Lumberton didn’t fix a big weakness before Florence. So residents tried a DIY defense.

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As Hurricane Florence approached, 100 volunteers came together to fill sandbags at Lumberton’s most vulnerable spot: A railroad underpass crossing beneath Interstate 95 and the Lumber River levee.

It’s the place where floodwaters spilled into neighborhoods during Hurricane Matthew in 2016 — a weakness local leaders had hoped to fix before the next big storm. The city has money for a floodgate system that could plug the underpass, but construction isn’t scheduled to start until next year, according to the Golden LEAF Foundation, which gave Lumberton a $1.25 million grant for the project.

A state study of the Lumber River found that the floodgate could reduce the damage from a Matthew-like flood by at least 80 percent, saving $232 million and 2,000 buildings.

State Sen. Danny Britt blamed CSX railroad leaders for delays in the project, but a CSX spokeswoman said Wednesday that the company has “full intentions of participating.” Britt said the company didn’t send a representative to a recent meeting about the project.

“CSX has not been a good community partner,” Britt, a Robeson County Republican, said in a phone interview Wednesday with the NC Insider. “If we had the floodgate, we wouldn’t have had any damage in West Lumberton.”

Britt and other local leaders sought help last week to block the underpass with sandbags as Hurricane Florence loomed off the coast. But they faced challenges getting permission from CSX, which was concerned about losing rail access in the area. They asked Gov. Roy Cooper to intervene and allow the sandbag operation, and on Friday morning, Cooper issued an emergency order to authorize the effort.

“From Hurricane Matthew experience, they knew that this was a point of vulnerability for major flooding in West Lumberton,” Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said in an email. “CSX officials who were contacted did not consent to allowing for sandbagging of the tracks, arguing that there was no proof that it would work and that it would cause significant damage to their tracks.”

CSX spokeswoman Katie Chimelewski said the railroad company initially needed the line to move shipments out of the storm’s path, and the National Guard needed it to bring supplies in.

“We kept our line open to do that and then proceeded to make sure they had safe access to start the sandbagging operation after that,” she said in a phone interview Wednesday.

By Friday, though, Lumberton was already facing tropical storm-force winds, and the city’s public works department didn’t have enough manpower to handle the project alone.

Britt asked for volunteers on Facebook, and his post was quickly shared more than 100 times.

“If you are like me and did not work out today, let’s get it in,” the senator wrote Friday morning. “The sandbags will not be here until around noon, and I will post the meeting location for you to report. If you have a shovel bring it.”

Between more than 100 volunteers, National Guard members and city employees, 5,000 sandbags were filled and installed within five hours.

The sandbag wall hasn’t kept all the water out, but “half of West Lumberton that flooded last time is dry this time,” Britt said Wednesday. Buildings in that section of town that took on several feet of water during Hurricane Matthew now have a few inches at most.

Government agencies identified the railroad underpass as a problem as early as 2003. According to a study released this year of Lumber River flooding, state government’s NC Floodplain Mapping Project questioned the levee’s accreditation in 2003 because of the opening at the railroad underpass.

“In discussions with FEMA it was determined that the levee should not be considered to provide protection,” the report says, pointing to the fact that a planned dike at the underpass was never built, and a plan to use sandbags in emergencies doesn’t meet federal requirements. During Matthew, the sandbag plan wasn’t followed.

Local leaders are hopeful that the floodgate will finally be built as the city recovers from Florence.

“There’s got to be some cooperation with CSX and the city to get it done,” Britt said.

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Taquana Sanders and George Green, of Fayetteville, NC,watch the rising waters of the Lumber River in Lumberton, NC Sunday morning. Heavy rains from Tropical Storm Florence are causing widespread flooding in the area, and water levels are expected to rise dramatically as the storm continues to dump more rain on much of North Carolina.

Rich Sugg

Chimelewski, the CSX spokeswoman, said a company vice president had been planning prior to the storm to begin conversations with Lumberton leaders in October.

“CSX still remains committed to meeting with Lumberton and helping them progress their project forward,” she said.

If the two sides can’t reach an agreement, Cooper could initiate eminent domain proceedings, but prior to Florence no one had made any such request to the governor’s office.

Golden LEAF CEO Dan Gerlach said that the current timeline calls for construction to “begin summer 2019 with completion targeted in 2020.”