A feature story for Charlotte magazine about Hurricane Matthew’s aftermath in Lumberton, N.C.
THE LEVEE didn’t fail, but the floodwaters still fought their way through. Rapids had already torn over and under Interstate 95, when water started seeping under Angela Freeman Culler’s door.
First it was just a shallow pool, her black tennis shoes splashing around as she paced back and forth in the four-bedroom apartment she shared with her adult son, Gage, and another family. Water soaked the frayed edges of her couch and washed over the living room carpet. It rose fast, peaking at knee-high on her 5-foot-2 frame, soaking her jeans and weighing her down as she tried to find refuge—higher ground, or maybe a boat. She craved a cigarette.
Outside, she climbed onto a car’s roof to stay dry and avoid the snakes swimming around her. She felt her pulse quicken, and grabbed her chest. For two hours she waited, the stench of sewage and gasoline floating above the murky water and clinging to her clothes. She watched as her neighbors, many of them unable to swim, held tight to tires. Cars drifted down her street, Sinclair Street, dragged by the Lumber River’s currents.
Before her home started flooding, Angela didn’t even know a storm was coming. The day before, Saturday, October 8, 2016, it rained nonstop. Trees snapped and windows rattled as Hurricane Matthew’s Category One winds ripped through her low-income housing community on the southwestern side of town. Without cable or radio, Angela had missed the warnings. By Sunday, the rains settled and there was even some sun, but the historic rainfall of more than 16 inches had to drain somewhere.
It was only when the parking lot at the Holly Ridge apartments started to flood on Sunday that her neighbors murmured the word “hurricane.” Those murmurs soon turned into shouts. Lumberton was drowning.