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Nearly lost to a flood 17 years ago, a saturated North Carolina town struggles to survive

Nearly lost to a flood 17 years ago, a saturated North Carolina town struggles to survive
Floodwaters in Nashville, N.C. (Chris Seward / Charlotte Observer)

Donnie Leonard tied the last ring of rope around his fire chief's chest, cinched it with a tug and watched the older man wade into the dark, rushing water.

The woman was 12 feet away, her sedan submerged to its windows. She was screaming.

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Leonard, 30, gripped the rope tight and leaned back, putting all of his weight on the backs of his feet.

The currents tugged at Princeville Volunteer Fire Chief James Powell, who bulled ahead and scrambled to reach the stranded woman. He handed her a vest with lights on it, but she was unable to fasten its clamps. While fumbling with the vest, Powell was almost swept away himself.

He signaled Leonard and three other firefighters to pull him back to shore. Together on the same bank, they watched the floodwaters push the sedan 20 yards further away into a stand of trees.

They no longer heard screaming.

Deadly flooding has returned to this old North Carolina slave town, a place of just 2,000 people that was all but swallowed 17 years ago in the floodwaters of Hurricane Floyd. This time, it was the remnants of Hurricane Matthew that were to blame.

At least 21 people have died in the storm-related flooding in the Southeast, more than half of them in North Carolina. Rainfall — as much as 16 inches in places — began on the coast and mixed with the runoff from new storms to overwhelm ground already saturated from a wet summer. The resulting surge poured downriver, flooding creeks and tributaries more than 120 miles inland.