Family returns to Lumberton home 9 months after hurricane
LUMBERTON, N.C. (AP) — Lola Smith swung open the door of her darkened, first-floor room at the Motel 6 off Interstate 95.
A group of young people laughing and yelling next door was drowned out by the whizzing of cars on the interstate and the humming from the air conditioner.
Smith flipped on the light, revealing an impersonal, bare room except for a few novels stacked on the nightstand and a red tub of coffee on the microwave.
She gently closed the door behind her.
“This is home,” Smith said.
Ever since Hurricane Matthew’s widespread flooding forced her from her apartment in the middle of the night last October, Smith has lived in shelters and the motel room. A week ago — nine months after the hurricane — she finally began moving her few possessions into her renovated apartment.
“The hotel was getting to be depressing,” she said on July 14, moving day. “Living out of the suitcase is something you don’t want to do. You have to dig through everything to find what you’re looking for. All those things that we have now, I will never take them for granted. I will never take anything for granted.”
Hurricane Matthew dropped 15 inches of rain in parts of southeastern North Carolina. The heavy rain flooded dams, roads and structures. Many families, like Smith and the other residents of the First Baptist senior apartments, had to evacuate.
In Robeson County, there are still about seven families living in hotels, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Then-Gov. Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency in 66 counties, including many in the Cape Fear region.
The southern part of Lumberton was one of the hardest hit areas by the Oct. 8 storm, primarily due to widespread flooding from an engorged Lumber River. Dozens of people were stranded and needed to be rescued, while hundreds were forced from their homes.
Five shelters were opened for more than 1,800 people.
In the days following the hurricane, many residents were trapped because water had flooded major roads in the city cutting them off.
With no electricity, there was virtually no gasoline, water or food for sale. Bottled water and military MREs were distributed to residents from 10 of the county’s 28 fire stations.
The city’s water treatment plant flooded, shutting down public water for about two weeks.
About a week after the hurricane, officials attributed three deaths in Robeson County to Hurricane Matthew.
Robeson County Manager Ricky Harris said he was heartbroken over the hurricane’s destruction.
“When the storm initially happened, it was impossible to go into some of these communities and see the damage unless you were in a helicopter,” Harris said. “It was then I knew we were in for a long-time recovery process.”
Harris said he was grateful to everyone who stepped up to assist county residents in need. Countless churches, service organizations and fire departments worked together pitching in where they could, he said.
“I have been amazed by the way the community, the city of Lumberton has come together,” he said.
Harris said the county is working on securing money for programs to repair homes. He said he hopes Congress will set aside additional funding for Robeson County.
And yet, he knows some lives will never be back to normal.
“Some folks, that’s all they had — a place to stay and a place to sleep,” he said. “There’s still so much work to do to get people back on track.”
Lumberton gained national attention when “Good Morning America” broadcast from the city in February. The show highlighted the ongoing efforts toward recovery.
In June, Gov. Roy Cooper visited Lumberton to announce a grant that would be available to Robeson County to rebuild homes.
He added that Robeson County received about $70 million in federal disaster recovery money through Community Development Block Grants to repair and rebuild homes.
At the request of Lumberton officials, Cooper also said there will be funding to research ways to reduce flood damage in Lumberton in the future. The study, which could take three months, will document flooding causes, develop strategies to limit flood damage and estimate costs for changes needed to protect the city from future floods.
“We want to learn why this flooding happened and what can keep it from happening again,” he has said. “This study can identify ways to protect Lumberton, keep its residents safe and help flood insurance rates remain stable so homeowners and businesses can return.”
Smith, 68, had been living at First Baptist senior apartments on Marion Drive for two years. The apartment’s four brick buildings house single, elderly people.
It is a close-knit community, and it’s common to see people sitting together on the benches outside talking during the day.
Smith remembers going to sleep the night of Oct. 8. It was raining, but not hard enough to cause alarm.
Even when she woke the next day and the water had filled the parking lot, she and others in the complex were unmoved.
“I made a joke — ‘Who wants to go fishing?’” she said. “It looked like a lake. We didn’t think nothing about it. We laughed about it.”
But the water continued to rise overnight.
That’s when the 81 residents in the apartments were forced to evacuate. They grabbed what they could and trudged through the parking lot to the street where a van was waiting to take them to a shelter.
The ride was anything but smooth. The van had to take back roads to dodge the flooded streets. It became stuck on 5th Street on the way to the shelter, and a tow truck had to come pull it out.
In the first few days after the hurricane, Smith slept on a cot in a shelter along with dozens of other people. Her cell phone battery had died, and with no electricity, she couldn’t charge it to call her family.
Her family, who live in Georgia, hadn’t heard from her for four days.
And, with no water, the displaced Lumberton residents could only use portable toilets. Patting their bodies with baby wipes was considered a shower.
“Seeing all your personal things thrown on a pile, that’s hard,” she said. “It didn’t hit me until I looked and seen my whole life consists of a suitcase. It’s very hard.”
Sarah McLean, the property manager for First Baptist homes, was devastated when all of her residents were forced out.
When she found her residents in a shelter following the storm, they handed her lists of items they wanted from their apartments. McLean went back to the complex and walked through each apartment, salvaging what she could.
“We got in the building and we were standing in water in the dark,” she said. “Stuff in the units was moved around. I cried. I tried to get their things from their lists.”
Because of the flood’s damage, four feet of Sheetrock had to be removed from each unit. Countertops, floors, appliances and tubs were also replaced.
McLean had hoped to have all the residents moved back in by April, but the months blended together. She never imagined it would take nine months to repair the units.
Working from a folding table and a laptop, McLean tracked contracts for construction that had taken over all four buildings. She started attending the county’s emergency management meetings so she could better understand different programs available to help her displaced residents.
“They’ve been through a lot,” she said. “I’ve just been with them and tried to hold them together.”
The seniors were scattered among the county’s shelters, which McLean visited regularly. Sometimes the residents would just ramble and cry to her.
It was better when they were moved to hotel rooms, but still difficult.
“They really weren’t getting any hot food,” McLean said. “The Motel 6 owner would buy pizza for them.”
McLean continued to check on residents while construction progressed at the apartment buildings. In June, she passed along the news they had been longing to hear.
“Finally I told them to just prepare themselves,” she said. “It’s time to come home.”
In Smith’s room, the suitcases were stacked against a wall. It was surreal to see the room emptying as she moved her things into her apartment.
“It was a happy feeling to really go to the front desk and check out and thank all the staff,” Smith said. “It was painful to leave them because they had become family, but it was a good feeling to say this chapter of my life is behind me.”
It’s just temporary, until her permanent apartment is ready, but she’s grateful to get out of the motel.
Her apartment has an open living room area in the front next to the full kitchen. A bathroom is between the kitchen and bedroom.
“I walked in and I looked at everything,” she said. “I saw my couch in the room and my bed in the room. I was like, ‘Boy, I waited a long time to see my own personal things.’ Just to have my own personal things, it was a feeling you can’t describe.”
Information from: The Fayetteville Observer, http://www.fayobserver.com