It was just two months ago when people in Lumberton frantically worked to build a sandbag mound and temporary berm, just before before Hurricane Florence moved in.
Twenty-three months earlier, Hurricane Matthew taught people in the city that if the Lumber River gets high enough, it can flow into West Lumberton and South Lumberton through a gap in the city’s levee.
The levee is a raised earthen mound that was finished in 1977. It stretches from Alamac Road, to the back side of Luther Britt Park, and the elevation of Interstate 95 is part of that levee system too. For the most part it has done its job; when the Lumber River floods, the levee has kept that water from spilling toward neighborhoods.
However, where a CSX railroad and VFW Road pass under I-95 behind West Lumberton Baptist Church, there is a gap in the levee. Extremely high floodwater from the Lumber River can pass through that gap. Only after Hurricanes Matthew and Florence has water ever been high enough for that to happen.
Jeffery Oxendine said he saw the flooding along W. 5th Street after both hurricanes. He said it was a bit worse after Matthew.
“It got up way to the windows (of the church),” Oxendine said. “It’s just a bad situation.”
Jonathan Butler, who has lived in West Lumberton for more than 40 years, said after the levee was built, the area had never flooded except after Matthew and Florence. He had to leave home when water rose after both storms.
“We had to evacuate, emergency evacuate,” Butler said. “Water was coming through here like a river.”
People in West Lumberton have heard there is now a plan to build floodgates in the levee gap over the railroad tracks and street.
That is something Butler fully supports in case there is another big rain event.
“Without the floodgate here, it’s just going to wipe this community out again and again and again and again,” he said.
A state report published in May indicates a plan to plug the gap was part of the original plan for the levee drawn up in the 1960s. Pages five and six of the report says the levee and internal drainage channels were “not to the design drafted by the Soil Conservation Service of the USDA in the 1960s.” It also said “the VFW Road and CSX Railroad underpass at I-95 was constructed at a lower elevation than designs specified, and a 10-foot wide earthen dike was to have been constructed in the area though the improvements never made.”
The flooding Matthew brought was a wake-up call, prompting city leaders to pick up the plan for floodgates. However, it took nearly two years just to find money to move forward.
City leaders have secured about $2.25 million in two grants — one from Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Community Development Block Grants and one from the Golden LEAF Foundation.
With no floodgates in place before Florence, sandbagging was the backup. Floodwaters from the Lumber River eventually made their way through again.
At the time, some local leaders said the sandbagging effort could have been better, and they blamed CSX for delaying the work to the last minute.
“The request should have been granted on Tuesday,” said N.C. Sen. Danny Britt, (R) NC District 13, on the Thursday when rain from Florence was already beginning to fall on the Carolinas. “CSX did not show (at a previous meeting) and have continued to be a poor community partner.”
Some people who live in West Lumberton also sued CSX claiming the company was negligent by not allowing the sandbagging project before Florence.
WBTW also obtained a letter that the city sent to CSX a year earlier in September 2017 — right between Matthew and Florence. It claimed the railroad had not allowed the city to sandbag the area to prevent flooding in case Hurricane Irma brought another big rainfall.
City leaders have also said CSX failed to attend a planning meeting this past August, about the floodgates.
Despite some concerns, CSX may have held up the sandbagging or even been unresponsive to the floodgate plan, several city leaders now say CSX supports the plan and is cooperating.
“That is great. West Lumberton hopes the city of Lumberton can work with CSX to get this done for us,” Butler said. “Without the flood gate, we don’t stand a chance.”
Linda Lowery, who also saw the two floods in West Lumberton, said she is optimistic. However, she worries about whether the floodgates could have some negative effects.
“Maybe it’ll keep the water out of my house. I won’t have to keep running every time the hurricane season comes,” Lowery said. “But I hope it don’t affect the other side of town. I really do.”
With concerns like that in mind, there are plans for an extensive study into how the floodgates could affect the area. There is already debate about whether the sandbagging before Florence helped some areas while hurting others. That is now the center of more than two dozen lawsuits, which is why no city leaders would agreed to an on-camera interview about the floodgates.
The floodgates plan is moving forward though, and it is expected to be completed in about two years.
CSX released a statement saying, “CSX continues to keep an open dialogue with local officials in Lumberton, NC. We are fully committed to working with the city on a permanent measure for storm water management.”
Mayor Bruce Davis said a CSX representative did attend a recent meeting to discuss designs and other factors in moving forward with the floodgate project.