Residents in the small town of Fair Bluff, about 30 miles downstream from Lumberton, prepared to evacuate Sunday afternoon as the Lumber River rose.
About a third of the population left after Hurricane Matthew flooded homes and streets in 2016, Mayor Billy Hammond said. Residents evacuated and just never came back, Hammond said.
Pre-Matthew, the population was about 950, he said. Now, Hammond said, between 550 and 600 people live in the town, which is just across the state line in North Carolina.
Hammond said he doesn’t expect flooding from Florence to be as severe. Ken Elliott, assistant fire and rescue chief, is more worried.
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Flooding for Fair Bluff is predicted to be “as bad or worse” as two years ago, he said, and he’s warning residents to get out now.
Fair Bluff Fire and Rescue and the North Carolina National Guard 171 Engineering Unit out of St. Paul’s planned to launch a voluntary evacuation mission Sunday afternoon.
Elliott said the department will knock on the doors of people who felt the effects of serious floods in Hurricane Matthew and urge them to get out. The plan is to load residents in ambulances and take them to Hills Grocery, and then load them onto school buses for the trip to South Columbus High School in Tabor City.
“We decided to take proactive measures, not reactive,” N.C. Rep. Brenden Jones (R-Fair Bluff) said. “It’s kind of not if it happens but when it happens.”
Stephani Johnson and Tretavius Isaiah live on Sunset Drive. Fair Bluff Fire and Rescue crews stopped by their home just before 1 p.m. to encourage them to leave, and they said they would wait until Sunday night to decide.
Johnson said they lost power two days ago. She has three children, ages 7, 4 and 2, and is starting to get nervous about the possibility of flooding.
“It gets bad out here,” she said, remembering Hurricane Matthew. “A lot of people lost their homes. A lot of people didn’t come back to Fair Bluff.”
Some residents didn’t take the danger seriously until Sunday, Elliott said. The river rose several feet overnight, Hammond said.
“It’s a real tight-knit community, especially after Matthew,” Elliott said.
Hammond said he was hopeful the flooding wouldn’t be as bad as Matthew’s aftermath.
“I’m stressed, but I don’t stress real bad,” Hammond said. “Because from what I’m looking at right now, it’s got to be a dramatic rush of water for it to get worse than Matthew was now.”
But he said residents should still be ready to evacuate.
“You can’t predict the Lord’s work,” he said. “But so far the Lord has took care of us.”