Two hurricanes in two years: A small town community faces the long-term effects of natural disaster

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— Robeson County, one of the poorest areas in North Carolina, never saw the 2016 flood coming.

Hurricane Matthew was supposed to hammer the coastline and bring nothing more than wind and rain to Lumberton, which is 90 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. But after changing course, the Category 1 storm settled inland and dumped 20 inches of rain into the community.

With all the precipitation, the Lumber River, which runs through the middle of town, swelled until it reached nine feet above flood stage. That’s when the real damage began.

Millions of gallons deluged the streets of Lumberton, the county seat, submerging mailboxes and eventually seeping into living rooms. The water reached so high in the south side of Lumberton that residents climbed on top of their rooftops to be rescued.

Water devastated the community. The losses in the state piled up to more than $967 million, 68 percent of which was not expected to be covered by FEMA or insurance. Though an uphill battle faced them after monumental damage, residents looked forward to the hope of recovery.

Friends and neighbors talked about the storm as if it were a once in a lifetime event. Once the community got some distance from the wreckage, the watermarks would start to fade. Maybe the psychological damage could dissipate too.

It couldn’t happen again. It wouldn’t happen again. Could it happen again? Many worried, but the probability was in their favor. Until suddenly it wasn’t anymore.

“The first go around, you say, ‘OK, we made it through.’ They told us it was a 100-year or 1,000-year flood,” said Max Bergstresser, a longtime Lumberton resident who grew up there. “Then the second double whammy comes just two years later.”

In September, Hurricane Florence came barreling toward Robeson County and eastern N.C. With the Category 4 storm halting on top of the state, everything that seemed impossible did happen. A hurricane of that magnitude really did turn out to be a once in a lifetime storm, given hamsters live two to four years.

The second time around, 24 inches of rain fell, flooding the same areas. Freshly renovated homes were destroyed again. Rebuilt houses were ruined. The new paint on garages to cover up the watermark stains was useless, with murky brown water replacing the old marks. Low-income residents settled into new areas only to have those areas destroyed, too.

For the second time, neighborhoods piled their belongings by the side of the road. How can they move on? Federal and state money hadn’t even reached them yet from Hurricane Matthew.

“When you’re kicked in the gut and you spend two years trying to get your breath and then right when things are on the verge of normalcy for a lot of people, then you have to do it again,” said Donnie Douglas, editor of The Robesonian, “That’s just something that’s difficult to deal with on a lot of levels.”

Economic damages

The economy and community in Robeson County have been buoyed by its agriculture, and close proximity to I-95 and UNC-Pembroke for a long time.

With a population of 132,000 people — about 40 percent who are Native American — Robeson County is also home to the Lumbee Tribe. The tribe derives its name from the Lumber River, a landmark which weaves 133 miles through the state around housing development, main roads and community parks.

Many locals grew up swimming in that river and looking at it every day as they passed by in their cars. They lived beside it, fished in it, ran an annual 5K beside it, and some even paddled a canoe in it over the summers.

They never considered the river would turn against them.

“If there’s no Lumber River, there’s no Lumberton, OK?” Douglas said. “It’s what sustains us, but somehow or another we’ve got to coexist with it when we get two feet of rain.”

After Matthew, the local government set plans to fortify the area’s water plant. After that storm, the city’s water system was infiltrated with contaminated water. It took weeks to restore clean water to cook or take showers.

But two years wasn’t enough time to make institutional changes to the infrastructure. Especially not since it felt like there would be time to fix that. In two years, a whole lot of answers to preventing the problem hadn’t come up.

In the aftermath, economic issues prevent the community from bouncing back. Many homeowners cannot afford to pay for renovations, or rebuild altogether. Even those who could afford the first wave of repairs might not see a second wave to be worth it.

The median income of Robeson County is $31,000 with almost 28 percent of the population living in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Parts of Lumberton with the lowest incomes were hit the hardest. The overhaul would take government help.

All but one percent of the money asked for by the state after Matthew was denied by the federal government. The money that was approved still hasn’t reached its intended demographics yet either.

It’s unlikely that if another hurricane were to strike two years from now, the community will be any more prepared. And with that as a possibility, some have decided they will move away from their hometown.

Fool me twice, shame on me

Max Bergstresser was firm in his decision to stay in Lumberton after the first hurricane hit his hometown.

Even when many of his neighbors abandoned their houses instead of returning, it seemed obvious that he’d repair and rebuild. Growing up in Mayfair, a neighborhood on the north side of town, he loves this community.

When he had a family of his own, he set his sights on moving back to the community, and in 2011, he moved into a one-story house one property down from where his parents live.

But something changed in him — or maybe around him — the second time a hurricane came around.

“We’re planning for the future as far as that goes,” Bergstresser said. “That weighs into our minds because fool me once shame on you. You know the rest of it, right? Fool me twice, shame on me.”

In the two months since Florence struck, they decided they want to sell their house and move away. With a swamp behind their backyard, it isn’t an ideal place to live in light of recent years, even with good neighbors and family all around them.

Bergstresser and his wife, Natalie, want to look out for their daughter, Eden. Now 5 years old, she is becoming more aware of her surroundings, and they don’t want her to fear the weather. On top of it, all they haven’t received much help to repair their property, even after paying flood insurance for years.

“Being the parents of a small child, we don’t want her to have to go through this time and time again if nothing is going to be fixed by our city,” Natalie Bergstresser said. “Max and I decided we’ll go somewhere where we can get our money’s worth, and she won’t have to worry about possibly having to redo a house every few years.”

After Florence, the heating and air system in their house stopped working. They’ll need a brand new HVAC unit because their old one flooded, but FEMA denied their application for assistance. An appeal will take months to process, so they’re preparing to ride into a cold winter without heat.

“FEMA was the thing that really gets under our skin the most,” Max Bergstresser said. “We pay flood insurance, almost $200 a month on top of a mortgage, and they denied us our claim this time.”

Despite the pattern of storms, Century 21 realtor Barry Mulhearn said the housing market has yet to see a change. While buyers are wary, they haven’t seen fewer people buying houses or more trying to sell.

In the year after Matthew, Mulhearn’s agency closed on 340 properties in the county. With another sight of Mother Nature thrown in, he has no idea what the long-term effect might be, though he’s hopeful.

“It’s a challenging time in the moment,” Mulhearn said. “But Robeson County has seen challenging times before and gotten through it.”

Psychological damages

Just like experiencing child abuse or war, living through any kind of jarring event including a natural disaster can leave long-term psychological impact on a person.

Dr. Shilpa Regan, UNC-Pembroke professor of psychology, says it’s certainly possible that after two hurricanes in less than two years, a person could develop serious cases of depression, PTSD, or anxiety.

The psychological damages of a hurricane aren’t exactly what first comes to mind after natural disasters, but they can attach themselves to survivors of traumatic experiences, taking just as long as financial recovery.

“(Trauma is) defined as this overwhelming, frightening event where you fear for your safety or you fear for somebody else’s safety,” Regan said. “Now, how that’s interpreted is based on the individual. What you think is a trauma may not be what somebody else thinks is a trauma.”

PTSD is not an uncommon result of a life changing hurricane, Regan said. After having your life uprooted and worries about food, clothing and other basic needs for weeks, it usually becomes noticeable a month or so after the event takes place.

After Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Regan said psychologists conducted studies of the lasting impact of the trauma on people. What they found is that years after it took place, the psychological damages were still prevalent, and extended beyond Louisiana natives to first responders as well.

This effect has manifested itself on the Robeson County community.

“Every time it rains, like yesterday, people are just kind of gun shy,” Douglas said. “What if this happens again?”

To cope with a trauma, relationships are often affected and higher levels of substance abuse can be associated with it. People can become distant, fearful, or have flashbacks of the event that spurred their trauma. It takes months or sometimes years of weekly therapy sessions to resolve trauma, Regan said.

Victims must first understand what they are experiencing. Then, a therapist challenges their ideals or fears before exposure therapy to what spurred the trauma helps someone overcome it.

It takes a long time to overcome a hurricane, not only financially, but emotionally too.

Moving forward?

The long-term effect of hurricanes is weighing on a community.

A question lingers in the front of the mind of the community: will this happen again? The data supports that even though hurricanes are unpredictable, one could hit again.

“This is something we’ll have to live with,” Lumberton resident Ronald Smith said. “There will be storms next year, there will be storms the following year. And the more we develop the area, the more flooding we’re going to wind up with.”

Smith is a retired former meteorologist at the Pentagon who settled in Robeson County about 10 years ago. After Florence, he started compiling data to help himself understand the factors behind why the flooding has been so bad. If another hurricane strikes, Smith said there are things that can be done to make sure it isn’t as bad.

The foundations of most houses in the community were built below the 100-year floodplain, according to Smith. He believes they’ll need to be raised at least four feet higher to survive the threat of most floods, looking similar to the houses found at the beach or in Charleston.

But even the threat that it could happen again starts to look like a pattern. Not only can Robeson County not afford another hurricane, but it can’t afford the reputation either.

“I think the thing that worries me and this goes beyond just the storm, but we’ve got to get people to come to Robeson County who are educated, who have talent and believe in this place,” Douglas said. “If you’re worried about a flood, that’s just one more reason not to come.”