Gov. Roy Cooper said recovery efforts related to Hurricane Florence damage, including in Lumberton, above, will exceed $13 billion, compared with $5 billion incurred after Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Floyd’s inflation-adjusted $7 billion to $9 billion in 1999. Photo by Brian Lindsey
By Danielle Herman
Three lawsuits filed in federal court against CSX Transportation contend the railroad company is responsible for extreme flooding that devastated parts of Lumberton, causing $250 million in damage during Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and further damage during last month’s Hurricane Florence.
In each case, the plaintiffs allege the company, a subsidiary of Jacksonville, Fla.-based CSX, knew that the gap created by a railroad underpass through Interstate 95 in the town’s levees would cause flooding from the Lumbee River but did nothing to prevent it. A report released this year on the river’s flooding shows government officials identified the underpass as a potential problem in 2003, and that CSX was made aware of the problem.
“I think they elevated their own interests above the interests of everyone in the western and southern portions of Lumberton,” says Matt Lee, a Raleigh attorney for Whitfield, Bryson & Mason, which filed the first lawsuit on behalf of five Lumberton residents on Sept. 24 in the Eastern District of North Carolina. The case seeks to be a class-action lawsuit involving others impacted by flooding in the area.
Mark Sigmon of Raleigh-based Sigmon Law filed a second lawsuit on Sept. 25 in state court. In October, the case was moved to federal court. A third lawsuit was filed Oct. 4 by the national firm Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll.
It also seeks to be a class-action lawsuit and lists businesses, residents and a local church as plaintiffs.
In a statement, CSX said it does not comment on pending litigation and that Hurricane Florence was an “extraordinary storm that brought record flooding.”
According to the plaintiffs, CSX did not try to block the opening despite repeated requests from residents and threatened trespassing charges against those who did. After CSX declined the city’s request to build a temporary sandbag berm, on Sept. 14 — the day Florence made landfall on the North Carolina coast — Gov. Roy Cooper overrode the company’s directive, and volunteers placed sandbags at the opening to try to stop the flooding. Plaintiffs claim a floodgate system would have prevented much of the damage.
“We think that CSX very well should’ve known what would happen here because of Hurricane Matthew and because of what people were doing to prepare for Hurricane Florence,” Sigmon says. “People tried to prevent this incredible damage before this happened.” Though the levees weren’t breached during Matthew, more than 1,500 people were displaced, according to the lawsuit filed by Cohen Milstein.
Lawyers at Cohen Milstein said in mid-October the next steps are to wait for a response from CSX. The court will determine if and how the lawsuits are consolidated.