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 boarded-up house across the street and the creek just behind it that made it that way. It jumped its banks two years ago during Hurricane Matthew, 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 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 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. 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.
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. 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. “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.
“The county collectively is traumatized by what happened,” Douglas 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 and many of the houses remain 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. 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 imagined herself again up to her waist in water, fearing certain death. She and her two roommates started frantically packing for a last-minute evacuation to Charlotte. “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.”
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.”
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.
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