When the height of water in the Lumber River reaches 13 feet, low-lying sections of Lumberton, North Carolina (NC), flood. On the Tuesday following the arrival of Hurricane Florence, the river crested at 21.7 feet. Recovering from the worst storm of 2018 will take many residents and business owners in the city 40 miles south of Fayetteville years.
Knowing that swift and helpful actions by CSX might have lessened their risk for suffering flood damage will not help them at all.
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As a longtime railroad injury lawyer in Virginia and North Carolina, I know that neighborhoods near train tracks and rail yards face constant dangers from air polluted by diesel fumes and coal ash, as well as from derailments and collisions. But flooding?
The problem in Lumberton is that CSX-owned tracks cut through the levee put in place to keep the Lumber River in its banks. Funding exists to build a floodgate to seal the gap, but that mechanical solution will not be in place until late 2019 at the earliest.
The city currently requires permission and cooperation from the railroad corporation to construct a temporary berm to make the levee an actual barrier to rising water. CSX not only refused requests to make hurricane preparations for more than a week before Florence made landfall on September 14, company officials reportedly threatened to sue Lumberton officials if they tried to work on the track area of the levee.
A CSX spokesperson told the Huffington Post and NBC News that its leadership felt compelled to keep the tracks through the levee open as long as possible to facilitate the westward evacuation of people and hazardous materials from Wilmington along the coast. The hurricane hit Wilmington directly during the very same morning that the railroad finally allowed Lumberton public works crews to build the needed berm.
Reflecting on this while speaking to a Huffpost reporter, local attorney Stephen McIntyre called it “unfortunate that CSX proved to be such an obstacle to the protection and the safety of so many people’s lives along with their homes, businesses, and places of worship.”
Republican state Sen. Danny Britt had a slightly earthier opinion to share with NBC: “We’re talking about a company that placed life in danger, placed millions of dollars of personal property of individuals in danger to protect their own interests,” said. “Hopefully this is something that finally gets CSX off its ass.”
Other people told the network that railroad corporate reps failed to attend the kickoff meeting for planning construction of the floodgate.
Very little about this story surprises me. Having represented injured and ill railroad workers in lawsuits against CSX since the mid-1980s, as well as the families of deceased rail employees, I have seen many instances of the company neglecting its legal obligation to act as a good corporate citizen. I hope for the sake of the people of Lumberton that CSX drops its resistance to and obstruction of flood control projects.