SPECIAL REPORT: How relentless storms hollow out communities

Can a hurricane kill a community? It’s a question the residents of Mexico Beach, Florida, are probably asking after Hurricane Michael roared ashore there on Oct. 10, obliterating a city just a little larger than Fair Bluff. It’s too soon to say whether Hurricane Florence will spell the end of Fair Bluff, or any of the other communities battered by September’s epic flooding in the eastern third of North Carolina. But after back-to-back catastrophes — Matthew in 2016 and now Florence — residents of eastern North Carolina fear that those who can afford to flee flood-prone towns will move away, leaving their poorer neighbors behind and their communities with dwindling resources that are essential to recovery.

Upriver in Lumberton, the floodwaters clawed through a hastily constructed mountain of sandbags and gravel. Just as it did during Hurricane Matthew two years earlier, the water poured into the city’s western end with fury enough to float cars and swallow homes to their eaves. Farther south, a wastewater-treatment plant outside Fairmont failed, and half a million gallons of sewage spilled into the Lumber River basin.

Here in Fair Bluff, more than a week after Hurricane Florence had made landfall about 75 miles to the east on Sept. 14, a seething stew of logs and lawn chairs, snakes and gators, half a million gallons of sewage and who knows how many millions of gallons of water surged through town.

In the aftermath, there was a dire quiet. If Hurricane Matthew left Fair Bluff on the ropes in 2016, Florence might have supplied the knockout punch.

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