At the end of Spearman Street, in the majority African American community of South Lumberton, a green and white metal sign announces that the area is monitored by “community watch citizens.”
Billie Thompson, 40, and her family were raised on this tree-lined strip. Years ago, neighbors leaned on front porch banisters of the simple brick and aluminum-sided homes, and watched out for one another, something Thompson remembers being commonplace.
“When I was coming up, every house on this street was full. And pretty much everybody knew everybody, and everybody looked out for everybody,” said Thompson.
As the residents here know, a lot can change in a few years. When Hurricane Matthew tore through Lumberton and Robeson County in 2016, the storm dumped over a foot of rain on the city, and the Lumber River rose to a record high of 24.39 feet, exceeding the flood stage by more than 11 feet. Homes, schools and businesses were flooded, many beyond repair. The community had only two years to rebuild — or try to at least— before Hurricane Florence swept through with relentless rains, and more destruction, compounding Matthew’s economic and structural impact.
Lumberton is an extraordinary place facing extraordinary challenges. Today, it’s a community that is still in recovery: residential rebuilding is still underway, major flood mitigation projects inch forward. And in 2020 in particular, that is a dangerous spot to be in.
The majority of Lumberton residents are people of color, with 35% of residents identifying as Black, 13% American Indian — largely members of the Lumbee Tribe — and 9% Hispanic, based on 2019 U.S. Census estimates. A third of residents live in poverty, and Robeson County has the lowest health outcomes in the state, according to U.S. News & World Report’s “Healthiest Communities” ranking.
The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season has already brought 27 named storms, and it’s on its way to becoming the most active season on record. By October 9, ten named storms had made landfall in the U.S. — the highest number recorded — and the rest of the hurricane season still holds ample potential for more. On top of the heightened storm risk, the COVID-19 pandemic, which disproportionately affects people of color, looms over a community that already has poor health outcomes.
“It was like everything just broke loose”
On a warm September afternoon, Billie Thompson emerged from the front door of a single-story brick house on Spearman Street adorned with a tidy front garden of red canna lilies. Thompson’s grandmother built the house, and over the years, four generations of women in her family have slept between these sturdy walls. Thompson, a single-mother to 12-year-old Da’janee, still considers this street and this community, her home. But in 2016, she made the tough decision to build a life for herself and her daughter about 40 minutes away in Raeford, N.C.
“After Matthew, it was kind of like you want to go home, but then you don’t want to experience that all over again. Because it was a disaster, it was really a disaster,” Thompson remembers. “We had never seen anything like that the whole time we been on this side of town, or in Lumberton period [...] And my grandma was born in 1925. She said she had never seen anything like that.”
Matthew caught Thompson, her daughter, mother, and grandmother — who has since passed away — by surprise.
Her mother, Debra Holiday, puts it simply.
“I went to bed that night, all the water was in the river,” Holiday said.
In the morning, however, Holiday remembers waking up to water pooling behind her house. The water started to recede later that day, and the family thought they were in the clear. But soon after, the water began to rise again, and fast.
“It was like everything just broke loose. Water started coming in the streets. We had been calling rescue to get my grandmother out,” said Thompson. “She was 91 at the time, so she couldn’t walk out like everybody else. The rescue people didn’t get my grandmother out until two o’clock technically that Monday morning.”
The family made it through the night. But like many Lumberton families, the Thompsons felt the storm’s impact well beyond that night. Da’janee, who attended third grade at Rowland Norment Elementary at the time, was out of school for nearly two months following the hurricane. She remembers experiencing mixed emotions during that time.
“We were excited because we didn’t have to go back,” said Da’janee, referring to how she and other kids felt after the storm. “But after a couple months, it was getting a little bit confusing and like, a little bit frustrating because we didn’t know when we’re gonna go back. And we didn’t know if we were going to pass that year or fail. So it was kind of scary, and I was kind of happy at the same time.”
Matthew’s floodwaters put an abrupt stop to the regular routine of work, school and life in Lumberton. But the storm’s impact was felt very differently across the city.
“Lesson Of Servitude” In West Lumberton
Pastor Rick Foreman vividly remembers standing in the church parking lot in West Lumberton a week after Matthew surveying the damage.
“It was just so devastating. It looked like a warzone out here, and all I could do was cry,” Foreman said. “The Lord spoke to me, and he told me that he was not only going to rebuild this church and use me to do it, but that one day, we would thank him for the storm.”
The message caught him off guard, and he told the congregation as much.
“I said, ‘I don’t feel like I’m ready to thank him today’,” Foreman said.
West Lumberton Baptist Church backs on to the Lumberton levee, a structure built to protect the neighboring community from the threat of a rising river. At the base of the levee, right by the church, is a wide gap, the current solution to let the CSX rail line pass through. During Matthew, the record floods poured through the gap and inundated the church and surrounding area. According to Foreman, Matthew caused $1.3 million in damage to the church. A mere two years later, Florence wrecked another $800,000 in damages.
Along with the need for church repairs, the impact on church members themselves was top of mind.
“We had nine families in our church that lost everything. We had one member that drowned in the floods of Hurricane Matthew. So it was a tough time for everybody,” said Foreman.
The bleak conditions in the surrounding neighborhood following Matthew and later Florence were impossible to ignore. Up until 2016, Foreman says that the majority white congregation was disconnected from the surrounding diverse community in West Lumberton, a community with significant numbers of Black and American Indian residents.
“But when the flood came and when you see lines of people, and you see the desperation on their face and you look at the pain in their eyes … we cried just as much as they did, and we would hug them and we would pray with them,” said Foreman about how the hurricanes forged connections.
After the storms, the church mobilized in a way they never had before. And that message Foreman received from God was front and center.
The church did not get FEMA funding for either storm, according to Foreman. Instead, it rebuilt with donations from the public, a $1.1 million loan through the North Carolina Baptist Foundation, and volunteers who came from as far away as Nebraska. The church had flood insurance for when Florence rolled through. On top of this external support, it didn’t hurt that Pastor Foreman is a “retired Navy man,” as he puts it, and ran a remodeling business prior to his work in the ministry. As the congregation pushed through with its own repairs, the church became a point of connection between those in the community who needed help and those who were able to offer it.
“We made ourselves a central location point for distributing food and water and supplies and by the grace of God, those things just kept coming,” says Foreman about the influx of donations following Matthew.
“People just came, and every day for six hours we distributed the supplies,” he said. “We were able to provide hot meals, sometimes different churches would come and set up grills and cook and we would feed people and we did that for the first 54 days after [Matthew] and then we started doing it twice a week. We did that for probably nine months. And then after Florence we did the same thing.”
Foreman says that labor taught the church, an establishment that had once been so distant from its neighbors, “a wonderful lesson of servitude.”
COVID In A Recovering Community
Today, a drive through Billie Thompson’s family neighborhood in South Lumberton reveals a landscape that is worlds apart from what she lived as a child. The neighborhood is dotted with boarded up homes, some with doors ajar and rogue vines wrapped along open windows.
“I hate to say it, it kind of feels like a ghost town,” says Thompson. “It’s not the same anymore. It’s really not because people had to leave and they had no other choice.”
It’s a similar scene in Pastor Foreman’s church neighborhood. Many residents did not have flood insurance ahead of Matthew and the cost of rebuilding was beyond what they could afford. By fall 2019, more than $200 million in state and federal funds had poured into Robeson County for storm recovery following Matthew and Florence, according to figures obtained by The Robesonian. With one storm after another, the economic impact on the community compounded, and now, the COVID-19 pandemic is the latest strain on already overburdened residents.
Robeson County has suffered nearly double the rate of COVID cases and deaths per capita compared with the state averages. Both the county and city are home to racially diverse communities, and when it comes to COVID, these are the same communities disproportionately affected by the impacts of the pandemic.
Earlier this year, Governor Roy Cooper spoke to this issue.
“We know that minority and marginalized communities are more likely to suffer from chronic health conditions, including diabetes, kidney disease, obesity and asthma,” Cooper said in a June 4 briefing. “The data shows that these underlying health conditions significantly increase a person’s risk for severe COVID-19 infection.”
Those health outcomes worry Thompson. Her daughter Da’janee has allergies and asthma and her mother lives with high blood pressure, diabetes and neuropathy, as well degenerative disc disorder. Thompson’s brother, who lives on the outskirts of town, undergoes dialysis three times a week.
With underlying health conditions, the family can’t afford to take risks.
“Some people are trying to get back to normal, but then you have to think about it, like what risk am I taking, if I go out here in this crowd of people?” Thompson said. “What risk am I taking if I catch it and take it back home to my family?”
Not to mention the isolation forced by the pandemic can take a mental toll on even the most resilient people.
“I have those pity party days sometimes,” says Thompson’s mother, Debra Holiday. “I learned a long time ago to accept the serenity prayer, accept the things I cannot change. And with that, that’s how I make it. With the pandemic and everything, I’m still praying, and I’m still trusting in God. And I know somehow we’ll make it.”
Nevertheless, Holiday is itching to return to her church, McCormick Chapel AME, where she is a church officer. As she explains, the church community is dependent on her cooking.
“They act as like they might not could eat unless I cook,” she says with a laugh.
Over in West Lumberton, Pastor Foreman recognizes how imperative it is to both feed and connect with people during the pandemic. On a recent fall morning, a few congregants at West Lumberton Baptist Church stir pots and stretch plastic wrap over slices of chocolate cake. Soon, the hot meals will be en route to local seniors.
“Somebody goes to their house, and visits for a few minutes and checks on them,” explains Foreman. “Because isolation is a terrible thing. And human beings just aren’t made to be isolated from other human beings.”
Along with the once-a-month delivery, the church also runs a food pantry, and they’re gearing up to deliver roast chickens at Thanksgiving.
How Converging Crises Have A Political Effect
Taking a big picture view of the overlapping issues of race, health, and hurricanes is something Donna Chavis, a Lumbee Elder and environmental activist who lives outside of Lumberton in rural Robeson County, has long had on her mind.
She sees their convergence within the larger context of environmental justice and says the hurricanes have exacerbated both health and economic disparities. She emphasizes that the problems are also playing out in surrounding rural communities, places like Bryants Circle and Back Swamp, that don’t always come under the public spotlight.
“The impact on the businesses had a direct impact on the financial stability of populations,” says Chavis. “Where you had people who had been able to be entrepreneurial and establish their own businesses, they had just a major blow in terms of that portion of their life. And then you add into it not just loss of jobs and loss of businesses, you also had the loss of shelter.”
For some, that loss of safe shelter continues to this day.
“There are people who are living in houses now that have mold in them,” says Chavis. “In Robeson County, we already had disproportionate numbers in respiratory illnesses, such as asthma, and COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] and other things. So when you add the elements that come along with these storms onto those health issues, then that’s another blow, you know, to the self determination of peoples.”
Chavis worries that economic impacts, poor health, and other byproducts of the hurricanes have had another damaging effect on Lumberton.
“There has been a breakdown of community in a way that I don’t think others would see. They’ll see the scars, the houses that still aren’t repaired and the areas that seem dilapidated,” says Chavis. “But what happened was, the community disintegrated in many other ways, with the relocation of families, because their homes were not repaired in a timely fashion.”
Chavis sees this dynamic playing out in South and West Lumberton, the hardest hit areas. As those areas lose population, she’s especially concerned about the impact of the 2020 Census count on federal funding and political representation.
The Biggest Threat, Another Major Hurricane
Ultimately, Chavis and others believe the biggest challenge that comes with experiencing a pandemic while rebuilding from two destructive hurricanes, is the possibility of yet another major storm.
Robeson County Emergency Management Director Stephanie Chavis (no relation to Donna Chavis) is charged with preparing for that possibility. She says the department has planned and even conducted exercises for the possibility of a hurricane during a pandemic.
“And we still worry that in the event we’ve got another hurricane that was the magnitude of Florence or Matthew, that we would not have a location to place all our residents that could possibly experience flooding and have to leave their homes,” she says.
As of Oct. 5, Chavis says her department has lined up 12 schools that are certified by the Red Cross to be used as emergency shelters. But she faces a stark problem. With social distancing and hygiene guidelines, those 12 shelters — that could usually accommodate about 4,000 people — can now only safely accommodate around 1,000. During both Matthew and Florence, Chavis says about 2,000 people were displaced from their homes due to flooding and sought emergency shelter.
Even now, in the midst of a hyper-active hurricane season, Chavis says the county is still searching for a 100,000-square foot facility to convert into a potential shelter, should a disaster strike.
“As of yet, we haven’t even found that 100,000 available square feet that would not be in a flood area, or be impacted by a storm,” says Chavis.
So how probable is another big storm?
“It’s just a matter of when, not if,” says Steven Pfaff, a warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service who has monitored Robeson County in that role for over ten years. “We’re kidding ourselves if we’re not preparing for that next big one.”
The scientific realities of climate change have spurred not only a greater number of hurricanes, but ones that bring “prolific flooding events.”
With more than a month remaining in hurricane season, Pfaff says Robeson County is not in the clear yet.
Given that risk, Ryan Emanuel, a professor in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources at North Carolina State University and member of the Lumbee Tribe, is concerned about existing flood mitigation infrastructure. On a recent tour, he outlined the limits of the levee that runs under I-95 and wraps along the curves of the west bank of the Lumber River.
The gap under the interstate is a stark reminder of the ever-present threat to neighboring communities.
“It’s a really wicked problem,” describes Emanuel. “Because you’ve got the interstate, which is the major north-south artery on the Eastern Seaboard, you’ve got this major railroad, but you’ve got this whole side of town that is more vulnerable because of the existence of this gap in the infrastructure.”
During Matthew, the water backed up against the levee and spread out until it poured through the CSX railroad gap under I-95.
Should A Storm Hit, Is Robeson Truly Ready?
Robeson County Emergency Management Director Stephanie Chavis acknowledged that some work has been done to mitigate the risk of another hurricane like Matthew. With FEMA’s support, a few homes have been raised, others repaired.
Lumberton City Manager Wayne Horne explains the city constructed a berm around the water plant, and elevated a number of wells to help maintain access to safe drinking water during an emergency.
But Horne estimates the city is only about 35-40% done with housing rebuilding from Hurricane Matthew. And, after submitting a revised budget to FEMA for the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program — a federal fund that helps communities implement long-term hazard mitigation like buyouts and elevating homes — they have been forced to pause spending for six months.
“We can’t do anything until we get the revised budget. The whole program is basically on hold,” said Horne.
The city is also waiting for FEMA to approve a budget for further Hurricane Florence recovery and mitigation funding.
“We got a list back from FEMA that said ‘x’ number of homes have been approved for buyouts, ‘x’ number of home’s have been approved for elevation,” says Horne. “That’s been almost two years, we’ve yet to get a budget.”
In the absence of a fresh go-ahead from FEMA, religious-affiliated nonprofits have been instrumental in helping residents repair and rebuild. Horne specifically highlights the work of Baptist and Methodist disaster relief groups, along with Lutheran and Mennonite teams.
“These groups contribute a valuable service when you have these natural disasters, so I can’t say enough about them,” says Horne. “They’ve been all over the county, not just in Lumberton, assisting families with rebuilds and renovations and even mold remediation.”
Meanwhile, other structural solutions are only inching forward. A plan for permanent floodgates that can be closed to block off the CSX gap are in the design phase, but execution of the over $5 million project is still about a year and a half to two years away, according to Horne. And there are concerns that the floodgates would create new flooding problems for residents living on the opposite side of the barrier, though Horne says those concerns have been taken into consideration through a hydraulic study.
In the meantime, an earthen berm constructed out of wire-mesh barrier containers was erected behind West Lumberton Baptist Church to protect the low-lying areas from potential flooding. Piles of sand surround the area, ready to be shifted into a temporary dam in an emergency.
“I’m still concerned that there’s still a lot of work that has to be done,” says county Emergency Management Director Stephanie Chavis. “And my biggest concern is always, and has been since Matthew, our river. I feel there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to our river.”
Over time and with the effect of storms, the river has narrowed and slowed at points. Stephanie Chavis believes that a more extensive clean up of the river would help mitigate some of the flood risks. In 2019, there was a significant cleanup project to clear debris from the river and from the network of canals that run through the area.
But Stephanie Chavis has questions about the bigger system and how the waters of Robeson County are changing over time.
“I’ve lived here all my life, and I’ve never seen anything like we have now, since Matthew. There was always a couple of areas that had to be watched,” she says about historically flood-prone areas. “But now, it’s just spreading even more so.”
Jefferson Currie II, the water keeper for the Lumber River and amember of the Lumbee Tribe, shares those questions. And he wants to see neighboring counties collaborate on a large-scale, comprehensive study to understand changes in the watershed.
“We’re not looking at it holistically, comprehensively as a watershed problem with flooding. We’re looking at it as Lumberton floods,” says Currie. “We need to know why and we do need to know how we can deal with that.”
As Emanuel, the N.C. State forestry professor, describes, much of Robeson County was historically wetlands. During the early 20th century “they actually came through with steam shovels and all this early power equipment and just dug ditches and canals all over the county.”
With that history of the land in mind, he thinks it’s next to impossible to protect every home and every structure in the city from flooding.
“Once you start heightening and lengthening levees, it’s not just that they become exponentially more expensive, it’s that you manipulate all those volumes,” says Emanuel. “Pretty soon it becomes theoretically impossible to put up enough levees to protect everything. It’s kind of like a game of Tetris gone awry.”
A Street Worth Saving
Back on Spearman Street, Billie Thompson poses for a photograph with her mother and daughter amid the ruby-red canna lilies in the front yard. The garden signals the home and the community are still loved. The flowers were planted by their neighbor, Jennifer Mickles, a woman on a mission to preserve Spearman.
“I’d like to put flowers on every piece of property. It’s just a way of celebrating homes and trying to make a little bit of beautiful amidst a whole lot of things that aren’t so beautiful,” says Mickles. “I want this street to be a testament to the love that we have for where we are.”
Across the street, Thompson couldn’t agree more. Despite facing overlapping challenges of health and hurricane recovery, she believes this is a community worth fighting for.
“This is home to me, regardless of how bad it looks, or how bad it gets, this is still gonna be home.”