Del­uged by Matthew, ru­ral town en­dures Florence

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - AFTERMATH OF FLORENCE - 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 house across the street, aban­doned and boarded up, and the creek just be­hind it that made it that way. It jumped its banks dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Matthew two years ago, 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 lit­tle 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 that cuts through the mid­dle of the city 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 and ma­jor high­ways. 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. “I can’t do this again.”

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 that plunged many ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties like this one into poverty. 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. He took dough­nuts to a staff meet­ing a few days ago, telling em­ploy­ees he only brings treats for a on­cein-a-life­time flood. Now he’s brought dough­nuts twice in two years. “I guess we need to build an ark.”

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

“Peo­ple are tired,” Dou­glas says. “I’m tired. Our com­mu­nity has got­ten swat­ted around.”

He points to hope­ful signs that this storm might not be as dev­as­tat­ing: The river is lower than when the rains came in 2016, so there’s op­ti­mism it could stay in its banks. Emer­gency shel­ters filled up fast, an in­di­ca­tion that peo­ple might be tak­ing this storm more se­ri­ously. Na­tional Guard and city em­ploy­ees stacked 5,000 sand­bags un­der an in­ter­state over­pass Fri­day af­ter­noon, near where flood­wa­ters swept into the city in 2016; or­di­nary civil­ians braved the rain and wind and fall­ing trees to help.

But even if the city avoids an­other catas­tro­phe, the threat of it and the days of wait­ing are caus­ing res­i­dents to re­live the night­mare, Dou­glas says. Lum­ber­ton is in the Bi­ble Belt, where many be­lieve that God will de­liver them only as much as they can han­dle, and Dou­glas is cer­tain a sec­ond calamity might test that faith for many.

“The county col­lec­tively is trau­ma­tized by what hap­pened,” he 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, shut­tered and now sits aban­doned. Many of the houses re­main va­cant and 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. Power lines fell around her, and she was sure she would be elec­tro­cuted. 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 felt panic bub­bling up. She imag­ined her­self again up to her waist in wa­ter, fear­ing cer­tain death. “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. I would just give up.”

So she and her two room­mates, Da-Rosh Wim­bush and She­wanna Lewis, started fran­ti­cally pack­ing for a last-minute evac­u­a­tion to Char­lotte. Lewis, a mother of two tod­dlers, also lost ev­ery­thing in Matthew. They all moved in to­gether to try to re­build their lives.

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.”

“It was dev­as­tat­ing,” Lewis agrees. “I can’t af­ford to lose any­thing else.”

The women pack the few pos­ses­sions that fit in the car, stack­ing ev­ery­thing else on top of bunkbeds and coun­ter­tops, and head for Char­lotte — pray­ing for the best.

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.

Wor­ley and her hus­band have talked for years about leav­ing Lum­ber­ton. They al­most didn’t come back af­ter Hur­ri­cane Matthew. So many of her neigh­bors stayed gone, their homes boarded up, that this neigh­bor­hood she’s known all her life felt sud­denly for­eign and un­fa­mil­iar.

She wor­ries if it floods again, it might just dis­ap­pear.

So she stood at the door, watch­ing for the wa­ter to come.

“The less I see,” she says, “the hap­pier I am.”

DAVID GOLD­MAN PHO­TOS / AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Hur­ri­cane Florence’s rains pour on va­cant homes in a neigh­bor­hood in Lum­ber­ton, N.C., on Fri­day. Hur­ri­cane Matthew’s rain­fall two years ago dev­as­tated neigh­bor­hoods in the town, which is in one of the state’s poor­est coun­ties.

She­wanna Lewis (left) sits in her home with son, Na­ture, 2, and room­mate Da-Rosh Wim­bush in Lum­ber­ton, N.C.

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