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Grifton, NC: Where Shad And Help Are Plentiful

Many communities in Eastern North Carolina are still struggling from Hurricane Florence, but not all of them are dealing with the same problems.

In late September, two weeks after Hurricane Florence came ashore, I drove to a small town in Eastern North Carolina, hopped into a pickup truck, and got a first-hand look at what the storm had done.

The town is Grifton, which sits about halfway between Kinston and Greenville on the banks of Contentnea Creek — which was — at that time, still eight feet higher than normal.

Some shad that are not for public consumption.
Credit Geoff Wood / Our State magazine
Some shad that are not for public consumption.

The creek is famous around here because of the shad. Every year, the fish come in from the Atlantic Ocean, through the Pamlico Sound, up the Neuse River, and into the creek. When they get to Grifton, they stop. And spawn. It’s such a big deal that every April this town plays host to the Grifton Shad Festival. There’s a parade, live music, a car show, and plenty of fish stew.

Two of the guys I met at that festival, Tommy Sugg and Claude Kennedy, show me around town. There’s a lot of standing water, a campground got washed out, there are a lot of vultures here eating the fish that got left behind, there are a lot of bugs. The mosquitoes stand out.

“The ones I've seen are big,” Sugg says.

But overall, things don’t seem that bad. Part of the reason is that unlike places like Wilmington and New Bern, Grifton did not take a direct hit from Hurricane Florence. But the other reason is that Grifton did take a direct hit from Hurricane Floyd in 1999, and Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Meaning, a lot of homes that flooded in those storms were already gone when Florence hit.

“When we came up water street all those vacant lots used to have houses on them,” Kennedy says.

And that means the effects here are harder to see.

The rain took out a transformer, which meant the power was out in Grifton for five days. The grocery store was closed. People lost a lot of food — some lost water. And they went looking for help. Which, leads us here.

A shad throwing contest takes place in Grifton in April.
Credit Geoff Wood / Our State magazine
A shad throwing contest takes place in Grifton in April.

We pull into this old factory that used to produce boat trailers. There are a bunch of cars pulling up, people walking in and out. And the guys take me into a back room.

The room is full of diapers, razors, and other toiletries.

Next to that, there’s a kitchen. It’s lunchtime. People are here because they’re hungry.

This is Grifton Mission Ministries, and the guy running it – the guy who always seems to have his phone ringing – is Billy Tarleton.

“Well early on, they really don't know what they need. You just know that they're hungry and they need water. So that's the immediate need and that's where we're kind of starting a trend now and hygiene products and cleaning supplies.”

In 1999, a bunch of Baptist missionaries used this same space to help feed people after Hurricane Floyd. After a few months, they all left. All, except for Billy.

"I came in here to work Floyd with the Baptist Men in ’99 as a volunteer. I'm from Charlotte. General contractor by trade. But I shut my business down and come down here and started this."

After Floyd, everybody eventually went home. Billy made Grifton his home. And for almost 20 years now, he’s been here. In good weather and bad. Anybody can come into Billy’s place, anytime, and get a free meal. Or food to take home. Or water. Or whatever else might help them get on their feet.

“A flood is one of the worst things you can work. A fire, everything’s gone. A hurricane, it's all blown away. Flood, it’s there, but can you use or can you not?"

It doesn’t matter that Grifton wasn’t the hardest hit place. It doesn’t matter if the need might be greater somewhere else. Here, you don’t need to prove that you need help. You just need to ask for it.

This story was adapted from “Away Message,” a podcast about North Carolina’s hard to find people, places and things. You can listen to other stories from Hurricane Florence in the latest episode, which you can find on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.