FRANKLIN, Va. (WAVY) — Two old friends met in Downtown Franklin, 20 years after they took a little ride in a boat.
“How do we look? Pretty good for being rode hard and put up wet,” says former Franklin Mayor Jim Councill.
20 years ago then Mayor Jim Councill took us on a boat ride that left all on board stunned. Standing in the front of the boat like General George Washington crossing the Delaware, Councill gave non-stop play-by-play as we toured flooded Franklin.
“This is our telephone company, GTE. We have lost all telephone communication throughout the city, as well as cellular and wireless,” Councill said. “Yesterday afternoon this time, this street was dry. We drove on this street yesterday,” Councill continued.
Hurricane Floyd paid a nasty visit to Franklin, flooding up to 12 feet. “This is Main Street Franklin right here,” Councill said. We took his word for it because we couldn’t confirm that. We couldn’t see road or signs.
September 1999 was a dark time for Franklin. “It’s terrible. It is the worst disaster I have ever seen here. I have seen nothing like it,” Councill said back then.
In the face of the worst disaster ever for Franklin, Councill summoned leadership and confidence and he became a war-time mayor. “I needed to be the cheerleader. I needed to give people hope. I needed to give them a vision that we could get over this and come back,” he told us last week standing near Main Street.
Councill was the front man for recovery, but quickly credits everyone else as the river water rose.
“We probably wallowed in a little self-pity for a while,” says current Mayor Frank Rabil, who says the self-pity turned to action. “We’ve got new businesses that have come in. We have start up programs that have encouraged new growth, young entrepreneurs coming into town.”
20 years later, Franklin is not quite where it was before Floyd. There were 182 businesses in Downtown Franklin before Floyd, and 17 fewer today.
“This is ground zero,” say Rabil as he walked across the bridge that crosses a tame looking Blackwater River.
Franklin flooded because the Blackwater River flooded a mile and half outside her banks.
A train trestle bridge today was covered in water 20 years ago. The Pavilion at Barretts Landing today was covered in water from the Blackwater River, which was 22 feet above the banks. Following Floyd they put water gauges along the Blackwater, including one on the bridge into Downtown Franklin.
Countless cars were left on streets totaled.
Everyone who was there has a Floyd story to tell.
“On the morning of September 16, the water was basically at the top of these windows which would be nine feet and it was the start of a hell-like week,” said businessman Vic Story.
Resident Darnel Wright was in the Be-Lo supermarket that never re-opened. “We were in there and all of a sudden we heard, ‘Emergency, get out. Water, water, water,’ and water was going from everywhere.”
Franklin’s long-time meeting place Fred’s Restaurant had to be gutted after flooding waters topped where dining lights are on the wall.
Beloved owner Fred Rabil died in 2015. His son is the mayor and his other son David runs the place now.
“We went down for 8 months, David Rabil said. “The biggest challenge was to find people to do the work, because so many people in town needed people to fix houses.”
Fred’s brother, Mitch, is now 100 years and old couldn’t even get back to Franklin due to flooding in North Carolina, which was the same problem the WAVY crew had before finding the flooded streets of Franklin and reporting first from the disaster area. “I was really surprised to see how high the water was 5 feet high all over downtown … I couldn’t get home. I was stuck in Goldsboro.”
That was a problem. Flooding closed a 100-mile segment of Interstate 95 in northeastern North Carolina into a portion of Virginia. Three sections of Interstate 40 between Wilmington and Benson were also flooded and closed. Both interstate routes are critical to quick travel through eastern North Carolina.
The WAVY crew couldn’t get home on September 16 after chasing the storm from Charleston to Myrtle Beach to Wilmington. As we followed the storm up 95, we were diverted at Rocky Mount and headed to Roanoke Rapids to spend the night. In the morning on September 17 we headed home on 58, and found our way to Franklin. We were the first crew to report live from flood-ravaged Franklin, and the first to tour the Downtown Franklin area with then Mayor Council.
Mayor Rabil says, “It was a war-zone.” He read from one of several markers around town noting the level of the flooding waters, “On this day Hurricane Floyd caused the Blackwater to rise to this mark.”
Mayor Rabil exudes Franklin pride: “The spirit of the community is really uplifting kind of thing. We have been through adversity, and we have resiliency and I think things are really looking good for Franklin now.”
As we go back 20 years on video, then Mayor Councill knew tough times were ahead, “The disaster for all the merchants and the property damage.”
20 years looking back, “It killed our community for a long time, 6 months a year, before we had people downtown again,” Councill said.
But in the despair rose a new Franklin, a phoenix of sorts out of the flooding waters.
“We learned we had grit and determination. We have hope, and we had a vision. We came back and we beat this thing. Are we as good as we were then? No, I don’t think so, but I think we are still suffering from the lingering affects of Floyd.”
An etched statement on a granite marker overlooking the Blackwater River at the Downtown Pavilion reads: “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters, compared to what lies within us.”
20 years later what lies within the people of Franklin? Everything that is good and decent and forward thinking.
Read part one of 10 On Your Side’s look-back at Hurricane Floyd here.