Across the city, county, region and beyond, the combined punch of two 1,000-year floods in the last 23 months has taken a toll. So many have experienced the loss of cars, homes, businesses, jobs, credit, and possessions. The economic toll is staggering; the emotional burden is perhaps even worse.
For many, a life surrounded by water has become an unfortunate new normal.
I moved my family to Lumberton in the summer of 2003, joining the ranks of the faculty at UNC Pembroke as an historian of the American South. We rented in Tanglewood for a year, joined a church, integrated into the PTA and other community organizations, and embraced life in a small town — a preferable location for Melinda and me to raise our three boys.
A year later, we bought a house in Mayfair, falling in love with the mature trees, community pool, park, and welcoming community where our kids could ride bikes, organize informal games of hide-and-seek or wiffleball, and make fast friends with others. Interesting professional opportunities presented themselves from time-to-time, but the idea of career advancement did not trump the sense that uprooting my family and leaving Lumberton and its diverse population and small town environment would not be the best thing for my children.
For some in Mayfair, that calculus began to change with Matthew. Torrential rain water, wind gusts, fallen trees, damp soil, stagnant water, clogged canals and ditches, and a host of other factors left residents without power or water for days and for some weeks. While I wouldn’t presume to speak for an entire neighborhood, I saw neighbors pull together distributing water and food, organizing grill-in block parties to prevent meat from spoiling, boating the infirm or those in health crisis to safety, trimming downed trees, clearing brush, and operating make-shift neighborhood watches. Like other neighborhoods, a sense of confidence and community pride was gained by overcoming the daunting challenge. Post-storm, some were unable to repair or rebuild as insurance challenges, changing job situations due to storm effects, and other factors emerged. Some houses went dormant, became rentals, or were sold as folks made the honest decision not to endure anything like Matthew again.
For others, the decision to stay became a matter of math.
“I’ll never get a fair price in this market,” some said. “How could another storm like this ever happen here again?”
Over coffee or at the mailbox, neighbors concluded that surely the drainage systems will be rebuilt better than ever, won’t they? Someone will make sure the Lumber River, as well as nearby canals, ditches, and pipes are unclogged, dredged, widened, and made better than ever, don’t you think?
Mayfair folks, hardened by Matthew, greeted reports of Florence’s imminent arrival seriously. Some made arrangements to bunk somewhere safely out of town; others stacked sandbags and filled storage areas with canned goods and water bottles. A few extra gallons of gas for the generator? Check. Secure the outdoor furniture, basketball goals, and other potential flying objects. Done.
And then the storm slowed to 2 mph, deluging the area, leaving Mayfair with 6 to 8 feet of standing water at the three primary neighborhood exits, and necessitating the activation of both formal and informal networks of gathering information about how much worse it might get.
Individuals, community, local, state, and federal agencies helped folks evacuate and church and charitable organizations began bringing food, generator gas, and other supplies where they could be boated in by individual Mayfair “water taxis” or local authorities. Various elected officials came into Mayfair offering support and marshaling resources. Most importantly, the community stayed together in purpose, worked the problems, kept people informed, and persevered. Heroes come in all shapes and sizes, and I consider all my neighbors to have done heroic things in the name of helping. It’s not complicated; it’s just good people doing good things for the good of others.
By Monday, water levels in Mayfair stabilized, and Tuesday and Wednesday brought slow but steady dissipation and water recession. The worst was over, right? We had seen this with Matthew: the peace and security that comes with hitting bottom and knowing things were starting to steadily improve. Informal broomstick and make-shift floodwater gauges all indicated the same good news: The water was draining. Across town, some areas were struggling, but other neighborhoods were increasingly dry. In a day or so, those of us with trucks would be able to drive out. Those who evacuated could come back in and check damage. Power crews were restoring power in various parts of the neighborhood where transformers were above water.
Optimism reigned Wednesday night as another day of drainage would likely bring us back to the possibility of getting out and back in at will, and breathing the sign of relief that normal was closer than at any time in the previous eight days. And then the disheartening reality of Thursday morning — the 17th birthday of my son Quinton, a neighborhood point of light in the support of others — and the day when the flood waters started coming back.
Thursday morning as generators kick-started to brew black coffee, it was clear that the waters were rising again, a fact observable all day long. How bad would it get? Some whose houses had finally spit back floodwater now watched helplessly as it came back in, the rudest and most unwelcome of visitors.
By Friday, Mayfair resumed its long, slow drain and, to be sure, other parts of town are dealing with generational suffering and damage that is as bad or much, much, worse. I get that. But Mayfair is in the fraternity of neighborhoods that has been kicked especially hard, leaving difficult questions about rebuilding, resilience, and ongoing recovery.
Storms cannot be wished away from our community — but our ability to withstand them across the county must improve. Are we maximizing state and federal resources to create state-of-the art storm water drainage systems in our communities? Can the river, through the work of the Army Corps of Engineers or some other entity, be cleared of extraneous trees and other flotsam and jetsam? Is our infrastructure, stressed, breeched, and broken twice in two years, able to be counted on to perform in conditions like this next month, next year, or next decade? If we are to reach our 21st century potential as a city and county, these issues must be solved and a Band-Aid will not be sufficient.
One catastrophic storm is an accident of history. Two such storms qualify as a trend. The residents, taxpayers, and children of Robeson County should be able to sleep at night knowing nothing else that could be done, is left to be done. For all the good work done by many leaders and agencies, I don’t think we are there yet.
At the very minimum, a revitalized Robeson County and Lumberton — downtown and elsewhere — is dependent on high performing schools, a rock-solid infrastructure, a compassionate community that engages and assists the vulnerable, and a business climate that maximizes our interstates, affordable land, and nearby university, an institution whose growth makes many things possible. Some of that is already in place.
The battle-tested residents of Mayfair and the rest of Robeson County deserve the best. It’s time we set all of our expectations in the area of being the best. If we do, imagine what the city, county, and region could become in the next 10 years, whether another 1,000-year flood is headed this way again or not.
Jeff Frederick is the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke.