LUMBERTON, NC – Last week we told you about one Lumberton family who said the city sent them and others utility bills for time during which they weren’t home and their power was out after Hurricane Matthew. City officials said the government–like the people it serves–is still recovering from the storm.
It’s almost a cliche repeating what so many people in Lumberton already have: no one was ready for what Hurricane Matthew left behind there.
“They need help. We have to help them,” said Linda Oxendine.
Oxendine, Lumberton Director of Public Services, grew up just a few blocks away from City Hall, so when the winds died down and the devastation came into focus, she knew what she had to do.
“I looked at my husband and said ‘I gotta go to work,” she recalled.
Many other city workers came in voluntarily, taking calls from neighbors suddenly trapped in the midst of a disaster.
“Calls of, ‘I’m standing on my table, is someone coming to get me? I’ve been waiting a long time,'” Oxendine shuddered as she recalled.
Oxendine’s team then coordinated hundreds of volunteers, dispatched to feed, clothe, and comfort.
“Sending people through high-waist water trying to get water to the elderly people was very challenging,” Oxendine said. “But we did it, we knew we had to do it. You just went into that mode, people need help and we’re here to help them.”
Eventually though, it was time to get back to billing for utilities, except it wasn’t quite that simple.
“We have seven trucks for our department that does meter readings, three of those are flooded,” Oxendine explained. “Not only do we not have time, we don’t have vehicles.”
Since readings couldn’t be taken, the city took a different approach.
“We knew we were out one week. So we reduced it by 25%,” Oxendine rattled off. “Which meant going into every single account in that area to manually calculate those bills.”
Estimating amounts in a time crunch means human error can easily pollute the process.
“It could have been the clerk being on this account, the phone ringing, they’re answering the phone and just missed that one,” said Oxendine.
She added customers often don’t realize that a flat utility rate is charged monthly to each account, regardless whether anyone is home to use it or not. That would explain why customers were charged even when they were displaced after the storm.
“Those flat rate fees are built in to help cover infrastructure,” she said.
Oxendine said the city plans to rectify any billing problems and work to find solutions as the recovery continues.
“Lumberton’s position is to try as best we can to get our community restored,” Oxendine promised. “Whatever that takes, that’s what we’re willing to do.”