In a world altered by climate change, flood-prone communities are facing disaster piled on disaster, and the pathway of floodwaters is determined by the built environment. For decades, developers have built under assumptions about flooding that are now irrelevant due to climate change. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew produced the type of rainfall in Lumberton, North Carolina, that was only supposed to occur once every 1,000 years, but then Hurricane Florence hit two years later- another 1,000-year storm.
Whether damage and displacement can be averted often depends on whether companies or governments pony up the cash to decrease risk. In Lumberton, the seat of one of the poorest and most diverse counties in the nation, it was those with the fewest resources who ended up paying the price for inaction. Matthew’s catastrophic flooding, which displaced an estimated 1,500 residents, was the result of a gap in the city’s levee system. A pathway for the Lumber River’s floodwaters remained wide open where the CSX railroad passes under Interstate 95. State officials recommended the construction of a floodgate after Matthew, otherwise hundreds of homes and businesses could flood again. The city couldn’t move fast enough, in part due to the inaction of CSX.
And when Hurricane Florence threatened to overwhelm the river again in September 2018, CSX refused to allow the city to construct a temporary sandbag berm over its tracks. At the eleventh hour, Gov. Roy Cooper overrode CSX with an executive order, allowing the National Guard to move in. The hastily built berm burst, creating a new wave of climate change displacement just as residents were starting to recover.