The city of Lumberton, North Carolina, doesn’t want a repeat of Hurricane Matthew.
Two years ago, the city about 70 miles northwest of Wilmington was submerged in water for days after the Category 1 storm slammed into North Carolina. Part of the reason, citizens and officials said, was because of a spot where a train track runs under Interstate 95. The underpass left a gap in the surrounding levee, which allowed water from Lumber River to flood into the southwest part of the city. The entire area was navigable only by boat, said state Sen. Danny Britt.
“This is the one low point in Lumberton’s levee system,” Corey Walters, Lumberton’s deputy director of public works, told CNN on Friday. “This is essentially what flooded Lumberton.”
To prevent another catastrophe, city officials knew the hole had to be plugged, especially with Hurricane Florence slamming North Carolina’s coast. Officials had been working to secure the area for the last couple of days, but were struggling. On Friday, they put out a call on Facebook to ask for volunteers to help fill sandbags and plug the gap.
An hour later, more than 100 people were at work. The group was made up of city employees, members of the National Guard and about 70 citizens who were hard at work, trudging through the mud as rain whipped around them.
“It goes to show you the love and the passion we have here,” said Jarrod Lowery, a Pembroke citizen who was out helping.
As of Friday evening, CNN meteorologist Taylor Ward said, Lumberton was receiving heavy rain, but the eye of Florence was about 45 miles south of the city.
The call to action almost didn’t happen, though. Britt told CNN he and other Lumberton officials asked CSX, the railroad company that owns the track, whether it was OK for a crew to get on the track and put the sandbags down.
“CSX denied the request,” Britt said, adding that the company would not consent to sandbags being placed on the railroad. “They were afraid that it would damage the tracks.”
Britt said Gov. Roy Cooper issued an order for CSX to allow the city to use the tracks.
“CSX is providing safe access for members of the Lumberton, NC, community who are working to minimize potential impacts of flooding from Hurricane Florence,” the company said in a statement to CNN. “We are in contact with local officials to ensure the safety of those working around railroad property and will closely coordinate with them on recovery efforts after the storm passes.”
Britt said the city has “worked exhaustively” to install a floodgate since Matthew, but has not been successful.
The absence of floodgates can be seen throughout the southwestern portion of the city, Lowery said.
“Most of these homes, we haven’t rebuilt from Matthew yet,” Lowery told CNN. “Two days ago, before the rain started, you would have thought the flood happened last week because apartment complexes are still abandoned. Houses are still abandoned.”
CNN’s Cassie Spodak and Jeremy Harlan reported from Lumberton, and CNN’s Amir Vera wrote and reported from Atlanta.