Politics & Government

Lumberton residents go to court, saying CSX railroad ignored flooding risks

Floodwaters continue to rise in Lumberton on Sept. 16

Flood waters continue to rise in Lumberton Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018 in the wake Hurricane Florence.
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Flood waters continue to rise in Lumberton Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018 in the wake Hurricane Florence.

Lumberton residents whose properties were damaged by flooding in Hurricane Florence want to sue the railroad giant CSX, and asked a federal judge Tuesday to let them file a class action lawsuit.

They say CSX had been aware of major flooding risks at one spot on its route through Lumberton for years, didn’t do anything to prevent flooding at the site, and also stopped locals from taking action of their own to protect the town.

“As of the time of this filing, much of Lumberton remains underwater,” the Lumberton residents wrote Tuesday in their complaint, adding that “because CSX’s conduct endangered the health and safety of a large region and population, caused and increased the risk of serious injury and bodily harm, and affected a financially vulnerable population, the degree of reprehensibility of CSX’s conduct is at the highest level.”

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If they succeed in getting their class certified by the federal judge, that would kick off a class action lawsuit open to anyone who owns property in Lumberton that was damaged during Florence. That could include anything from real estate to a car. It would also include any local business with a claim that it lost income due to flooding from the CSX site.

The residents claimed Tuesday in court that that nearly all of the Hurricane Florence flooding in town could’ve been prevented — saving nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in damages to the town and its residents — if only CSX had taken action.

Matt Lee is a Raleigh attorney for the Whitfield, Bryson and Mason law firm that’s filing the complaint. He said Lumberton has “a levee system that was designed to prevent this kind of flooding and the one open spot was where CSX had train tracks running underneath I-95. CSX knew about that, and they didn’t do it. They wouldn’t even have had to pay for it.”

State government and the nonprofit Golden LEAF Foundation had offered to spend $3.5 million on flood protection in Lumberton, according to the lawsuit.

A floodgate system could have prevented much of the damage, but Golden LEAF said construction isn’t scheduled to start until next year, The News & Observer previously reported. Republican state Rep. Danny Earl Britt, who represents the area, blamed CSX railroad leaders for delays in the project.

Britt said then that CSX “has not been a good community partner,” and that it never sent any representatives to a recent local meeting about flooding preparation.

CSX previously told The N&O that it was planning prior to the storm to begin conversations with Lumberton leaders in October.

The lawsuit also accuses the company of attempting to stop locals from doing anything on their own to fix problems at the site, like placing sandbags before the storm.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has the power to override CSX, and a few days before Florence hit he issued an emergency order allowing locals to pile sandbags at the site, even though CSX had previously threatened to pursue trespassing charges against anyone doing that, the lawsuit says.

A group of volunteers including Britt then brought sandbags out to the site. But it wasn’t enough. Cooper’s emergency order came Friday, Sept. 14, but by the following Sunday afternoon the sandbags had been overcome, and floodwaters poured into town.

“If we had the floodgate, we wouldn’t have had any damage in west Lumberton,” Britt told the News & Observer.

“There’s a common-sense solution out there, and why CSX didn’t choose it is anyone’s guess,” Lee said in an interview Tuesday. “But they should be responsible for it.”

A CSX representative said Tuesday the company does not comment on pending litigation, but did want to note that “Hurricane Florence was an extraordinary storm that brought record flooding and left many communities throughout the region devastated including Lumberton.”

And last week, following Britt’s criticisms, that same company spokeswoman, Katie Chimelewski, spoke with the N&O and defended the decision to stop people bringing in sandbags before the storm hit. She said CSX feared sandbags would block the rail lines and stop disaster relief supplies from being delivered.

“We kept our line open to do that and then proceeded to make sure they had safe access to start the sandbagging operation after that,” she told The N&O.

However, the company could now face a class action lawsuit, if the homeowners who filed their complaint Tuesday are allowed to proceed. They’re hoping to force the company to compensate them for their damages as well as pay them additional punitive damages and attorneys’ fees.

Anyone with questions for the law firm or who wants to join the legal fight can call 855-926-2889 or email info@wbmllp.com.

Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran

Lenora Alford was the last to evacuate from Bakersfield apartments in Lumberton, and when the van came to get her in her wheelchair, she didn’t really want to go.

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