Special report: On the road to recovery

Published 9:56 am Saturday, September 19, 2009

Editor’s note: This is the last in a three-part series commemorating 10 years since Hurricane Floyd and the flooding that ravaged Franklin.

Just days after the beginning of the new school year, and only 10 weeks from the holiday season, downtown Franklin was in shambles and at a crossroads.

Every building in the historic downtown had taken on water from the flood. Some never survived the disaster and had to be torn down.

Businesses were suddenly fighting for their survival, or at least weighing their options. Some spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to rebuild. Others simply closed their doors and faded away.

For the days and weeks after the flood, the town’s citizens saw how much damage the storm had caused. The mountains of contaminated trash were hauled away, but empty buildings and a collective empty feeling among the people were left behind.

There was a sense of unease that the city’s tranquil neighbor, the Blackwater River, could roar out of its banks again at any moment.

Franklin was, for all intents and purposes, on the mat.

It was time to stand back up.


City officials and residents wasted no time starting the recovery process. Once the initial shock and disbelief wore off, the city had to keep operating and providing services to its citizens.

“We went back to our normal duties in the rest of town,” said Russ Pace, the current director of public works. “Within a day or so, the majority of folks were back to work. It’s hard to imagine, but when things like that happen you have to do what you have to do.”

Shortly after the flood, Federal Emergency Management Agency officials sent Franklin Mayor Jim Councill and other city officials to Montezuma, Ga. The city of about 4,000 had experienced similar devastation during a 1994 flood, but was on the road to recovery.

“They were invaluable,” Councill said. “They motivated us. We picked up all kinds of ideas.” He added that Franklin was able to accomplish what Montezuma had much faster.

Councill said that state and federal government aid and funding a played a big role in downtown’s ability to bounce back.

“People realized that there was a need for bigger government, beyond the city,” he said. He also noted that the type of support the city received then would likely not be possible now, given the current economic situation.

“We need to be watchful and prepare,” he said.

Wallace Twigg, a regional coordinator for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management said, “You can’t go through something like this without learning.”

“It makes you think about alternate locations for critical services,” he said.

Those lessons were used sooner that anyone wanted. In October 2006, a Nor’easter dumped several inches of rain on the region within a matter of hours, and the Blackwater River once again overflowed her banks into downtown Franklin.

However, this time officials predicted the flood and were prepared.

“Everyone on Main Street in the downtown area in the 2006 event was pre-warned,” said Franklin Fire & Rescue Deputy Chief Mark Carr. “They had about 36 hours of pre-warning. And all of this was from lessons that we learned from Floyd.”

Southampton County Administrator Michael Johnson said he is confident the county has mitigated its flood risk in the future by buying and clearing 42 properties that flooded in 1999.

“That’s 42 properties that were affected by Floyd that won’t be affected again,” Johnson said.


Robert Mackan, chairman of the board for Mackans Office Supply & Printing, said his family business has recovered but has also gone through some changes since the flood.

“When we came back, we found that we had lost some of our customers,” Mackan said. “But not all of them. Some of our customers just found somebody else and they had been dealing with them for a few months and felt obligated to stay with them.”

Mackan said at the time of the flood, he was planning to retire with his wife, Margaret, and hand the business, then called Franklin Office Supply Inc., over to daughters Mary Morris and Susan Jones. He also had to take out a $500,000 loan with the Small Business Adminstration to bring his business back.

“It’s something that is on your back,” Mackan said. “You just don’t get rid of a half of a million dollars that quick. It takes some doing to get that done. Fortunately we can meet the payments and make a profit after that. I’m comfortable with what we are doing and where we are going.”

Mackan said before the flood, printing was just a side business for the company. Today, printing represents between a third and a quarter of their business. The company is also looking to grow their online business. He said the company just received an order from Wyoming.

“We have been very surprised at the support we have had from the community and from the local areas,” Mackan said. “With the Internet, we are looking for customers all over.”

David Rabil, owner of Fred’s Restaurant, said the decision to come back was an easy one. It was made by his father, the restaurant’s namesake.

“Pops said we have to go back in there,” Rabil smiled. “He’s such a rock. This has been his life for 64 years. And it’s not only his life, it’s my whole family’s life. And it’s the life of a lot of people that have been coming in here since he’s been here too.”

Rabil said that as the downtown worked to recover from the flood, Armory Drive was poised to welcome some of the businesses that would not return.

“It would have been nice if we could have gotten everybody back down here, but I understand why some people decided not to come back,” Rabil said. “They’re doing well wherever they are. And some of them just decided to retire because they were at that age and they didn’t need to be back in business.”

Rabil points to pictures on the wall of the Stonewall Hotel and Raiford Hospital, two buildings that used to be downtown.

“Not too many downtowns are the way they used to be,” Rabil said. “That’s a sign of the times. (But) I think it was an amazing effort on behalf of the city. They did some good things to try and get people to come back down here.”

Councill said the downtown’s recovery has less to do with buildings and more to do with the people that helped rebuild it.

“It’s the people that make the city,” Councill said. “And the character of a town is it’s downtown. Where else do you have a parade?”


Blackwater-Nottoway Riverkeeper Jeff Turner said flooding would very likely threaten the area again.

“A lot of people want to blame the river,” Turner said. “But the river is just a river. It doesn’t have a conscience. Human beings caused the flood.”

Turner said the Blackwater River at Franklin is a bottleneck, and until something is done to correct the problem the city will flood again.

“I don’t think anything has been done to abate a flood,” Turner said. “It will happen again, it’s just a question of when.”

Keith Lynch, a senior service hydrologist at the National Weather Service in Wakefield said there are a number of theories that try to explain why the river flooded, but admitted “there’s nothing concrete.”

Lynch said that the upcoming study of the entire Chowan River Basin would look at issues that caused the flood. The study could find areas of the river need to be dredged.

Mackan said the flood is never too far from his thoughts.

“I’m concerned about flooding again,” Mackan said. “That’s constantly on my mind. Every time it rains I’m still a little nervous. If it rains hard for a day, I’ll go down and look at the river and see how high it is. I’ll look at the drainage ditch the city built behind my building to see how fast that’s filling up.”

The NWS now has a forecast point on the Blackwater River and Carr checks it faithfully.

“It’s not a day, whether it’s bone dry, that I don’t come in here and check that river level,” Carr said.


Sitting in her living room on Broad Street, Fannie Haley shrugs her shoulders when asked why she decided to come back and rebuild after the flood.

“This is my home,” she said.

The home, which was originally built by Habitat for Humanity, was rebuilt by the same organization.

Haley continues to babysit children there.


Volunteers from the city and other areas played a big role in the city’s recovery in the months following the flood. Councill said he is grateful for all of the volunteers and hopes that the city can help others.

“There is an abundance of opportunities to pay it forward,” the mayor said. He added that he has also learned “to be more sensitive to people’s feelings and to have a sense of gratitude for the pride that people have.”

Taylor Williams, who had a private law practice at the time of the flood, said he was also grateful for the assistance.

“I didn’t thank enough people, simply because I didn’t know who to thank,” Williams said. “But I am ever more grateful for all of the help that I got.”

Asked if he thought the flood should somehow be commemorated on its tenth anniversary, Williams unequivocally said yes.

“I think there’s a lot to celebrate,” he said. “We should celebrate the help that we got and that we helped each other.”

A former member of the Downtown Franklin Association, Williams said there were about 170 to 180 businesses in the downtown area before the flood, and the occupancy rate was around 93 percent. Although many buildings were torn down because the flood weakened them and some businesses never returned downtown, Williams said that doesn’t tell the whole story.

“We have come back,” he said. “We don’t have as many businesses because we don’t have as many buildings. But when you look around you see the fresh paint and the rehabilitation that has taken place. The occupancy is not at 93 percent, but I’ll bet it’s around 80 or 85 percent. I think that’s something to celebrate.”