After years of things leaving Robeson County – manufacturing plants, jobs, payrolls, people – something finally came in, and what was it but more misery?
“We went to bed Sunday night thinking the worst had been done,” said John Cantey Jr., a lifelong resident and a member of the Lumberton City Council. He was talking about Hurricane Matthew, which came further inland on Oct. 8 than most weather forecasts predicted, and stayed longer, dropping twice as much rain as expected.
“Then we woke up Monday morning, there was water all in the streets and water coming in the house.
“I grabbed what I could. I told my dog, if it gets bad, you get up on the bed. I left some food and water and then I had to run start knocking on doors around the community, saying, ‘Get out! Get out! Get out!’
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“I was the last one out of the neighborhood. They had to come get me with a boat.”
That’s the way it is in Robeson County: some things, some people, leave. Others hang stubbornly on. Hurricane Matthew is likely to force some people to decide which they’re going to do.
The storm, an enormous Category 4 hurricane when it slammed into Haiti, lost a little of its force by the time it reached North Carolina. It did what it could along the coast: kicked up a tidal surge that chewed up piers and bulkheads; flooded low-lying areas; took down trees and knocked out power.
But it did its worst damage inland, causing flash floods in areas that had not had significant recent rains, more severe flooding in places that had had higher-than-average rainfall in the week or two before it hit, and the worst flooding as a delayed effect in places that lie along major rivers and the macrame of small streams that look like tiny blue blood vessels on maps of Eastern North Carolina. As they filled with water draining from the landscapes upstream through the week after the storm passed, little creeks turned into rivers and rivers went Amazon.
Of those riverside communities, Lumberton and surrounding Robeson County have been the biggest disaster.
The Lumber River, a 133-mile blackwater beauty that attracts kayakers, canoers and bass fishermen who ply its waters all the way to where it merges with the Pee Dee in South Carolina, has had major floods before, most likely also associated with hurricanes, said Rick Neuherz, a National Weather Service hydrologist in Wilmington. Those may have been the result of excessive rain locally or elsewhere within the 10 counties that make up the Lumber River basin.
And there were smaller floods periodically with intense rain events until about 1976, when the county was divided into “drainage districts,” around several distinct sources of water. Within each one, property owners were taxed to pay for the construction of flood-control devices such as canals and ditches.
Water had to go somewhere
In the Jacob Swamp district, which ran through Lumberton, engineers came up with a 2.8-mile dike system, which is mostly an earthen berm on the west bank of the Lumber River, and about 18 miles of canals. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manages it, and the City of Lumberton maintains it.
Where Interstate 95 comes into Lumberton, Neuherz said, the dike merges with the built-up base of the highway. From there, the dike continues unbroken until it reaches an opening that was left for a set of railroad tracks to come through.
Ordinarily, residents say, the dike holds the river within its banks, protecting the low-lying neighborhoods that spread out beyond it.
But on Sept. 28, a series of freak storms occurred in three counties that lie in the Lumber River basin. Cumberland, Moore and Hoke counties were hammered with up to 10 inches of rain that fell overnight. The storms happened in Harnett County as well, but rain that falls in Harnett County drains into the Cape Fear River basin. At the time, a meteorologist said it was tropical-storm rain, without the tropical storm. Cumberland County had serious flooding as a result.
National Weather Service charts show that in the days after the Sept. 28 storms, the Lumber River rose more than 6 feet, to at least 2.5 feet above flood stage. By Oct. 8, as Hurricane Matthew arrived, the river was only down to flood stage, 13 feet.
According to the Weather Service, Lumberton got 10 inches of rain as Hurricane Matthew moved in and sat down, taking its time about turning back to the east and heading out to sea. Some areas within the Lumber River basin received more than 14 inches of rain. Forecasts had called for 5 to 8 inches.
On Oct. 10, three days after Matthew’s landfall, the Lumber River at downtown Lumberton peaked somewhere around 22 feet, 9 feet above flood stage.
“All that water got to go somewhere,” said James Robinson, who grew up just outside of downtown Lumberton and came down to get a look at the old neighborhood under 4 feet of water.
It seemed to go everywhere. It went across the roads and highways, including I-95, first stranding motorists who drove into it, and then forcing the closure of the interstate and the circuitous detour of cars and tractor-trailers over miles of two-lane roads never meant to carry such heavy traffic. It covered up an electrical substation. It overtook the City of Lumberton’s water treatment plant, leaving its nearly 22,600 people with no running water. They’ll be lucky to have it by Halloween; the plant may not be repaired and running again by Thanksgiving.
It went up canals and into drainage ditches. It climbed up the dike in downtown Lumberton and backed up behind it, spreading out until it found the opening for the railroad tracks. When it got there, it took off across the west side of Lumberton, rising several feet in just a few hours.
Four of the city’s public housing developments were flooded, along with two of its Section 8 rent-assisted apartments, about 545 units total, housing about 1,470 people.
That’s nearly 7 percent of Lumberton’s population, which is one of the state’s most diverse: 40 percent white, 37 percent black and 13 percent Native American, mostly Lumbee Indian.
Before the hurricane, Robeson County already was consistently one of North Carolina’s poorest, with a per capita income of $15,321 and a third of its population in poverty.
Residents are struggling and will be for quite some time. Many left their homes as the water rose, taking with them next to nothing. In downtown Lumberton, they haven’t been able to return to fetch clothes or even find out what is salvageable, because the water is now trapped on the wrong side of the dike and not able to drain quickly back into the river.
The flooding closed businesses so those people lucky enough to have jobs in a county where unemployment sits at 7.2 percent are losing wages.
With the power out for days, folks have lost the food in their freezers and refrigerators, and many had little in their pantries.
More than a dozen distribution centers set up around the county to hand out donated bottles of water, canned food, used bedding, blue jeans, battered tennis shoes. But many families have lost their cars, or don’t have gas to drive around to pick up the free supplies, and no cash with which to buy any at the handful of stations that are open.
While relief supplies began pouring into the county by Tuesday, there was no distribution center in his town, Red Springs, so Brian Freeman, an assistant principal at an elementary school in Cumberland County and a member of the Robeson County Board of Education, went on Facebook and appealed for help. His first plea was for bedding for people who were hurried into shelters, after meeting a woman in one shelter who told him, “I need a pillow to rest my head because I’ve lost my home.”
With the help of other residents, Freeman later set up a distribution point in a small park in town, with nonperishable foods, bottled water and used clothing spread out on the ground. Thursday afternoon, sisters-in-law Jacquelyn and Joanne Sanderson and some of their co-workers at J & J Builders took a company trailer to PowerPoint Church on the north side of Lumberton, which has been distributing food brought by Convoy of Hope, a Missouri-based nonprofit disaster relief agency. They filled it with about a ton of canned spaghetti and meatballs, Twinkies and cases of water, and they hauled it over to Red Springs for Freeman’s group to give away.
“Have you had anything to eat today?” Freeman asked a little boy who played on a merry-go-round while his mother looked through the supplies. The boy shook his head. It was 3 in the afternoon. Freeman fetched him a honey bun.
John Cantey, the Lumberton city councilman, wonders what will happen to people in Robeson County who don’t have the reserves – material or emotional – to rebuild from such a disaster. On Friday, looters started breaking into people’s still-flooded homes. Residents were anxious and discouraged.
“It’s either going to be one of two things,” he said: surrender to a sad history and bad luck, or see this as “a pathway to a brighter day, if we rebuild everything. We’re going to have to do something to bring people back, to make them want to come back.
“This is one of those things where we’re just going to have to work to make it work.”
How to help
The Lumbee Tribe’s Hurricane Response Headquarters is at the Pembroke Boys and Girls Club at 120 Youth Drive, Pembroke. Nonperishable donations including bottled water are being accepted. To inquire about volunteering, contact Tribal Security at 910-374-9880. To donate, go www.lumbeetribe.com/.
To donate to the City of Lumberton’s relief efforts, go to www.ci.lumberton.nc.us/.