FAIR BLUFF, N.C. — For nearly two centuries, a historic home sat along a quiet stretch of Main Street here overlooking the Lumber River. Built in 1817, it was the oldest standing house in this old timber town, owner Daryl Pugh said.
But when Hurricane Matthew unleashed a torrent of rain over North Carolina in October 2016, the already-swollen river quickly overflowed its banks. Pugh and his wife had no choice but to flee, taking with them only their dogs and a couple of bags of clothes. A few days later they returned, by boat, to find their home inundated with water — a total loss.
“We had to tear down a 199-year-old house,” said Pugh, a paramedic for nearby Robeson County.
Last month, the Pughs finally moved into a new home they’d built on the same piece of land. They were barely settled in when Hurricane Florence took aim at the North Carolina coast.
“We’re still trying to recover,” Pugh said Thursday as he worked to secure a grill and other loose items in a shed before the storm hit. “Going on two years and here comes another hurricane.”
Dozens of homes in Fair Bluff, which is 70 miles from where the hurricane is expected to make landfall late Thursday or early Friday, flooded during Matthew. Many of them remain abandoned, their water-damaged interiors visible from the street through shattered windows.
Most of the businesses along Main Street are deserted. Roughly a third of the town’s residents left after the storm, according to The Fayetteville Observer. Just last week, as Florence swirled out in the Atlantic, Fair Bluff received state funding to hire three employees to help with the town’s recovery.
Hurricane Florence, which as of Thursday evening was a Category 2 storm with 100-mile-per-hour winds, brings a fresh threat of catastrophic damage along the coast. It also brings a high potential for devastating inland flooding in places like Fair Bluff and nearby Lumberton, places that have struggled economically in recent years.
Lisa Hardin’s house stands out among the flood-damaged homes on the south end of Lumberton, also located on the bank of the Lumber River. On Thursday morning, she sat on her front porch, a pack of cigarettes on the table next to her. Hardin moved there three years ago, only to have her home destroyed by the flooding caused by Matthew a year later. Like Pugh, it took her almost two years to rebuild.
Despite that experience, the wizened Hardin had no intention of evacuating Thursday.
“Leave it in the Lord’s hands. Pray about it. That’s all I can do,” she said.
Hardin says it’s been tough to watch the community struggle to bounce back. And while she hadn’t thought about what she’ll do if Hurricane Florence floods her neighborhood again, Hardin’s here to stay.
“You’ve got to live somewhere,” she said.
Matthew Peterson, on the other hand, wasn’t taking any chances this time around. He and his family barely managed to escape Lumberton in 2016 after they awoke to find flood water creeping up toward their doors. He fled town with more than a dozen people piled in his pickup, only to find most of the roads blocked by standing water.
Peterson, his wife and their three children spent Thursday morning packing anything they could fit into their vehicles before heading for the state capital in Raleigh, about 100 miles to the north and farther inland. The recurring hurricane annual threat has made Peterson rethink where he lives.
“If it happens again, I told my wife, ‘We got to go,’” he said. “Just relocate.”
Matthew, a Category 1 storm at landfall, dumped as much as 18 inches of rain in parts of southern North Carolina. Florence could drop as much as 30 or 40 inches on coastal parts of the state, and as much as 20 inches to the area around Fair Bluff and Lumberton.
Jeff Wade moved to Lumberton from Lynchburg, Virginia, in February 2017 to help with Hurricane Matthew recovery. He’s a construction manager for the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church Disaster Response, which is helping to rebuild dozens of homes flooded during Matthew. The work is far from finished.
“I worry that Florence may be more than people can handle,” he said.
The Wades on Thursday were checking in with some of the families whose homes they’ve helped rehabilitate before weathering out the storm in Lumberton themselves.