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In the fall of 1999, eastern North Carolina was hit by devastating flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Floyd. Soon after, the Southern Oral History Program set out to document the catastrophe as part of its “Listening for a Change” initiative. Accompanied by photographer Rob Amberg, project coordinator Charlie Thompson led the effort to assess the environmental, political, and economic consequences of the disaster, as well as its impact on individual lives.

Thompson conducted twenty-five interviews with flood victims, relief workers, ministers, farmers, farm workers, small-business owners, environmental monitors, and political leaders. Among the interviewees were Bert Pickett, an African-American minister in Pender County who led a delegation to the North Carolina General Assembly to ask for flood assistance; Rick Dove, a river keeper who has dedicated his life to saving the Neuse and Trent rivers; and Billy Ray Hall, president of the North Carolina Rural Center and Director of the North Carolina Flood Redevelopment Center. Many broad themes emerged from Thompson’s interviews: the sweeping toll of the flood on human lives; the disruptions to community and sense of place; the character of political response to the disaster at local, state, and national levels; public health and environmental issues arising from the flooding; the effect of the disaster on the region’s most vulnerable residents, including children, the elderly, and lower-income families; and the experiences of relief workers.

In a second stage of the project, oral history research on the region’s pre-flood history is being conducted in the fall of 2000 by SOHP interviewers Katie Otis and Rachel O’Toole, both doctoral candidates in the Department of History at UNC. These interviews will examine the flood’s impact on the life patterns, family connections, and social support networks of the region’s elderly. Discussion of the flood will serve as a point of entry for a wider inquiry into the evolving character of the experiences of the elderly across several generations, the shifting rhythms of elderly lives, and the rise of elderly-focused social and health service provisions. Funded by grants from UNC’s Center for Public Service, Odum Institute for Research in Social Science, and Institute on Aging, this portion of the project will operate from the perspective that “only with a sense of what was can we fully understand what has been washed away.”