Lying in the bed of a Best Western hotel that he and his family evacuated to one night in the middle of September, Rory Parker, 47, wondered if he had enough fight to make it through another hurricane.
“We were promised the help that we were supposed to get,” Parker said. “We were promised it. And they did not follow through with that promise.”
When Hurricane Matthew brought unprecedented devastation to Lumberton, North Carolina, in late 2016, years of recovery loomed ahead for a town already coping with poverty, a declining population, and a racial divide. Two years later, Hurricane Florence only intensified that damage in a way that many residents feel ill-equipped to face.
Florence — which hit many of the same areas as Matthew did — dropped around 40 inches of rain in just the initial three days of the storm’s arrival. But the intense flooding won’t be fully measured until agencies like FEMA can gain access to affected areas in the town, where 35.1 percent of residents live below the poverty line. That’s almost 20 percent higher than North Carolina’s average, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The socioeconomic divide means many residents don’t have the money to rebuild — and couldn’t even find a stable place to stay during the throes of the storm. The town’s black residents, which make up nearly half of those living in poverty, also complain about a lack of equal access to recovery resources.
Exhausted at the thought of navigating the bureaucracy of disaster relief again, some residents have considered just taking on the costs themselves — even though they likely can’t afford it.
“Ask people. We are used to being treated this way,” said Michelle Morrison, a 52-year-old black resident of south Lumberton, whose house was destroyed by Matthew and damaged, again, by Florence. “So therefore, half of us just don’t even want to be bothered with it. I don’t want the red tape, or the headaches, or people just telling me, ‘Well, you can’t have that, but you can have some of this.’”
When the last hurricane hit, Parker — who lives with his father and daughter in Mayfair, a neighborhood in Lumberton — used all of his father’s 401(k) to rebuild their house. He also took out a loan that they still haven’t finished paying off. Their home was underinsured, which left much of the damage as a financial burden the family thought it would be protected from.
This time around, Parker was afraid his father would have a heart attack when he found out about predictions of Florence’s arrival. His father is now retired and receives disability payments.
“We’re at a standstill,” said Parker, who works as a substitute teacher and doesn’t have his own retirement fund. “We’re done, tapped out of money.”
When Florence’s floodwaters began rising into his home on Sept. 16, Parker posted videos on Facebook documenting what he said “brought back haunting memories.”
“This is my dad and mom’s house, again,” Parker said in one video as floodwaters approached his porch. “Two years. All they’ve done after 60 years that they’ve worked on this home, 60 years of living. And this is what it comes to.”
Hurricane Matthew two years ago displaced around 700 Lumberton families from their homes and destroyed over 100 public housing units, according to Rick Foreman, a pastor at West Lumberton Baptist Church. Foreman called the second rebuild the community now faces after Florence “horrific.” He said that there won’t be enough economic resources for some people to stay in the town, not necessarily due to governmental relief, but because of how “poverty-stricken” the area is.
Lumberton had already seen its overall population decline for five straight years before Florence hit and its median property value drop nearly 4 percent between 2015 and 2016, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data.
When the chaos of Florence began seeping floodwaters into Parker’s home, a rescue crew evacuated the residents out of Mayfair on a boat. They took up shelter in a Best Western outside Lumberton.
Last week, however, FEMA informed Parker that no federal funds would be given to pay any hotel fees his family accrues while they are displaced from their home. The phone call gave him an anxiety attack.
It could take anywhere from months to years for FEMA to assess the safety of homes affected by Florence and for insurance companies to assess the cost of damages. Parker’s family now has to leave the Best Western with the realization that they’ll be footing the bill, and he doesn’t know where they will go next.
FEMA did not respond to requests for comment.
As stressful as it is, Parker’s situation isn’t unique. After Florence, many coastal Carolinians now find themselves in similar financial and emotional distress.
When a rebuild group warned that the damage of Matthew may be replicated if a similar storm hit Lumberton, Adrienne Kennedy, 43, was one of the few to listen. Instead of trying to piece together the life taken from her by Matthew — and the looters that came after the storm — Kennedy moved with her two children into a trailer home in the town of Fayetteville, the only area she said she could afford to go to.
"I’ve been crying for like two days because this is probably the most racist place I’ve been to in my life."
Kennedy didn’t realize her new home would be in another flood zone, less than a mile from the Cape Fear River. Earlier this month, her Fayetteville trailer sat directly in Florence’s crossfires. She evacuated and may have to confront another life-altering ultimatum if the flooding of her trailer is as destructive as she fears.
“I was safe with one house down, one house accrued,” Kennedy said. “But I can’t — if my house is messed up again, I can’t keep doing this.”
Kennedy’s experience with disasters goes beyond just herself; her mother died as a result of Hurricane Sandy when she returned to her New York home before FEMA had assessed it. Kennedy said exposure to mold was the stated cause of her death.
Many Lumberton victims face the same situation now: returning to their condemned homes and accepting the health risks brought on by contaminated floodwaters.
“Poor people recover differently than rich people do,” Kennedy said. “It boils down to stability and security. And if you don’t have the money, you don’t have the security to just up and leave.”
“When it floods, they have nowhere to go, because if you’re paying $300 a month rent where you’re at. You can’t afford to cross the river and start paying $700 a month for that,” added Foreman, who expected the compound damage to West Lumberton Baptist Church from the last two storms to exceed $2 million.
The town is also starkly divided by race. With a population that has nearly the same number of black and white residents, 43.3 percent of Lumberton residents living below the poverty line are black, while only 17.8 percent are white.
Kennedy said many poor black residents live in south Lumberton. Census data, which divides certain areas of the town into tracts, shows that median household income in most areas of south Lumberton falls well below $30,000. Those numbers are nearly doubled in north Lumberton, where one tract holds a median income of $52,332.
South Lumberton has many “mom-and-pop” businesses and discount stores, Kennedy said, while north Lumberton contains a shopping mall and established businesses like Wal-Mart. Following Matthew, she said some of those businesses didn’t have flood insurance and struggled more to bounce back than those in north Lumberton.
Kennedy has also felt the racism that exists in the area since returning. After evacuating to the home of the commissioner of a town outside Lumberton called Rowland, Kennedy said her two kids attempted to join a group of white children playing basketball.
A white woman then yelled at the white children, she said, to leave the court. Her friend explained to Kennedy, who lived in New York for years previous to her time in Lumberton, that she needed to remember how things work in the area.
“I’ve been crying for like two days because this is probably the most racist place I’ve been to in my life,” Kennedy said.
Morrison, another resident of south Lumberton, also believes racism afflicts the town, and that it shows itself in relief efforts. She said that the distribution of immediate resources disproportionally favored higher-income residents of the county.
Morrison, her four children, and her two brothers escaped the storm by living with one of her older daughter’s boyfriend in Orrum, North Carolina, a town that suffered little damage aside from flooding shutting down some roads. But they stayed only until her daughter’s boyfriend told them to leave.
At that point, shelters had already been filled and closed off from outside visitors, and they had no other viable places to stay. Morrison and her children returned to their south Lumberton home just a few days after Florence’s arrival, despite her neighbors still being evacuated and surrounding floodwaters still being present at varying levels.
Morrison said Florence’s floodwaters did not enter her south Lumberton home, though they did leak into her lawn along with heavy rainfall damaging her roof. The town’s emergency management center, which provides immediate food and supplies for surrounding victims, was set up in north Lumberton, and Morrison said many in south Lumberton couldn’t access it due to the storm’s impact on roads and travel.
Her home, which she had been renting at the time, was destroyed by Matthew. Morrison said the she had to move into a new south Lumberton home when her landlord was unable to cover the costs of the damage. She said many in her community “fell in line” with the government’s planned process and realized over a year later that they hadn’t been given enough.
She also said she thinks a lot of her neighbors, whose homes experienced damage that could be costly without being totally destructive, will sell their homes. But she doesn’t know where else they will go or who would want to move in.
Shy Regan, 33, was in the process of moving into her mother’s newly purchased home in Maxton, North Carolina, which would have put her out of Florence’s reach. Her mother was suddenly hospitalized for an illness before signing off on basic utilities like power, water, and electricity. Regan said she was not allowed to sign off on those payments herself, and she didn’t want to move her three-month-old son, who suffers from lupus in the brain and a congenital heart defect, into a home that lacked basic necessities.
Regan and her son had to stay at her niece’s house in Lumberton until the storm came to shore. The house was caught in Florence’s path, and they were evacuated to a makeshift American Red Cross shelter in Lumberton High School.
She recalled telling workers at the shelter from the Robeson County Department of Social Services that she needed menstrual pads, the only product her doctor allows her to use for her period because of her sensitivity to tampons. She went three days before receiving them. She also mentioned issues with people having sex and doing drugs in the shelter’s bathroom.
Robeson County DSS did not respond to requests for comment.
Regan’s biggest concern, however, was the crowdedness and uncleanliness of the shelter. She feared the thought of her son getting sick and being hospitalized, which would cause them both to lose their spot at the shelter.
“I’m just praying and waiting on my momma to come home,” Regan said.
In the face of uncertainty, the community is rallying around the same thing after Florence that it did after Matthew: each other.
Foreman recalled the year-and-a-half following Matthew, when their church was destroyed and other local churches opened their doors for West Lumberton Baptist attendants to have their own services every week.
As he prepared to lead another exhaustive restoration process, Foreman also expected the church to give back to around 400 people in the community a day for the foreseeable future.
“If you don’t have the means to recover on your own, you’re just in a bad way,” Foreman said. “And if we can help by just giving a bag of food or a pack of diapers, and offset some costs for those families, it makes a big difference in whether they’re going to have any food on their table or not.”
Cover image: A resident surveys a road inundated by water in Lumberton, N.C., Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018, following flooding from Hurricane Florence. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)