First Hurricane Matthew, then Florence: A town in constant recovery

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Reuters

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The Lumber River has long been treasured, for centuries sustaining Native Americans and the European settlers who sought to build a community in North Carolina. Water from the 133-mile-long river fed fishermen, transported travelers and provided a natural bath for baptisms.

But the river has morphed into an invasive threat. Two years ago, when Hurricane Matthew hit, the Lumber spilled over its banks and into Lumberton’s poorest neighborhoods, carrying away cars and washing out homes. Experts called it a 1,000-year flood. But just 23 months later — on Sept. 14 — Hurricane Florence’s historic rains swelled the river again, further devastating the city.

Zoeann Murphy/ The Washington Post

After Hurricane Michael added to the still-brimming river, Lumberton’s residents remain displaced, desperate, searching for a way to prevent the next 1,000-year flood from shattering them again. A complex set of factors affect the city’s path forward, with poverty exacerbating setbacks. What some see as solutions to the flooding, others see as potentially catastrophic for their homes and land.

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Tension in the church’s backyard

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The Lumber River, Interstate 95 and a set of railroad tracks cross in the backyard of West Lumberton Baptist Church. After both Matthew and Florence, the lower half of the church’s sanctuary was destroyed, and the congregation was displaced.

While Matthew’s devastation was a surprise, the church this time made preparations, stacking 5,000 sandbags and concrete barricades in an attempt to tame the river. But the rising water ultimately overwhelmed it.

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At the church, Matthew is memorialized with water lines and Florence’s presence will be felt for months. The sanctuary remains a construction site, so Pastor Rick Foreman’s parishioners have spent Sundays worshipping at First Baptist. On weekdays, they distribute food, diapers and buckets of cleaning supplies to those in need.

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Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post

Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post

Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post

Most of the church’s parishioners grew up in West Lumberton but left in adulthood. When Matthew hit, nine church families lived in the neighborhood. Now, there’s just one. Matthew forced many people living in the community’s poorest areas to abandon their condemned homes. Those remaining after Florence are anxious they could be next.

The church is advocating for a permanent floodgate under the interstate to protect it and the community from the river.

Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post

Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post

Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post

Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post

Survivors: standing, but struggling

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Among the most vulnerable in West Lumberton are families like the Emanuels. Helen and Junior grew up as neighbors on Hedge Drive. They married 60 years ago and raised children on the same street. Their son, Tony Emanuel, lives in Junior’s childhood home. The family is Lumbee, a Native American tribe concentrated in North Carolina — the original settlers of the area surrounding the Lumber River.

After Hurricane Florence passed, the river rose knee-high around their home, soaking the foundation and putting it at risk for dangerous mold. It took Tony a month to remove wet insulation that had been there since Matthew. Junior is still assessing the damage to his home.

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Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post

Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post

Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post

Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post

Other barriers exist that make recovery more difficult for the Emanuels. Junior cannot read or write. Helen can, but she has dementia. Junior applied for government assistance with outside help, but he doesn’t know what the paperwork said. A painter and mechanic, he plans to start selling off his cars for cash. He has homeowner’s insurance, but he can’t afford flood insurance. Solutions like the church’s proposed floodgate could save the Emanuels from needing it.

But there are others in Lumberton who would be worse off if the floodgate is built.

Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post

Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post

Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post

A family legacy in peril

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On the other side of the interstate, lifetime Lumberton resident John Cox owns 100 acres of land, where a pond and paved lane bear his family name. He grew up there, farming with his parents and siblings. His mother had to sell portions of the land over time to make ends meet, but Cox slowly bought it all back.

He wants to build a fish pond for the churches, renovate a historic stone home on the bank of the Lumber River and create a designated nature preserve. But a permanent floodgate to keep water out of West Lumberton would likely back it onto Cox’s land. The temporary levee constructed during Florence forced the river level to rise nine feet onto his property. It has yet to completely recede.

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Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post

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Cox plans to plant new trees along the pond bank. “I may never live to see them grown, but I’ve got my vision in my head of what I want,” he said. “If they build that floodgate, it will probably destroy that dream. But I won’t go down without a fight. There’s too much history here for the Cox family.”

Across the river, on the north side of town, the water also crept in. For those just getting by, small setbacks from the hurricanes caused great stress.

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Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post

Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post

Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post

Only the strong survive here

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Priscilla McKindley, the matriarch of a multi-generational family of 11, sells leather goods at an outdoor flea market. When Hurricane Matthew flooded the area, she lost her first car and her business inventory. She replaced them. Then Florence came, and McKindley lost it all again.

She has spent the past month preparing for hip replacement surgery and caring for her great grandsons, Trulyn and Trystan, whose schools closed after the flood. McKindley fears the insurance company soon will stop paying for the rental car she got after the storm. She can’t afford to buy a new car yet, she said, and rain from Hurricane Michael disrupted her flea market income.

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Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post

McKindley has both volunteered at her church’s distribution center and benefited from the church’s kindness as a victim of the storm. Residents here know that if they can’t pay their tithes, they pay it forward instead.

It’s in God that many in Lumberton say they have found comfort. They have prayed together, trusting that God will see them through.

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Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post

Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post

Rebuilding from nothing

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Just before Florence hit, Buddy and Joyce Cribb’s pastor called with a request: If their church, East Lumberton Baptist, opened as a shelter for vulnerable parishioners, would they come help look after everyone? The Cribbs agreed, leaving behind their single-wide trailer.

When the rain slowed and it was safe, Buddy navigated washed out roads to check on their home. Florence’s historic flooding spared them, but the hurricane-force winds did not. The roof was gone. Their belongings were drenched. The ceiling had collapsed onto their bed.

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Zoeann Murphy/ The Washington Post; Nick Kirkpatrick / The Washington Post

Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post

Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post

Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post

Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post

Within a week, FEMA helped the Cribbs buy a new trailer. But first the couple needed to tear down the ruined one, which meant long days in humidity and heat sifting through the molding debris.

By mid-October, Buddy reached a critical deadline. The delivery crew would bring his new trailer, haul away the old frame and save them money — but only if Buddy finished the demolition within days. He was alone, overwhelmed and exhausted. Team Rubicon, a veteran volunteer organization that specializes in disaster relief, came to help.

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The Cribbs’ old home was gone by the end of the week — a clean slate to welcome the new one. But much remained unclear about its delivery, and the couple was restless. They had been sleeping on air mattresses in a corner of their church’s fellowship hall for a month, and they had been showering in trailers in the parking lot and eating out for nearly every meal. Privacy had become a luxury.

Joyce spent her days operating a supply distribution operation out of the same room as their makeshift bedroom. Helping others was a distraction from her own losses.

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After a long week of demolition, Buddy and Joyce finally got the call: The delivery man bringing their new trailer was just a few miles away. They drove to the house and watched as their home was nestled into place.

Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post

Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post

The Cribbs still have no furniture, and there is a lot of work left to do. But a fresh start after Florence is finally tangible. Joyce already has a vision for her new home: where she’ll put the kitchen table and how nice it will be to shower in their roomy bathroom.

When it came time to return to the church, Buddy glanced at the trailer and grinned. “This is good,” he said. Joyce replied: “That’s the first time I’ve seen you smile in five weeks.”