A Year Later, Lumberton Students Still Coping With Matthew's Destruction

Oct 4, 2017

Robeson County second grader Niveah Barnes remembers one detail in particular about Hurricane Matthew.

"I wanted to talk about dinosaurs when I was in first grade, but we couldn't do that, because the flood was in the middle of the school," she said.

Flooding destroyed her grandmother's Lumberton home, where Niveah was living, and left about three feet of standing water in West Lumberton Elementary, where she went to school. She was out of class for three weeks.

"Even if I didn't learn about dinosaurs, I might learn about dinosaurs another day," she said.

A year after Hurricane Matthew struck, West Lumberton is the only school in Robeson County that remains closed. Through the windows, lookers-in can see heaps of computer cords cluttering the front lobby, and wrinkly books scattered across tables in the cafeteria. Student chairs sit overturned under a tree in the front drive, and a parking sign for the teacher of the year leans to the right.

District officials haven't yet decided what to do with the building or the system's central office building, which was also badly damaged.

"It's just been devastating that they lost everything, then 100 percent of them lost their school,” said West Lumberton Principal Tara Bullard.

Most of the school's students are black, Hispanic or Lumbee Indian, and most come from low-income families. Bullard estimates that 90 percent to 95  percent of them lost homes and belongings in the flooding. Many were housed in motels for months afterwards, she said.

It was important that students come back to school with the same teachers, Bullard said, to provide them with some continuity. So, West Lumberton students and staff were given a building on the campus of Lumberton Junior High.

West Lumberton Elementary teacher June Hunt helps second grader Niveah Barnes with a grammar assignment in their temporary classroom at Lumberton Junior High. Flooding from Hurricane Matthew destroyed the home where NIveah was living.
Credit Lisa Philip / WUNC

There, the adults got to work meeting the kids’ basic needs.

"We had kids we had to clothe. ... We sent home personal care items: Toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, things like that," Bullard  said. "Not just for the kids, but for the parents, too. Because our parents were just doing whatever they could to keep the children at this school."

Bullard said students and their families consider West Lumberton a "safe haven." Nearly all of its teachers have been at the school for more than 10 years. That's uncommon for schools with high percentages of disadvantaged students. And last year, despite everything they went through, kids there had some of the best test scores in the county.

"We've made this our home," said second grade teacher June Hunt. "So as long as we're together I feel like that is what's made the difference, just being able to be with the kids. But it's working, it's really working."

The district has promised West Lumberton space at the junior high until the end of this school year. What happens after that is up to the county school board. Many families have left the area, bringing the school's enrollment down from 150, pre-Matthew, to 90.

A class of West Lumberton Elementary kindergartners meets in their temporary building at Lumberton Junior High. The school's enrollment is down from 150, pre-Matthew, to 90.
Credit Lisa Philip / WUNC

"I look at it from a whole district perspective," said Robeson County Superintendent Shanita Wooten. "And while I want the best for West Lumberton and those 90 children – all 24,000, we want the best for."

Wooten said the district can’t afford to staff West Lumberton's small class sizes. The school system has one of the lowest local funding levels in the state.

"We have some schools in Robeson County that have very large numbers when it comes to kindergarteners, first grade, second grade, third grade," Wooten said. "So we could use some of those teachers in other schools, to alleviate those large class sizes."

Principal Bullard gets it.

"I understand it, my staff understands it," she said. "Sometimes it's that almighty dollar that drives that decision. We will be okay with whatever decision is made."

For now, Bullard and her staff are focused on supporting their students. Teacher June Hunt says that means giving them space to talk or write about the storm. More recently, it's meant easing her students' fears.

"They were mentioning storms last week or the week before that," Hunt said. "The children were actually very terrified that we were going to be flooded again, okay?"

Wherever West Lumberton students end up next year, Hunt said they will take with them a hard lesson.

"The children just know now that things can happen in an instant," she said, snapping her fingers. "You can go home tomorrow and the next day, you don’t have anywhere to go. I think that really, really woke them up, to realize that things happen, and it happens quick."

Overturned chairs in front of West Lumberton Elementary, which was badly damaged by flooding from Matthew. “It’s just been devastating that [students] lost everything, then one hundred percent of them lost their school,” said West Lumberton Principal Tara Bullard.
Credit Lisa Philip / WUNC