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From an Edgecombe native, a plea to the state

Edgecombe County has endured many challenges over the past 25 years.

When I was in high school in the early 90s, I vividly remember my father campaigning on the Town Common in downtown Tarboro to keep Carolina Telephone’s headquarters from moving to Wake Forest.

He didn’t succeed in his efforts, but he tried really damn hard.

Carolina Telephone leaving Tarboro started the trend of other businesses leaving our beautiful, small town.

By the time I graduated from college in 1998, Tarboro was nowhere close to the town I remembered of my childhood: vibrant, full of locals and mid-westerners, and a thriving downtown community.

I moved away, but I still remember the phone call from my family after Hurricane Floyd hit in September of 1999. Another hard blow for our community with many county residents losing their homes, Princeville Elementary School being destroyed, and downtown Tarboro flooding for the first time in our living community’s history.

Meanwhile, our county continued to lose businesses, people, and resources. In terms of the incredible public school system where I was raised, most anyone who had the means chose to drive to Rocky Mount so that their children could attend private school.

In October of 2002, I chose to come back to Tarboro, the town where I was born, raised, and schooled to start a small restaurant and wine store.

Ironically, the location of the restaurant sat directly across the street from the original Carolina Telephone building. Another irony was that my dad was the one pushing us to open a business in a county that was not just poor but also had a high unemployment rate. Since opening On the Square, we have now started a microbrewery two blocks down from the restaurant on Main Street.

Fast forward to 14 years later, when Tarboro is as healthy as I have seen it. Young people are coming back to the area. We have our strongest superintendent in 20 years. There’s a substantial Teach for America presence. Small businesses are opening. The local government is focusing on tourism. All is looking bright for Edgecombe County.

But then, the reports on the news show another hurricane heading our way, and the outlook doesn’t look at all favorable.

Very much like Floyd, the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew was much more damaging than the hit itself.

The town waited after the storm to see how far the waters will rise.

Princeville, America’s first African American incorporated town, is evacuated in anticipation of flooding. Once the residents leave, they are no longer allowed to return to gather any of their possessions. Most of these belongings will be gone forever.

Residents' ruined belongings from Hurricane Matthew flooding line a street in Princeville. (Photo Credit: Liz Bell/EducationNC)
Residents’ ruined belongings from Hurricane Matthew flooding line a street in Princeville. (Photo Credit: Liz Bell/EducationNC)

Edgecombe County schools end up closing for eight days. Tarboro High School, Martin Millenium Academy, and North Edgecombe High School are used as shelters. Both motels on Western Boulevard fill up with evacuees who can afford rooms. The community says to each other, “What happened to the 500-year flood? Didn’t we have it in 1999? It’s only been 17 years since the last one.”

My very successful, very strong friend — an attorney in Atlanta and a fellow Tarboro High graduate — creates a drive to raise money for those who are affected. When I contact her, I tell her I will make a weekly donation for the next year.

We meet for lunch on her way back to Atlanta so that I can hear how her fundraising efforts were received.

She said to me, “I didn’t think about how people are going to need resources/money/help for a long period of time. Raising money during one weekend and giving it out then is only a short-term solution.”

And that is what our state government needs to be acutely aware of:

These victims who were displaced and lost everything will not be back on their feet in days, weeks, or months.

Recovery will not be short and sweet. Instead, it will be deep and dark like the waters that flooded the town of Princeville.

In the upcoming year, once the initial shock of devastation has been processed, these victims will be able to assess the damage done and know exactly what they need to not just survive but thrive. It is everyone’s responsibility to help.

Despair is a terrible place to be, and there are very few of us who know this feeling.

Let our state say to this often-forgotten community, “We have your back.”

Edgecombe County has come a long way since the devastation of losing Carolina Telephone. For the first time in a very long while, growth is on our side. Helping our neighbors is a vital part of that growth.

Help us help our neighbor.

There is still much work to be done. Help us to do the work we have to do to keep growing and prospering. We need your support. As is quoted in scripture, “There are more seasons to come and more work to do.”

Inez Ribustello

Inez Ribustello is a proud graduate of Tarboro High School. She and her husband Stephen own a restaurant, wine bar, and retail store called On the Square in downtown Tarboro. Most recently, she has helped open Tarboro Brewing Company, a microbrewery two blocks away from the restaurant. When she’s not selling beer, she’s trying very hard to be a good mother to her two wonderful children, Cynthia & Stephen, both students at Martin Millenium Academy.