LUMBERTON — Enough Robeson County workers lost their jobs during the month of Hurricane Matthew to put the county at the wrong end of the state’s unemployment list for October.
That month’s 10.3 percent unemployment rate was up from September’s rate of 6.8 percent, and increase of 51 percent. The next highest rate is in neighboring Scotland County, where 8.8 percent of those seeking work can’t find it. The national and North Carolina rates for October were each 4.9 percent, though the state’s crept up to 5 percent for November.
While no exact figures are available on the total number of individuals who lost their jobs directly as a result of Hurricane Matthew, it appears that almost 2,000 of the county’s more than 52,000-member workforce were added to the unemployment rolls in October.
The exact number of out-of-business signs are unavailable from local chambers of commerce, the state Employment Security Commission, and the state Department of Commerce. Boarded-up, vacant, buildings and those under repair can be seend throughout Lumberton, especially in western and southern portions of the county seat. Among the more notable are a couple of local hotels still closed, and the West Fifth Street Walmart, which expects to reopen soon.
Eric Dent, a former business professor at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke who now teaches at Florida Gulf Coast in Florida, said some, not all, of the jump in unemployment in October can be blamed on Hurricane Matthew. He pointed out that the local workforce also grew during that month.
“The reason the unemployment rate jumped so much is because of a net increase in job seekers of 2,198 people,” Dent said. “Only a net of 232 found jobs so an additional 1,966 became unemployed. Consequently, the number of unemployed in the county skyrocketed from 3,440 to 5,406.”
He believes the opening of a chicken-processing plant that will emply 1,100 people is one reason people are back out looking for jobs.
“My first thought on this is that the recruiting by Sanderson Farms probably caused many people to go from being counted as ‘not looking’, hence not unemployed, to ‘looking’, but don’t have a job yet, so unemployed,” he said.
Al Meszaros’ job was blown away by Matthew. Since his residence at Lumbee Homes was severely damaged, he’s been staying at a local hotel with his two boys, ages 8 and 2.
“It’s hard being a single parent without having a job,” he said.
Meszaros is a roofer by trade, and he lost his car to the flood so he can’t get to job sites.
Eric Townsend was doing well in his own lawn-care business, as well as working as a mechanic, when Matthew arrived Oct. 8.
Townsend said he lost all of his mowers and other equipment when his home on Fifth Street in Lumberton was flooded.
“I stayed in the home of my grandparents, who had died, and it was completely destroyed,” he said. “Every memory I have of the past was lost. Now I have to start all over again.”
Townsend, who is staying temporarily at Motel 6 in Lumberton, said he is currently doing jobs for people who have the equipment he needs. He said he is saving his money to buy new equipment so he can re-start the 4-year-old business.
“It’s going slow,” he said. “I’m trying to take things just one day at a time.”
Bobby Ray Mitchell is another Fifth Street resident left homeless as a result of flood waters that engulfed his community.
Mitchell, 32, has been hanging drywall since he turned 20.
“I lost all of my tools,” he said. “Without the tools I can’t work.”
Like Townsend, Mitchell is being sheltered at a local hotel. He said that he is lucky to still have a van so he can get around and look for some kind of work.
“Eventually, if I can get some jobs, I can get the money I need to purchase the tools I need and get back to my work.”
High unemployment following a hurricane is expected.
“We saw it in Katrina. We saw it in Sandy where large parts of communities were impacted,” Dent said. “If people who lived in Lumberton are now in Fayetteville, or farther away, there is no way they are going to keep driving back and forth … so unemployment will increase.”
The news should get better for Mitchell, Townsend and Meszaros, who all work in construction. Slowly disaster relief dollars will flow into Robeson County and there will be work to do rebuilding.
Many businesses, such as fast food, that were closed temporarily following the storm have since reopened.
Bob Shiles can be reached at 910-416-5165.