In a world altered by climate change, flood-prone communities are facing disaster piled on disaster, and the pathway of floodwaters is determined by the built environment. For decades, developers have built under assumptions about flooding that are now irrelevant due to climate change. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew produced the type of rainfall in Lumberton, North Carolina, that was only supposed to occur once every 1,000 years, but then Hurricane Florence hit two years later — another 1,000-year storm.
Whether damage and displacement can be averted often depends on whether companies or governments pony up the cash to decrease risk. In Lumberton, the seat of one of the poorest and most diverse counties in the nation, it was those with the fewest resources who ended up paying the price for inaction. Matthew’s catastrophic flooding, which displaced an estimated 1,500 residents, was the result of a gap in the city’s levee system. A pathway for the Lumber River’s floodwaters remained wide open where the CSX railroad passes under Interstate 95. State officials recommended the construction of a floodgate after Matthew, otherwise hundreds of homes and businesses could flood again. The city couldn’t move fast enough, in part due to the inaction of CSX.
Photos: Natalie Keyssar
And when Hurricane Florence threatened to overwhelm the river again in September 2018, CSX refused to allow the city to construct a temporary sandbag berm over its tracks. At the eleventh hour, Gov. Roy Cooper overrode CSX with an executive order, allowing the National Guard to move in. The hastily built berm burst, creating a new wave of climate change displacement just as residents were starting to recover.
Tallying up the number of people displaced by Florence’s floodwaters “would be a shot in the dark,” said Deputy City Manager Brandon Love, “because folks were already out of their homes following Matthew.” When Florence hit, “people were living with relatives, friends; some folks were in rental units, mobile home parks; some had moved out of town; some had just picked up and left Lumberton never to come back.”
As President Donald Trump pushes for new infrastructure investment, and Democrats debate the outlines of a Green New Deal meant to create new jobs and remake the U.S. energy economy, both sides would do well to examine what happened in Lumberton.
The most high-profile debates around how to address climate change have centered on fossil fuel emissions. Yet Lumberton’s predicament is indicative of another urgent corporate accountability issue and a gap in communities’ resilience against inevitable climate impacts. Managing future floods will depend on a rearrangement of the built environment — and sacrifices to corporations’ bottom lines.
Photographer Natalie Keyssar met with Lumberton residents in the gutted interior of the West Lumberton Baptist Church. Community members posed against a simple white backdrop and wrote notes reflecting on their lives in the aftermath of two catastrophic floods.
On the Edge in a Flood Zone
Late last October in West Lumberton, many of the single-story houses that line the neighborhood remained boarded up, their lawns overgrown with knee-deep grass. Houses still bore the watermarks of the floods — some well above the windows, some just below the front steps, depending on topography and luck.
Rev. Rick Foreman had already gutted the sodden and soiled interior of the West Lumberton Baptist Church, which was the first structure in the path of the floodwaters, just a few hundred feet from the underpass. “We waited about five months after Matthew came with FEMA, and all they did was jerk us around,” he said. He’d learned his lesson. “At least in my world, most people give up and do it themselves, or they leave.”
Many have left. After Matthew, the West Lumberton Elementary School permanently closed. Not only was the school’s structure damaged, but so was a public housing complex in the area. Dozens of families who lived there were forced to move, shrinking the school’s enrollment pool.
BreAnna Branch, who works for Communities in Schools of Robeson County and created a widely used Facebook group to coordinate donations after both storms, explained the precarious economic status of the community. “People here are already truly living on a shoestring, and anything can put them over the edge. If someone can’t work for a couple weeks, that can mean their lights go out and they don’t have grocery money for their kids. These storms put people out of work for weeks and destroyed what little they had. They’re literally trying to keep their heads above water, and then they got flooded, twice.”
Thirty-four percent of Lumberton residents live at or below the poverty line; 36 percent are black, and 12 percent are American Indian. A study by the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology found that black and American Indian households reside disproportionately in the Lumber River’s flood zone. The city’s non-Hispanic, mostly black, households were 2.7 times more likely to be displaced by Matthew than non-Hispanic white households. American Indian households were six times more likely to be displaced than non-Hispanic white households.
Far from a community of victims, plenty of West Lumberton’s residents have decided to stay and rebuild. On an October weekend, around 30 community members stopped by Foreman’s church to pose for free family portraits and write down reflections about their community after the storm.
A number of them, including Foreman, contend that some of the displacement could have been avoided. He and others have filed a class-action lawsuit alleging negligence on the part of CSX. The company’s response has been that “the flooding was caused by a hurricane, not by CSXT.” Its reply to the citizens’ complaint asserts that “CSXT does not owe any duty to protect the general public from natural disasters.”
Meanwhile, a separate set of homeowners has sued the city and the state, claiming that the water displaced by the sandbags flooded their homes on the other side of the levee. The plaintiffs are calling the flooding a taking under eminent domain law. They represent 29 properties, whereas the class size in the case against CSX is estimated to be in the hundreds. The situation is demonstrative of the hurdles cities face as they attempt to manage increasingly frequent floods that communities and the legal system were never built to absorb.
Photos: Natalie Keyssar
No Duty to Protect
Lumberton officials were aware of the levee gap back when the flood control system was completed in 1977. The city and the owner of the railroad at the time negotiated an agreement that would allow public officials to block the gap should flooding appear imminent, so long as they gave the railroad owner a 12-hour notice. They planned to eventually find a more permanent solution. But CSX, which took ownership of the tracks in 1986, claims that the agreement never actually went into effect.
In the years leading up to Florence, state officials repeatedly raised the issue. In 2003, FEMA and North Carolina’s Flood Information Center labeled the levee deficient because of the railroad gap. A 2014 study by the state and FEMA flagged the problem again.
Things came to a head with Matthew. Lumberton officials attempted to put the agreement in motion, requesting that CSX allow workers to build a barrier over the tracks. The company refused, and water poured under Interstate 95 and into West Lumberton, damaging 2,367 structures across the city. The “overriding factor that caused the majority of the devastation was the failure to have a proper closure” at the underpass, according to a report commissioned by the North Carolina Division of Emergency Management. Construction of a floodgate would cost $486,500 and could avert $5.3 million in losses should a major flood strike again, the report advised.
In its motion to dismiss the class-action lawsuit, CSX claimed that, since the federal government has jurisdiction over railroads, state and local governments had no right to tell the company what to do. Furthermore, CSX argued, there is no law that says a landowner has any obligation to prevent a neighbor’s land from flooding.
“When the water broke, it flooded everything inside of my household. Nothing left. My daughter lost her stuff. I lost my stuff. It’s kinda hard trying to get started back again. I don’t know if I’m gonna move or stay now. When you’re from a low income, it’s kinda hard to get everything back together.”
— Gerald Huggins
When Hurricane Irma approached in September 2017, CSX again denied the city’s requests to put sandbags over the tracks, but the worst of the storm skipped Lumberton.
The city got moving on a permanent floodgate. But, according to the lawsuit, CSX officials slowed down the process by neglecting to participate in planning discussions and failing to show up to a key meeting.
In September 2018, with Florence approaching, Lumberton officials again reached out to the railroad. “Anything that alters the rail could be a felony,” the CSX roadmaster, who is in charge of maintaining the tracks, replied, according to the class-action lawsuit. A CSX spokesperson suggested that the company had to keep the railroad open so that hazardous materials could be removed and emergency materials could be hauled in ahead of the storm. “Our network is critical to ensure storm supplies are strategically located in areas prior to a storm’s arrival,” the spokesperson wrote in an email to The Intercept. “We work as safely and as quickly as possible to ensure railcars and hazardous materials are out of the storm’s path for the safety of neighboring communities and our employees.”
Finally, on Friday, September 14, with Florence already unleashing rain and high winds on Lumberton, Cooper issued an emergency order that the berm be constructed against the will of CSX. Volunteers joined the National Guard in the West Baptist Church parking lot to fill 5,000 sandbags.
“If they just would have let us start to build on that Monday or Tuesday, before the storm was already making landfall in Wilmington, we could have built something of substance,” Foreman said. “But by the time the governor made that order, we were out there in the wind and the rain. The ground was already wet.”
The structure held for three days before the Lumber River broke through, flowing into the community again. In its motion to dismiss the class-action suit, CSX implied that the sandbagging wasn’t effective in the end. But although the damage to West Lumberton was significant, it was not as bad as during Matthew, Love, the deputy city manager, told The Intercept. He’s certain it’s because of the sandbagging. “No doubt in my mind,” he said.
“What would have been truly effective is if they built that floodgate,” Foreman added. “That’s what gets me — it’s that they knew. They knew, and they wouldn’t let us do anything to try to avoid it.”
“CSX continues to work with the city of Lumberton and other officials who are leading the project to implement permanent solutions in Lumberton, including floodgates,” the company’s spokesperson told The Intercept.
The West Baptist Church lost half its structures in Hurricane Florence — $800,000 to $1 million in damage, on top of $1.3 million after Matthew. Even as the church struggled to rebuild, its parking lot became a hub for donations to the community.
Photos: Natalie Keyssar
Past and Future Hurricanes
It’s not the first time that CSX has argued in court that it has no duty to protect communities vulnerable to flooding. Residents of New Orleans filed a complaint against CSX in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. There, too, CSX infrastructure represented a breach in the levee system. In fact, the very first breach of New Orleans levees occurred where CSX property crossed the Industrial Canal. The floodgates had been damaged by a train derailment the year before, and sandbags were used to seal the levee walls instead. The waters broke through before the storm even made landfall.
Community members blamed the city-owned railroad for failing to repair the floodgate but also argued that CSX had contributed to the breach by using porous, lightweight sand and gravel in structures that connected to the city’s flood protection system. A New Orleans judge sided with CSX, finding that protecting the community from floods was not the company’s responsibility.
In Lumberton, the process of building a floodgate over the CSX railroad is finally in motion, but city officials have estimated that it could take three to five years to complete. An extensive hydrologic study will have to be completed in advance of construction. As hurricane season begins, the levee gap remains open.
At the edge of Lumberton, where the ground slopes to one of its lowest points, fewer and fewer houses appeared to be occupied. James Cummings, a veteran and a runner who has lived in the neighborhood for years, joked that he enjoyed the privacy after the post-storm exodus. He wasn’t planning to leave. “It’s more than a box you live in; it’s a home,” he said. “You see that little brown house and that’s where you belong.” But if another major storm hits, he’ll still be in the floodwaters’ path.
Correction: June 2, 2019, 4 p.m. ET
A previous version of this article misstated the affiliation of BreAnna Branch. She works for the nonprofit Communities in Schools of Robeson County, not the Robeson County public school system.
This project was supported by a grant from VSCO Voices.