LUMBERTON, N.C. — Paddling through the swamp that was once her front yard Tuesday morning, Megan Curry saw this waterlogged community through the eyes of someone who had lived there all her life.
But out there was the Lumber River, normally so distant it’s not even visible through the trees, now sloshing into her living room for the second time in as many years.
All Curry could think was, “Again.” It had happened again.
When it inundated North Carolina in 2016, meteorologists called Hurricane Matthew a “500-year rain event,” the kind of downpour that was likely to occur once every half-millennium. But then, just two years later, here came Florence, a “1,000-year event” that hit all the same places in all the same ways, if not harder.
“This can’t keep happening to us,” said Charles Gregory Cummings, mayor of Pembroke, 10 miles upriver from Lumberton. “We know what to do, but we need help.”
Tropical Storm Florence churns along the coast of the Carolinas
Local officials say improvements recommended in the aftermath of Matthew must be implemented in the wake of Florence so their communities will be ready when the next hurricane comes. But some residents wonder whether it is worth the risk to stay.
Cummings was sworn in amid the deluge from Hurricane Matthew two years ago. After local canals and drainage systems backed up during the 2016 storm, contributing to flooding in 70 percent of the town, Cummings worked with researchers at the local campus of the University of North Carolina to develop a plan for mitigating future disasters.
The mayor wants to clear the area’s swamps and canals of fallen trees and debris from Matthew and past hurricanes, which he said would allow storm water to drain out of neighborhoods faster.
But Cummings said he has been unable to get the Army Corps of Engineers to tackle the project. And his town of 3,000, in which 60 percent of people live below the poverty level, does not have the resources for that kind of undertaking.
Back in Lumberton, locals have infrastructure grievances of their own.
Robeson County’s “Resilient Redevelopment Plan,” conceived after Matthew, called for upgrades to the Lumber River levee and the construction of a floodgate where the levee opens for a railroad crossing. That would prevent what happened during the 2016 storm, when the river poured through the opening into largely low-income neighborhoods of south and west Lumberton. Hundreds of houses were damaged or destroyed.
But the construction of the floodgate requires coordinating with CSX, the freight company that owns the railroad track — or Gov. Roy Cooper (D) to force the issue by declaring eminent domain. Neither scenario has happened yet.
On the day that Hurricane Florence made landfall, dozens of volunteers and members of the National Guard worked in pouring rain to block the opening with sandbags and dirt. State Sen. Danny Britt (R), whose district includes Lumberton, said he had to get an order from Cooper to overrule objections from CSX.
In an emailed statement Friday, the railway company said: “CSX is providing safe access for members of the Lumberton community who are working to minimize potential impacts of flooding from Hurricane Florence. We are in contact with local officials to ensure the safety of those working around railroad property and will closely coordinate with them on recovery efforts after the storm passes.”
The temporary dam failed Sunday night, sending water rushing into the same neighborhoods that were inundated two years ago. If fewer people were affected this time, Britt said, it was only because so many of those who were flooded out of their homes after Matthew never returned.
Even for the projects that have made progress, the rapid pace of recent natural disasters has far outstripped government bureaucracies. Federal funding to elevate or buy up homes in Lumberton’s flood plain had barely been distributed by the time this hurricane season rolled around.
The Lumbee tribe, which controls one of the dams that feeds into the river, was awarded a $1.5 million Federal Emergency Management Agency grant to upgrade the dam after it was damaged during Hurricane Matthew. But permits to begin construction are still about a month away. And two weeks ago, Pembroke began work on a $900,000 state-funded project to upgrade its storm-water drainage system, only to be sent scrambling when Florence hit.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” said Pembroke public-works director Pierre Locklear.
Even as the sun shone Monday morning, water was barely sinking into the town’s clogged drains. Barbara Pearson, who had spent five months in a FEMA-funded hotel room after Matthew heavily damaged her house in 2016, was stymied by waist-high water as she tried to visit her home in the center of town.
Instead of carrying storm water away from her neighborhood, a nearby canal had overtopped its banks.
“I think it came further this time than it did with Matthew,” said Pearson, 76. The retired schoolteacher had waited out Hurricane Florence in a hotel, but neighbors who had stayed through the storm told her their street looked like a lake.
“Miss Barbara, I’m so sorry this happened again,” said Sherry Anderson, 51. “This is just really terrible.”
Pearson shrugged. “It is what it is.”
When she was able enter the house the following day, several inches of water had left stains on her walls and soaked her floors. The house smelled like mildew and the carpets would need to be thrown out, but her furniture and floors had survived. After what happened during Matthew, that seemed like a blessing.
Pearson put her beagle, Ben, in the bathroom to keep him safe, then got out a mop.
Flood-prevention efforts in Robeson County are made more pressing by the specter of climate change, which experts say contributes to the bigger and wetter hurricanes that wreak havoc in low-lying communities.
Ryan Emanuel, an environmental scientist at North Carolina State University who studies the Lumber River, said that dredging and levee projects are not long-term fixes for the escalating problem. Canals and levees have allowed people to build homes on river margins and in swampy areas over the decades, yet research shows that wetlands can mitigate flooding by temporarily storing water after storms. Emanuel said that moving to higher ground and restoring swamps to their natural state are better ways to alleviate the problem.
“Yes, we lose . . . livable land,” he said, “but people converted that land artificially, and this is land that is underwater right now — not very livable.”
Cummings, the Pembroke mayor, was skeptical. He treasures the wetlands and the winding Lumber River, with its waters the color of oversteeped tea. But he also has an entire town to look out for — a UNC campus to support, jobs to promote, people to protect. And those people love their homes.
“For our people, this is where we settled,” Cummings said. (Cummings and Emanuel are members of the Lumbee tribe, with deep roots in Robeson County.) “We want to stay close and we want to develop, and we have to pay a price.”
The price is growing steep.
Curry’s grandmother, who owns their home, did not have flood insurance when Hurricane Matthew hit. With assistance from the Baptist Ministry — and the contents of their savings accounts — the family was able to make the house livable again. They moved back in October of last year.
The house is insured now, but Curry is less certain that she will want to return. Even more than the $50,000 or so it will take to repair the damage from Florence, she can’t bear the thought of it being destroyed again in the next storm.
“This is my home, and I don’t want to lose it,” she said. “But it’s like my grandmother told me last night: I can’t be scared every time it rains.”