A flood of controversy is swirling around CSX following media reports blaming the railroad for catastrophic flooding in Lumberton, N.C., during Hurricane Florence, which inundated much of the state’s low-lying coastal areas.
A CSX underpass that intersects Interstate 95 runs through the town’s protective levees. Two years ago, in October 2016, floodwaters from Hurricane Matthew came through the underpass, causing major damage. “Locals knew water would rush through there again once Hurricane Florence bore down on this region of North Carolina’s Inner Banks, because nothing had been done to stop it,” the News & Observer, a local media outlet, reported. “Town leaders have long wanted a permanent solution, such as a floodgate at the underpass, which a study released in May concluded would save about 2,000 buildings and $232.6 million for a Matthew-equivalent flood—a more than 80% reduction in damage.”
According to the Huffington Post, which summarized and expanded upon the News & Observer report as well as others, Lumberton city officials requested permission from CSX to construct a temporary sandbag berm to fill the gap in the city’s levee system as the hurricane approached, but were met with resistance: “Not only did CSX refuse to allow the city to build the berm … it also threatened to take legal action if the city did. It wasn’t until local officials petitioned Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper to intervene that they were able to begin construction of the makeshift wall.”
“‘Governor Cooper issued an emergency order green-lighting construction of the berm at the railroad intersection,’ Sadie Weiner, a spokeswoman for the governor, told the Huffington Post. ‘CSX officials who were contacted did not consent to allowing for sandbagging of the tracks, arguing that there was no proof that it would work and that it would cause significant damage to their tracks. Upon further consultation and advice of local and state emergency management, the Governor issued an emergency order … to allow for the construction of a temporary berm at the CSX railroad intersection.’”
The berm of dirt, gravel and sandbags was built over the tracks as Hurricane Florence bore down on North Carolina in an attempt to hold back Lumber River floodwaters, but it ultimately failed. A local attorney told the Huffington Post, “It is 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. The company’s disregard for the people of Lumberton led to monumental efforts by numerous individuals … to protect the west and south parts of town … The last-minute efforts that were made bought time and saved some lives and property, but if CSX had been cooperative, we could have done so much more sooner.”
In the nearly two years after Matthew, Lumberton has worked toward a permanent solution, securing a $1.25 million grant to build floodgates at the railroad underpass, with work slated to start next year, the News & Observer reported. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has approved a floodgate for the site, but local media said CSX was “arguing” with the township, slowing down construction of a permanent fix.
CSX told Railway Age the News & Observer and Huffington Post reports are “mischaracterizations” and “inaccurate.”
“CSX takes storm preparedness very seriously,” Director Media Relations Katie Chimelewski told Railway Age. “The safety of our employees and the communities [along our lines] is our top priority as we work to prepare for a major storm. Our network is critical to ensure storm supplies are strategically located in areas prior to a storm’s arrival. Also, we work as safely and as quickly as possible to ensure that railcars and hazardous materials are out of the storm’s path for the safety of neighboring communities and our employees.
“In Lumberton, we had to clear the traffic out of the coastal communities of Wilmington, Acme and Lumberton before the line was closed to provide access to the community. CSX works hard to balance the competing demands on its network during times of emergency from local and state constituencies, state and federal regulators and our customers.
“CSX ensured that no further use of the rail line was needed for emergency storm movements before we allowed safe access to the Lumberton community for the sandbag operation.
“The sandbag operation and temporary berm construction occurred but was unfortunately unsuccessful, and Lumberton was flooded as a result of the extraordinary amount of precipitation from Hurricane Florence.
“CSX is fully committed to working with City of Lumberton to implement a permanent solution.”