Mary Wood Wallace can't wait to live a little bit of the high life.
The 80-year-old widow hasn't been home since Hurricane Bonnie inundated this eastern North Carolina town of 2,500 last month.Before that, there were Hurricanes Bertha and Fran. Even Hurricane Josephine, which didn't come ashore, kicked up enough wind to flood the town perched just a few feet above the Pungo River off the Pamlico Sound.
But when a $9 million government project to elevate homes is finished, Wallace and 390 neighbors will be living some six feet higher - and hopefully much drier.
Federal money is being spent to move residents to higher ground in other towns; more than 300 properties in Kinston have been approved for demolition so residents can move out.
The trouble is, Belhaven doesn't have any higher ground.
"The whole town is in the flood plain," said Nat van Nortwick, the town's building inspector. "We'd like to see everybody out of harm's way."
That means jacking up structures in a 2 1/2-year project that Richard Moore, North Carolina's secretary of Crime Control and Public Safety, calls one of the largest ever undertaken by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Four houses are being raised now, but the mayor, Dr. Charles Boyette, said the program will be accelerated.
People whose homes are the most flood-prone will be raised first, along with hardship cases. When the job is done, 45 percent of the town's homes will be high enough for most floodwaters to pass harmlessly underneath.
"I've never been here when the floodwaters were rising. I've always left," said Wallace, whose home now is on a pile of steel beams.
It's hard to find a place here that hasn't been washed out.
Flooding from Bertha was so bad that officials closed an elementary and middle school, which will be rebuilt with federal money outside of town.
Belhaven's waterlogged history can be read by the water marks of previous storms penciled on the walls of stores. There are heaps of soaked carpet, padding and air conditioning ducts littering residential streets.
Elaine Hudnell keeps hip waders as part of her wardrobe and photo albums of the many hurricanes to swamp the town 130 miles east of Raleigh.
"The dog was out swimming in the yard," Hudnell said of Bonnie's flooding. "We had 27 inches in the front yard and waded out to get stuff as it floated by."
At the Senior Center on Main Street, exercise equipment, furniture and office supplies were stowed high on shelves or on the second floor to avoid the nearly 3 feet of water brought by Bonnie.
Vicki Paul, the center's coordinator, said that's where everything will stay until hurricane season ends in November.
"In Fran, we lost everything," Paul said. "I feel like I've done nothing but clean up."