon in early June. I noticed the sounds of North Carolina’s swampy coastal plain region: huge wasps buzzing around us (Worsley doesn’t mind them), twittering birds darting around the porch, and a short freight train chugging past us, carrying scrap metal. Worsley, 72, mostly notices what’s gone silent. When she sits on the porch, the absence of passing cars and neighbors’ voices reminds her of how much she has lost; when she leaves the house and drives through the streets of Princeville, the rows of abandoned houses remind her of how much the small town of 2,000 has changed.

“The caring is gone,” Worsley said. “In a way I’m glad to be back here, and in a way I’m not.”

The flood caused by Hurricane Matthew was at least the 10th major flood in Princeville’s 150-year history, and the second in as many decades. It devastated the town, displacing hundreds of people and wiping away entire blocks. Since then, longtime residents like Worsley have been struggling to return and rebuild, waiting on the aid money the federal government is supposed to provide in the aftermath of natural disasters. Meanwhile, the houses they left behind have begun to rot and sag, their white slats turning fuzzy and green with mold.

The cost of repairing their damaged houses made it impossible for many of Worsley’s neighbors to return until they received federal aid, but thanks to the government’s convoluted bureaucracy, much of that money is still in limbo. Some people sold their destroyed properties for pennies on the dollar. Many just walked away, renting in nearby cities like Tarboro, Rocky Mount, and Pinetops. The storm had exiled them from the town where their families had lived since the aftermath of the Civil War, when a group of emancipated Black people founded the town on abandoned land.

“It’s God’s will, it’s not my will, and we just have to accept that,” Worsley said. “I have been gone from here up until last Monday. No way I could have foreseen that I’ll be gone that long.”

While she waited for federal officials to process her aid application in the years after Hurricane Matthew, Worsley spent tens of thousands of dollars renting a series of apartments in and around Tarboro. This spring, five years after her application was submitted, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, agreed to buy her a new manufactured home and set it up on her family property. When I visited the Worsley family’s three-acre plot in June, the home hadn’t yet arrived. Instead, a storage unit containing all of Worsley’s belongings sat next to a clearing in the yard, full of knickknacks and family heirlooms. Worsley didn’t know when she’d unpack.

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