Floodwaters force hundreds to evacuate in Lumberton

Posted October 10, 2016 11:10 a.m. EDT
Updated July 13, 2018 1:38 p.m. EDT

— Hundreds of Lumberton residents were forced to flee their homes early Monday as water from Hurricane Matthew poured into their neighborhoods.

The water was knee-deep through the area by mid-morning and was rising rapidly, Gov. Pat McCrory said at a news conference updating the impact of Hurricane Matthew on North Carolina.

"I heard a noise, which is what woke me up out of my sleep," resident Nikia Moore said. "When I got up, the water was coming in the house. We had to get out."

Moore said she put her baby on her shoulder and left with just the clothes on her back.

Two dozen boats were deployed to the area to help rescue about 1,500 residents stranded by the rising water, according to Mike Sprayberry, director of the state Emergency Management Division. Helicopters were also flying over Lumberton to pull people from roofs.

Shelters were opened at the following locations in Robeson County for affected residents: South Robeson High School in Rowland, Purnell Swett High School in Maxton, Red Springs High School, St. Pauls High School and the Bill Sapp Recreation Center in Lumberton.

A sixth shelter had been operating at Carroll Middle School in Lumberton, but floodwaters threatened it, so officials had to move the residents who were there.

The Purnell Swett High shelter was at capacity Tuesday evening, with one generator and two portable toilets serving hundreds of people.

Christine Spivey said the conditions at the shelter reminded her of those experienced by Hurricane Katrina survivors.

"People (are) outside using the Porta Potty," Spivey said. "They don’t want nobody to come in here and use the bathroom in the school. I mean, people are not being treated right."

The flooding was initially attributed by state officials to a break in the levee that runs along the Lumber River, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported Monday afternoon that the levee remained intact.

Richard Neuherz of NOAA said water was flowing into the southwest portion of the city through an Interstate 95 underpass at VFW Road, noting that the flooding would have happened more quickly and with more devastating effects if the levee had failed.

McCrory said the air space over Lumberton was restricted to eliminate any interference with the helicopters, and he advised people not to fly drones over the area to get an aerial view of the flooding.

Drones "are endangering our helicopter rescue teams," he said. "If we see a drone, we've got to withdraw our helicopters, and that could be a life or death situation for a person."

About 1,000 people had already left Lumberton in Matthew's wake, and about 500 buildings have been affected by flooding in the area, McCrory said.

The Lumber River was at 24.4 feet Monday afternoon, or about twice as high as normal, WRAL meteorologist Elizabeth Gardner said. Major flooding is estimated when the river level is at 19 feet, she said, adding that the river is expected to remain at about 24 feet into next week.

Flooding on the river upstream caused the University of North Carolina at Pembroke to suspend operations through Wednesday. The school was already scheduled to be on fall break Thursday and Friday. Emergency shelter, food and water will be provided to students who are unable to leave campus, administrators said.

Because much of I-95 remains closed between Lumberton and Four Oaks, detours have forced some traffic into Lumberton, which McCrory said is complicating rescue operations.

"Our major priority is to get local traffic through for evacuations," he said, urging tourists to avoid passing through North Carolina on I-95.

"We don't recommend that at this time. You're going to be delayed," he said. "We'll try to get you through through detours, but if those detours are impacting local evacuations, you will wait."

Several agencies were trying to coordinate the rescue from the Emergency Operations Center in Lumberton, and officials said the scope of the operation is a little overwhelming.

"We need emergency electricity. We need ice, water. We need the normal supplies that you would need in a situation like this," County Commissioner Raymond Cummings said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is assisting, but evacuees said they need help immediately.

"Can y’all please send some help? Food, clothes, whatever you have, just throw it by the road. We need whatever you can give and donate to us," Moore said.