Lumberton flooding Hurricane Matthew Robeson

Climate change makes life along the Lumber River uncertain. Here’s why some stay

By Katie MacKinnon

This story was originally published by The Assembly.

Looking down Interstate 95, Bradley Locklear didn’t see a single car. Under the damaged bridge toward Lumberton, the train tracks had collapsed. On the street corner below, water created 8-foot waves, submerging the local church. 

In all directions, homes were devastated. Locklear later learned that residents’ living rooms were filled with water, forcing them to climb to their roofs and wait to be rescued. Water flowed into crawl spaces, school buildings and community parks. 

It had been 17 years since Locklear left the area as an 18-year-old to get a degree in business administration from North Carolina State University. After graduation, he started working in heavy highway construction management—a good job that paid well and allowed him to break free of the poverty many members of his Tribe, the Lumbee, have faced in Robeson County.

After Hurricane Florence devastated large swaths of the Carolinas with extreme flooding in September 2018, Locklear was repairing a major bridge on I-95 right outside of Lumberton. In an attempt to get the highway back open as soon as possible, he was part of the team that was on-site two days after the hurricane hit the area.

As he stood on the banks of the river that has nurtured his people for generations, he knew that their survival on the land was under threat.

That was when he decided it was time to return home.

“I’m thinking about the kid who is trying to make good grades or filling out FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and writing an essay for college entry application,” Locklear, who is now the director of housing services for the Tribe, said. “You’re trying to do all that in your head when the house you’re living in is crumbling around you.” 

The “Lumber River,” according to U.S. Geological Survey maps, stretches 115 miles from Hoke County, North of Pembroke, Southeast through Columbus, Robeson, and Scotland counties and across the South Carolina state line. But many who live along it know it as the Lumbee River.

The Lumbee are the largest Native American Tribe in the eastern United States, with 60,000 citizens, but recognition of the Tribe has been an ongoing struggle. Tribal members are mostly spread across four counties, with the biggest concentration in Robeson County’s Pembroke. The Lumbee tribal office sits in Pembroke, about 15 miles down the road from Lumberton.

The river is central to the Tribe, and has been part of their daily lives for hundreds of years. Yet climate change has brought more frequent storms and flooding, creating uncertainty for the many generations that live along its banks.

In 2016, Hurricane Matthew caused the Lumber River to reach 28 feet, the highest in history. Two years later, the record was surpassed as Florence flooded the river to 29 feet, causing $24 billion in damage—mostly in the Carolinas—and 54 deaths.

Vulnerability assessments of the Lumber River Region cite flooding, severe weather, and extreme heat as increasing threats to the area over the next 30 to 50 years.

In the region, encompassing Bladen, Hoke, Richmond, Robeson and Scotland counties, 843 residential buildings have first-floor elevations below the current 100-year floodplain and 2,804 residential buildings have first-floor elevations below the current 500-year floodplain. 

Lumberton Robeson Hurricane Matthew NC National Guard rescue
Members of the North Carolina National Guard check on residents whose home flooded during Hurricane Matthew. National Guard photo

The Tribe mitigates the negative impacts of increased climate uncertainty by building new homes at least two feet above the floodplain, installing moisture barriers and dehumidifiers, and continuously reevaluating hazards. 

But Locklear says modifying preexisting structures has been a challenge. Some areas of South Lumberton still have not recovered from the 2016 floods, making it difficult to prepare for future events. Older homes don’t accommodate the updated regulations, and the Tribe has a limited budget to provide assistance. In addition to these barriers, Locklear said that there is still resistance to the reality of the situation.

“I still don’t think everyone’s on board with climate change,” he said. “We have a short memory.”

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The Lumbee faced housing challenges long before Hurricane Florence. The 1830 Indian Removal Act took away Native Americans’ ability to own land East of the Mississippi River in exchange for land in the West. Many southeastern nations resisted, but were eventually forced to leave; by 1837, an estimated 46,000 Native people were removed from their land across the South. Many Siouan, Algonquian, and Iroquoian tribes fled to the swamps of the Lumber River rather than being forced to work as sharecroppers.

When the act was repealed 150 years later, the displaced tribes did not have the money or federal recognition necessary to regain control of their lands. Instead, many built roots on the less desirable swampland around the river, and became what is now known as the Lumbee.

Today, Robeson County is 44 percent Native. The poverty rate is 29 percent with the average income at $35,362 a year—more than double North Carolina’s overall poverty rate, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The county also encountered an extreme drop in residents between 2010 and 2020, with more loss than any other in the state. This pattern, however, shows signs of improving in the past two years.

Although Congress passed legislation in 1956 technically acknowledging the Lumbee, the government denied their eligibility for many services typically provided to federally recognized tribes. This includes healthcare services, affordable housing, addressing environmental challenges, and more.

Without this federal assistance, they have to rely on their community for support. This can mean anything from a place to stay while homes are being rebuilt to boys and girls clubs that promote development regardless of a child’s circumstances. 

Tasha Oxendine, public relations manager for the tribe, works to keep people informed about Tribal community services, as well as document Lumbee history for future generations. She says that the river has given more than it has taken.

“For most of us, we view this land as land that God put us on,” said Oxendine. “That it’s not just a place that we were born, but it’s the place that we were put and this land provides for us. It has protected us and kept us safe while most tribes were removed from the Southeast.”

She looks to history for strength.

“I know that we can look back on situations that our ancestors faced 100 years ago, 500 years ago where there was smallpox or other issues, loss of land, that they were resilient because we are still here,” Oxendine said.

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As Locklear pulls out of the tribal office parking lot and onto the main stretch of Pembroke, the lights of fast-food chains and gas stations flash by. On the right, he points out the Lumbee Guaranty Bank headquarters—the oldest native bank in the country—which opened in 1973. One block to the left lies the twisting banks of the river.

Quickly, small one-story homes begin to dot the sides of the road.

As he pulls into a parking lot of a church that Hurricane Florence flooded, the Lumber River is visible through a thin barrier of brush. A sign that reads “no swimming” is nailed to a tall tree at the bank.

Locklear shakes his head, commenting that although children are warned against it, they continue to swim in the Lumber River. As welcoming as it may appear, unexpected rocks and moving water have taken the lives of many of his community members.

FEMA Lumberton flooding Robeson County Hurricane Matthew
A car is surrounded by floodwaters following Hurricane Matthew in October, 2016. FEMA photo

He recalls one friend, about his age, who died around this bend of the river when they were children.

“Looking in the casket was like looking at myself,” Locklear said.

This tragedy, which occurred in 1997, is not an uncommon occurrence for Lumbee families. Swimmers drown because of the dark water, quick moving currents, and the unpredictable depths of the Lumber River—obstacles that only increase with more flooding events.

While the threat of drowning remains an obstacle, the Lumbee have continued to come together to find solutions. A pool built in 1962 as a part of the Cultural Center, alongside a lake, golf course, tennis and basketball courts, and amphitheater gave children a safe place to learn to swim and find community. A $600,000 revitalization of the Cultural Center in 2016 repaired hurricane damage and reopened the pool, and added a garden, stickball field, and fishing pond.

Homes along the river have also been altered to weather future storms. With a combination of state emergency funds and tribal sponsored projects, some homes have been raised several feet with a boost of new brick, contrasting the time-faded foundations.

The housing department of the Lumbee Tribe does its best to provide labor and financial assistance for home rehabilitation. Repairs include fixing water damage, HVAC replacement, replacing structures contaminated with lead or mold and improving handicap accessibility.

Since 2019, the Tribe has renovated over 800 homes, although not all were related to hurricane damage. The Tribe’s housing department is also building new homes to address housing insecurity, with 68 single family homes and 48 mobile home units fully constructed since October of 2018.

Although the department is constantly working to address requests, 374 families are waiting for remodels and over 250 are waiting for rental units. 

While tribal members wait for repairs on their homes, they move in with family or find other temporary living situations. They apply for aid not just with the Tribe, but with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.

According to FEMA’s website, the agency provides flood insurance that will “help reduce the socio-economic impact of floods.” While this program helps many Americans recover after natural disasters, Locklear said that it has not always supported his people.

Locklear noted that some tribal members were denied flood assistance in 2018 after Hurricane Florence, which they assumed to be because they received assistance in 2016 after Hurricane Matthew. The federal program puts responsibility on homeowners to move out of flood-prone areas when it becomes clear that natural disasters will reoccur.

This ignores what Cassandra R. Davis, a researcher at UNC-Chapel Hill who studies environmental disruptions to communities, calls “social place attachment”—the idea that people have a connection to their physical location because of their community.

For many, Davis said, leaving would mean “moving away from my culture and generations and ancestors.”

Another policy approach to natural disasters is buyout programs. In these, the government buys land from people who live in floodplains or other natural disaster-prone areas. 

In North Carolina, most buyouts are funded by FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. This funding, which can only be received through a community application after a disaster is declared, provides funding to rebuild in a way that reduces future disaster losses.

The state also has a Strategic Buyout Program administered by the North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency that determines buyout zones that are at risk for future flood damage. Robeson and surrounding Scotland, Columbus, Bladen, and Cumberland counties qualify for this program.

Policy-wise this could make sense, but Davis says that people do not receive enough money to relocate, and often they simply don’t want to. 

“It’s a terrible idea because people have these connections and they have these roots and just dismissing that—no wonder we have strained relationships between communities and governmental agencies and researchers and institutions,” Davis said.

* * *

Tiffany Oxendine – no relation to Tasha, Oxendine is just a common surname here – works in the Tribe’s Department of Energy. She said her step-grandmother’s home, near Luther Britt Park right next to the river in downtown Lumberton, was raised higher off the ground after it flooded in 2016 and again in 2018. Even though the house was filled with knee-deep water and had to be completely gutted, she wanted to stay. 

Oxendine lives a few miles away now, but feels drawn back. She is building a home right next to her parents’, grandparents’, aunts’, and uncles’ houses. 

“The community is small, but it’s home. I love where I live, everyone knows everybody,” she said. “If they don’t know me, they know my father, they know my grandparents. Being from a small community, it really hits your heart.”

The new house that she is building is just outside of the flood zone. Just like her step-grandmother, Oxendine is finding ways to alter her situation to be more prepared for a future storm, while remaining close to her community. 

“We’ve adapted to it and I don’t want to leave,” Oxendine said. “I couldn’t imagine myself living anywhere else, this is home.”

Lumberton flooding Hurricane Matthew Robeson
Hurricane Matthew severely flooded a number of areas in Lumberton and Robeson County. In this photo from The Robesonian, a common scene: piles of destroyed furniture and clothes stacked by the roadside.

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Katie MacKinnon is a recent UNC Chapel Hill graduate who covers environmental stories and their human impact. Find her previous work at Chapel Hill Magazine, Chapelboro and UNC Media Hub. 

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the location of the Lumbee tribe’s headquarters. It is in Pembroke.