Wednesday September 18th, 2019 1:34AM

Deluged by Hurricane Matthew, rural town waits for Florence

By The Associated Press
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LUMBERTON, N.C. (AP) — 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 once-in-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 Sunday, 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."


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