October 24, 2018 at 8:00 AM EDT

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

In Lumberton, N.C., the river that has been a life source for thousands of years is now a threat to livelihood.

By undefined, undefined, undefined, undefined, undefined, undefined and Matt Callahan

LUMBERTON, N.C. — The parking lot is fractured and warped, the plumbing is broken and construction workers are again replacing West Lumberton Baptist Church’s deep green carpet. The Lumber River’s turbid floodwaters, again, overwhelmed the church, bringing mold and moisture and rot.

The historic rains that came to North Carolina with Hurricane Florence last month also brought with them the second historic flooding in as many years, following Hurricane Matthew, which brought similar destruction to this small town in October 2016. Many impoverished families in West Lumberton abandoned their waterlogged homes after the first storm, and those who stayed were just finishing their repairs and recovery this summer when the second storm came through.

They are now forced to start from zero again.

“Everything that we’ve gained just in the last couple years, to try to get back to where we were before Matthew, all that’s gone,” said Pastor Rick Foreman, standing in sand and debris the river washed into the church’s backyard during Florence. “It was just erased in one quick weekend.”

Experts have called the aftermath from both hurricanes “1,000-year floods” — meaning the odds are there will be one of them in each 1,000-year period — but the victims of those floods are skeptical. In their eyes, God’s will and a warming planet make a third flood inevitable.

“You got to know that God has a plan and he’s going to do it in his time,” said Rhonda Bruce, a church parishioner who lost her home during Matthew and then during Florence lost the belongings she’d managed to salvage. “It’s tough not knowing how to move forward.”

Residents are searching for ways to keep the next flood from ruining them again, and they’re focusing on the Lumber River.

For centuries, the 133-mile long waterway has been a life source for those who made the banks home. The Lumbee, a North Carolina Native American tribe, used the river as a trade route before European settlers utilized it to float timber. The river has fed fishermen, transported travelers and provided a natural bath for baptisms.

But Matthew and Florence morphed it into an invasive threat.

One potential solution is a permanent floodgate in the church’s backyard, where the railroad tracks cross under Interstate 95 and create a barrier between the river and the rest of West Lumberton. During Matthew, the Lumber rushed through the underpass opening, through the church and down into neighborhood homes.

When Florence came, the church had a plan, working with the city and state to stack 5,000 sandbags and concrete barricades across the tracks in an attempt to tame the river. It held for several days as the river rose in September, but the water ultimately overwhelmed it. The pastor and dozens of other residents and businesses in West Lumberton believe a permanent floodgate would fix that.

A floodgate, though, requires cooperation from Jacksonville-based CSX, which owns the railroad tracks that run through the property. Since Matthew, the company has bucked attempts to construct a permanent floodgate and pushed to delay the construction of the temporary levee built on the eve of Florence, according to a class-action lawsuit Lumberton residents filed in September against CSX.

The lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina Southern Division, claims CSX told city officials that it would “consider anyone attempting to stem the flooding from the underpass to be a trespasser” and “threatened to sue anyone who tried to place sandbags across the underpass.” It took an emergency order from North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) to override CSX’s objections and build the temporary levee.

Lumberton residents argue that North Carolina Emergency Management Agency estimates show that a permanent wall would have reduced damage from the floods by 80 percent, saving 2,000 buildings and $232.6 million.

CSX declined to comment on specifics, but the company said in a statement that it is “fully committed to working with the city on a permanent solution.”

The city received $2.25 million in grant money after Hurricane Matthew to construct a floodgate, Lumberton City Manager Wayne Horne said. The city is in conversation with CSX, the state Department of Transportation and Robeson County officials to determine next steps. State engineers still need to complete a hydraulic study that will inform how a floodgate would be built.

“It’s a complex project that’s taking time,” Horne said. “I can’t give you a timeline with all the complexity of it.”

Many of Lumberton’s lower-lying homes that were flooded during Matthew remain empty and rotting, still containing abandoned beds, toys and Christmas decorations. Many residents who remain live in elevated homes that saw floodwaters rise to their doorsteps without spilling inside. Their damage is less devastating but is still potentially dangerous, as the wet undersides of the homes could be susceptible to mold and mildew.

Among the most vulnerable in West Lumberton are families like the Emanuels. Helen and Junior Emanuel, who are Lumbee, grew up as neighbors on Hedge Drive; they married 60 years ago and raised their children on the same street. Their son, Tony Emanuel, lives across the way in Junior’s childhood home.

After Hurricane Florence passed, the river rose knee-high around their homes, soaking the foundation. Aside from the devastating flooding, 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.

At Tony’s house across the street, floodwaters rushed into a basement that was originally built as a bomb shelter. It took Tony a month after Florence to remove the wet insulation, which he never replaced after Matthew.

In a nearby neighborhood, Sam Locklear had renovated his home after Matthew brought four feet of water into it. Then Florence brought another 33 inches. His family is one of the last left on their street. He’s not sure they have the energy to rebuild again.

“I hope this is the last time,” Locklear said.

Though the proposed floodgate would protect many West Lumberton families, there are others in town who would be worse off if the floodgate is built.

Behind the church, on the other side of where the railroad and highway intersect, is a 100-acre plot of land that has been in John Cox’s family for nearly five generations. It meets the banks of the Lumber River, houses several members of Cox’s family and includes an old historic home built decades ago by a former North Carolina governor.

Cox, 79, was born and raised on the land, the son of a white father and a Lumbee mother. The youngest of eight children, he helped farm cotton and tobacco, sold fish from Cox Pond on the property and, because his family had no plumbing until he was 16, bathed in the Lumber River.

His mother had to sell portions of the land over time to make ends meet, but Cox slowly bought it all back. This land, which he hopes to one day turn into a nature preserve, is his family’s legacy.

But the floodgate would endanger all of it, pushing the river’s spillover onto his property. The temporary levee constructed during Florence did just that, forcing the river level to rise nine feet, devastating the homes of his stepson and nephew.

“The river is nasty now compared to when I was a little boy,” Cox said.

Cox Pond, accessible by Cox Road, was once the best fish pond in town, Cox said. Since Florence, fat bass keep floating to the surface, dead, probably from sewage backup or an influx of oxygen-choking sediment. Either way, the kill-off hinders his plan for the land: to be a natural refuge for the community.

So until the next flood comes, he said he’ll keep cleaning up, perhaps even plant new trees along the pond’s banks.

“I may never live to see them grown, but I’ve got my vision in my head of what I want,” Cox 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.”

Zoeann Murphy contributed to this report.