Del­uged by Hur­ri­cane Matthew, ru­ral town waits for Florence

The Trentonian (Trenton, NJ) - - NEWS - By Claire Galo­faro

LUM­BER­TON, N.C. » She takes a break from haul­ing rugs and fam­ily heir­looms into the at­tic to look out the front door and watch it rain and rain and rain some more.

Ni­c­hole Wor­ley stud­ies the boarded-up house across the street and the creek just be­hind it that made it that way. It jumped its banks two years ago dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Matthew, which drowned her neigh­bor­hood, one of the poor­est com­mu­ni­ties in one of the poor­est coun­ties in North Carolina.

Half of her neigh­bors never came back. Now she’s watch­ing the rain pound down again, ter­ri­fied the other half may flee and also not re­turn.

“I can’t go through this again,” she says, won­der­ing what Lum­ber­ton and its 21,000 souls did to de­serve all of this and how much more one town can take.

As Hur­ri­cane Florence roars across the Carolina coast, her town 70 miles from the sea is once again among those wor­ry­ing state au­thor­i­ties most.

Fore­cast­ers warn rain will pour on them for days and the Lum­ber River will con­tinue to rise and likely spill out again. The flood could be as bad as the one two years ago that in­un­dated en­tire neigh­bor­hoods. Peo­ple were res­cued from rooftops. Wor­ley’s house, and most of those around her, took in water up to the eaves.

“I don’t think we can stand an­other one,” she says.

Lum­ber­ton, once the back­bone of Amer­ica’s tex­tile man­u­fac­tur­ing econ­omy, has long been bat­tered by a drum­beat of bad news. First it was the with­er­ing of the blue-col­lar econ­omy. The largest em­ployer here, a Con­verse shoe plant that

em­ployed 3,000, shut­tered. Other fac­to­ries and mills closed, too. Unem­ploy­ment rates shot up, and now 70 per­cent of the county’s chil­dren live in poverty.

Then came Hur­ri­cane Matthew.

“If you would have told me three years ago that there would be a bib­li­cal flood in Lum­ber­ton, I wouldn’t have be­lieved you,” says Donnie Dou­glas, the editor of the lo­cal news­pa­per, the Robeso­nian. “I guess we need to build an ark.”

His news­pa­per on Fri­day re­ported the Lum­ber River was ex­pected to rise to 24 feet by Sun­day, far above its flood level and on par with what it reached dur­ing Matthew.

“The county col­lec­tively is trau­ma­tized by what hap­pened,” Dou­glas says. “And what might be hap­pen­ing again.”

Alexis Hag­gins ini­tially thought she’d stay put in the

apart­ment she shares with two friends in a low-ly­ing area dev­as­tated in 2016. The ele­men­tary school around the cor­ner was deemed a to­tal loss and many of the houses re­main boarded up. But then she couldn’t stop re­liv­ing that ter­ri­ble day when Matthew’s floods came.

She was driv­ing when all of a sud­den the water was up to her win­dows and the car started drift­ing. Hag­gins jumped out and took off on foot. She was beaten by fall­ing limbs and pelt­ing rain. The mud sucked off her shoes, so she walked for miles bare­foot un­til her soles were so bruised she could barely stand for days.

On Fri­day, she imag­ined her­self again up to her waist in water, fear­ing cer­tain death. She and her two room­mates started fran­ti­cally pack­ing for a last-minute evac­u­a­tion to Char­lotte. “If I would have to walk out

of this house and into a flood, I would prob­a­bly just drop to my knees and start cry­ing,” she says. “I can’t do it again. I can’t.”

In most dis­as­ters, the poor suf­fer dis­pro­por­tion­ately, and it is no dif­fer­ent here. The neigh­bor­hoods strug­gling to re­build af­ter Matthew are the same neigh­bor­hoods most at risk to flood again. Hag­gins was barely get­ting by back then, crash­ing with friends. Af­ter the water re­ceded, she tried to go col­lect the lit­tle she owned from her friends’ houses, but they’d all flooded and ev­ery­thing she had in the world was gone.

“I had to start from the bot­tom again,” Hag­gins says. “And I was al­ready on the bot­tom, so I’m lower than the bot­tom.”

Nearby, Ni­c­hole Wor­ley de­cides at what point she’d be will­ing to leave: not un­til the flood reaches the bolts on the wheels of her car in the drive­way.

She’s watch­ing the rain, and it re­minds her of the day two years ago when she fi­nally fled. Her mother had con­ges­tive heart fail­ure and was on dial­y­sis; she was pant­ing and chok­ing. The power had been out for days. They re­al­ized they couldn’t wait any longer, so Wor­ley and her hus­band put her mother in the car and tried to make it through the flood.

She put her arm out the win­dow and could feel the water around them. They some­how made it across a crum­bling bridge to get to the hospi­tal, and just in time. The doc­tors said her mother could have died in min­utes.

“God must have been on our side,” she says.

They even­tu­ally re­turned to an un­liv­able house. Her hus­band bor­rowed against his 401(k) to re­build and re­place what they’d lost. Her mother died months later, and now her house is crammed with her mother’s things, which she can’t bear the thought of los­ing. So her nieces and neph­ews, wait­ing out Florence in her house, help her carry each piece one-by-one to the at­tic, just in case the water reaches the wheels and they have to go.


Ni­c­hole Wor­ley looks out from her home in Lum­ber­ton, N.C., Fri­day as rains from Hur­ri­cane Florence threaten the neigh­bor­hood with flood­ing. Two years ago, Wor­ley’s house, and most of the houses around her, took in water up to its eaves dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Matthew. “I don’t think we can stand an­other one,” she says. “I can’t do this again.”


Ben­nie Todd shows how high the Lum­ber River rose dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Matthew two years in his back­yard in Lum­ber­ton, N.C., Fri­day.


In this file photo, homes and busi­nesses are sur­rounded by flood­wa­ters from Hur­ri­cane Matthew in Lum­ber­ton, N.C.

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