Lumberton's Fight Against Floodwaters

Nov 5, 2018

Dan Weathington carried sopping insulation to the end of his driveway one day last month. Sludgy water dripped out as he squeezed a handful of the pink material.

Weathington lives in the Tanglewood area of north Lumberton. Many of the houses are brick and some are almost a century old. The neighborhood is a perfect grid of north-south and east-west roads, made possible because of the low-lying and flat topography. Floodwaters from Hurricane Florence inundated this part of town in September.

"You see the water mark? It was just above this board," Weathington said, pointing to the brownish line on the side of his house that showed the high water mark from Florence flooding.

Areas of Lumberton flood even with a heavy summer rain. When hurricanes come through, it's a guarantee. And when storms like Matthew or Florence hit, it's devastation. But different areas of the city flood for different reasons. And residents face unique challenges in trying to solve flooding in their areas.

"Our problem here is a drainage problem not a flooding from the river problem," Weathington said.

With two historic floods in as many years, city and county leaders across southeastern North Carolina are accepting that massive hurricanes are a more regular occurrence. In Lumberton, planners have proposed three projects that would mitigate flooding. But while engineers see these endeavors as beneficial, there are financial and other hurdles that stand in the way.

Dan Weathington lives in the Tanglewood neighborhood of north Lumberton. His property flooded during Florence.
Credit Jason deBruyn / WUNC

Lumberton Deputy City Manager Brandon Love concurred with Weathington's assessment that the Lumber River doesn't impact the Tanglewood neighborhood in a significant way. The river runs through the southern part of downtown. But creeks provide drainage from the north. On a map, these creeks looked like strands of a spider web.

Two years ago before Hurricane Matthew, the Lumber River was at almost 13 feet. That's already minor flood stage, with no room for more.

"Before Florence, the river was down around 7-and-a-half feet. So there was a tremendous amount of available storage in the river basin ahead of Florence," said Love.

Matthew brought about 18 inches of rain. Florence doubled that.

"And so those creeks and drainage basins that lead into the river just couldn't handle it. And so you saw a wider spread flooding in those areas on the north side of town," said Love.

The Golden Leaf Foundation, the Rocky Mount-based nonprofit established to receive a portion of North Carolina’s funding from the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement with cigarette manufacturers, has fully funded a $3 million project to install an underground pipe that will take pressure off those creeks. That project is in the planning phases. And while residents like Weathington might like to see it move faster, it's fully funded and doesn't face any road blocks.

To the south, that's not the case.

Flooding in south Lumberton

John Hendren and his son live with their families near the intersection of Alamac and Chickenfoot roads. It's land they've owned for generations and includes a pond with ducks splashing in the water. After Florence, the property flooded so badly that the younger Hendren, had to take a jet ski just to check on the house right after the storm.

Property owners in southern Lumberton face two problems. Water upstream is funneled toward them. But drainage downstream has been stopped up. With heavy rainfall becoming more common, that leaves south Lumberton behind a dam, says the younger John Hendren.

"I mean let's face it, these aren't 500 year storms anymore. This is a hurricane. And we have to accept that fact," he said.

But there aren't easy fixes to these problems. Golden Leaf has funded another project to mitigate flooding, but the Hendrens and other property owners say the CSX railroad has blocked the town from building a floodgate. Interstate 95 runs on top of a berm through Lumberton. That protects the town from some flooding. But the CSX track runs underneath the Interstate, and during flooding, water rushes through that opening in the berm.

A floodgate would hold back waters, but also block the track. Before the hurricane, CSX said it wanted the track line open in order to send emergency supplies through.

The CSX rail line runs under Interstate 95 in Lumberton.
Credit Jason deBruyn / WUNC

But to the elder John Hendren, that doesn't ring true. "If we could have bermed it up, there wouldn't have been any need for emergency supplies because we wouldn't have gotten flooded."

Property owners have filed a lawsuit against CSX. The company declined to comment citing the pending litigation, but in a statement called Florence an "extraordinary storm that brought record flooding and left many communities throughout the region devastated." The company added that its "thoughts are with those impacted by Hurricane Florence and we remain fully committed to working with the City of Lumberton to implement a permanent solution."

The Hendrens hope to get help in the courts. "CSX is the bad guy here. And the reason they are, is that they knew when it happened the first time that something needed to be done," said the elder John Hendren. "That we had a problem there. And 24 months later, nothing's been done and here comes this hurricane."

But even if the floodgate were installed tomorrow, that still leaves the issue of poor drainage. Decades of vegetation growth and other debris have clogged a canal and other drainage creeks. They need to be dredged to allow more water to drain. Of course that takes money, and the Hendrens are looking to Raleigh for help.

"We have been told that there's a $2 billion fund in Raleigh - a rainy day fund," said the elder Hendren. "And I ask for $5 million? That's like taking a slice of bread out of an awfully big loaf."

In and around Lumberton, Matthew and Florence have made realists out of people like John Hendren.

"We've got climate change," he said. "I'm not going to wade in the waters about whether it was man made or natural or whatever. We have climate change, it's obvious. How do we address it? I don't know."

But Hendren begs people not to ignore the problem just because it isn't hurricane season anymore. "That's the worst thing in the world you can do is ignore it. You have to be proactive. It's necessary."

Hendren hopes a 500 year flood followed by 1,000 year flood in the span of just 24 months will raise some eyebrows.

"Now maybe we'll get someone to see," he said. "Maybe. I hope we don't have to do this interview again in two years, and I say, 'You know, it's like I told you two years ago. And that's my biggest concern."