Up front: The great flood

 In Up Front

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Two weeks after Hurricane Matthew dumped 18 inches of rain on eastern North Carolina, I tracked down Greg Cummings, not at his day job as Robeson County’s economic developer, but setting up a disaster relief center.

“It’ll be just like a Wal-Mart,” he explains from a 60,000-square-foot former warehouse. “We’ll have clothes laid out and organized on tables. Unloaded six trailers already, and I’m trying to get it set up so I can turn it over to the [Robeson County] Church and Community Center and get back to the office.” Robeson’s largest aid organization was flooded, one of a string of ironies in a community hardest hit by rising rivers after Matthew. Lumberton was without running water for a week. About 2,000 residents were rendered homeless.

More than two years after I got to know Cummings while writing about hard-luck Robeson County, I remembered that he lived on the banks of the Lumber River, “down in the swamp,” he’d said, enthusing about its peace and quiet. At least three of the state’s two dozen Matthew victims were from Robeson, drowned when the Lumber crested 4 feet above the previous record, so I was concerned. If you know Greg Cummings, it’s easy to like him. Like most Robesonians I met, he’s “as plain as an old shoe,” the ultimate country compliment bespeaking sincerity.  “The Lord spared me,” he said on a recent morning.

As our story pointed out (“This is the Place,” September 2014), Robeson County could use more blessings. The story was not popular in Lumberton, where local authorities organized a letter-writing campaign criticizing it for being too negative. It pointed out that Robeson is the state’s poorest county, plagued by a reputation for crime. Interstate 95 is both blessing and curse, offering not only excellent logistics connections, but also access to East Coast drug traffickers and other criminals.

And, central to the current presidential campaign, Robeson is ground zero for the decline of the middle class and the ill effects of trade agreements. I’d sat in Cummings’ office at the Lumberton airport while he ran his finger down a list of NAFTA-related plant closings that, when you count suppliers and other supporting businesses, had totaled more than 18,000 jobs.

But hard times, a phrase in our cover story’s headline, shouldn’t daunt Robeson’s endearing points. While the rest of the state stews over where folks go to the bathroom, Robeson has been a laboratory of racial and ethnic accommodation. It’s 39% Lumbee Indian — Vietnam veteran Cummings grew up on a local farm and is proud of his Lumbee heritage — about a third white, about a quarter black and the rest mostly Latino.

“Outside people don’t understand,” a local Republican leader said. “In a tri-racial county, we’ve learned that to get anything done, we have to cooperate.”

So, when the Lumber River, with its sluggish water, Spanish moss, summertime moccasins and dark beauty, recedes, Greg Cummings will go home, clean up the “real mess” it left, and go back to work searching for what Robeson does need.

“We’ve got two major projects we hope are coming any day,” he says with the optimism that survives hell and high water. One would create 188 jobs, the other, 100. “Been working on them for nine months. That’s why I have to get back to the office. Hope to hear from at least one of them next week.”

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