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Making sense of the unimaginable: Floodwaters ravage the tightly-knit mountain community of Cruso

Making sense of the unimaginable: Floodwaters ravage the tightly-knit mountain community of Cruso

It’s about a mile past Jukebox Junction, down along U.S. 276 heading towards the small mountain community of Cruso, when the strong, pungent smell of mud wafts into the open truck windows and up through your nostrils.

Another mile or so past that, you start to catch wind of the odor of gasoline and propane. Gasoline from vehicles flipped upside down in driveways. Propane from large tanks tossed onto the shoulder of the debris-covered road from houses hundreds of yards away.

Flowing alongside U.S. 276 at a frantic pace, the riverbanks of the East Fork of the Pigeon are littered with furniture, car parts, vinyl siding from homes, windowpanes, tractor tires, buckets, children’s toys, and seemingly everything else one could imagine. 

The adage “everything but the kitchen sink” doesn’t adequately describe just how much debris is scattered along this low valley shadowed by steep, high peaks. You also can’t imagine how high, fast and unmerciful the river actually was Tuesday night, at least until you see thick mud and heavy rocks atop bridges some 15-feet above the waterline at mid-day Wednesday.

 

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Farmland now covered in mud. With harvest season right around the corner, the once-ripe crops are ripped from the earth and carelessly dropped wherever the rushing water started to recede this morning.

Turning onto Burnette Cove Road, members of the Town of Cary Water Rescue Unit, fresh from a long drive to lend a hand, are standing in a semi-circle, discussing the strategy in checking submerged buildings and automobiles, more so in search of the numerous names that are still missing — precious minutes and hours ticking away under a hot late summer sun.

Heading up Burnette, sheds and small structures are demolished into kindling. A Chevy Suburban is crunched against a large tree, one of the few trees near the river that wasn’t snapped like a toothpick and shot downstream like a cannonball.

Further up the dead-end road, there are neighbors crossing the street to check on loved ones. Others sit on their porch and simply wait, for there’s not much else to do at this juncture of destruction and confusion.

 

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Conversation hovers around a family a few houses down who was found clinging to a tree to escape the rising waters in the middle of the night, only to be safely rescued by neighbors who kids grew up with their kids, who trucks they would pass and wave to in solidarity on any other quiet, unassuming Wednesday.

Some talk of previous floods, where the infamous 2004 saga seems to pale in comparison to Aug. 17, 2021. There’s also mention of the one in the 1970s, an endless string of memories flooding the minds of those who never forgot the last time their community washed away into the unknowns of tomorrow.

One neighbor cranks up the lawn-mover and starts taming the tall grass in his front yard. Maybe he’s sticking to his intended chores for the day. Or maybe he’s just in need of a distraction from what’s just over his shoulder and down the hill. The latter seems to be the call of the day for the solemn figures standing around, questioning once again: Why do bad things happen to good people? Where to go from here? And what now?

Many can’t fathom the idea of pulling up stakes and heading for somewhere, anywhere else. This is home. And for most, it’s a valley they’ve proudly called home for generations that stretch back centuries. 

The house is gone. The car is totaled. But, at least for now, “we are safe and accounted for.” Hug each other tight. Wipe the mud off your boots. Find a bottle of water or can of beer from the fridge, the last appliance standing in countless homes. Sip the beverages and sigh — in relief, and in sorrow. 

 

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Meandering by the Springdale Country Club, there’s a boulder the size of a king-cab truck blocking the oncoming lane. The recently renovated golf course is a mud pit. The front-nine is ripped up. More furniture and debris strewn about the tee boxes and fairways that were pristine at this time yesterday.

Across the road, a Ford Crown Victoria is high up in a tree, the nose of the vehicle pointed downward towards the river. One can only imagine the force and magnitude of the wall of water it must’ve taken to launch the 4,100-pound vehicle several feet into the air, let alone where the Vic even originated from.

And yet, even amid the absolute destruction of this tightly-knit, iron-willed community, many count their blessings. “It could have been worse, much worse for us. I can’t even imagine how bad it was down the river,” one survivor mumbled in a humble tone of compassion and grief. 

By the time the Cruso Fire & Rescue Station comes into view, you also bear witness to a mobile home slammed into a tree, mere feet from the station. Somehow, sandwiched within the mobile home and the tree, there’s a shed and a sedan smashed between the structure and the large plant, resembling some accordion that was stepped on and discarded.

Surrounding the station, there are dozens of rescuers and law enforcement officials from near and far, innumerable linemen and highway personnel — all running around in an effort to clear the roads, check the homes, and contain the tragic scene unfolding before their eyes. 

Many of these rescuers are heading across a shattered bridge and into the ill-fated Laurel Bank Campground, quite possibly ground zero for the hardest-hit spot of the flood impact zone. A somber, dreadful feeling washes over the faces of those having to go over the bridge.

Turning back towards Jukebox Junction, the Cruso Fire & Rescue Station is now in the rearview mirror. So are all the rescuers and officials. What are they currently thinking or feeling? What else will they, sadly, uncover? Yet again, that unanswerable, ancient question bubbles up within, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

Passing back by the once-sturdy homes, broken windows and cracked doorframes are seen, the front door probably now on a riverbank somewhere. Slowly snake up U.S. 276. Familiar faces in front yards, heads hanging low with both hands in the pockets of dirty jeans. The sound of the mighty Pigeon River across the way — once a portal for peace and serenity, now a constant reminder of a night when the rain just wouldn't stop. 

And even though you cross back through Jukebox Junction, you still can’t get the smell of mud, gas and propane out of your nose, more so your memory from this day forward. 

 

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Leave a comment

8 comments

  • Excellent write up..describing the aftermath....thank you for sharing and your compassion.....

    posted by Janie Cox

    Friday, 08/20/2021

  • You put me right there living the “nightmare”.
    I have a friend that’s among the missing. I can only imagine what he (Jack) is encountering, if he is surviving the nightmare!! What a terrible way to go!!!

    Hang in there Jack, you’re tough you can make it.

    Prayers for everyone.and their families.

    posted by Pat Bryan

    Friday, 08/20/2021

  • You put me right there living the “nightmare”.
    I have a friend that’s among the missing. I can only imagine what he (Jack) is encountering, if he is surviving the nightmare!! What a terrible way to go!!!

    Hang in there Jack, you’re tough you can make it.

    Prayers for everyone.and their families.

    posted by Pat Bryan

    Friday, 08/20/2021

  • You put me right there at the scene!!! Frightening!!

    posted by Gina

    Thursday, 08/19/2021

  • This was...different.

    posted by Jason

    Thursday, 08/19/2021

  • I’m not kidding. This is Pulitzer Prize quality.

    posted by Dean bunch

    Thursday, 08/19/2021

  • Oh my goodness.

    posted by Shaun

    Thursday, 08/19/2021

  • Garrett…you did a wonderful job describing the community and the reality that the day has brought. Thank you!

    posted by Lorinda

    Thursday, 08/19/2021

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