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As deadly floodwaters recede, Haywood grapples with enormous loss

Floodwaters from the raging Pigeon Rived decimated portions of Haywood County on Aug. 17. Scott McLeod photo Floodwaters from the raging Pigeon Rived decimated portions of Haywood County on Aug. 17. Scott McLeod photo

Huddled together in the dark atop a bunk bed in a barricaded bedroom with two dogs, four cats and her brother — all staring down at the rising floodwaters — Natasha Bright knew they were in trouble. 

The small log cabin she’d lived in since 2016, just off Cruso Road and a mere 125 feet from the East Fork of the Pigeon River, was inundated. They were trapped. No one was coming to rescue them. 

“It was so beautiful, and it was home. And it was going to be home. It was something that was going to be home to my kids,” Bright sobbed. “I moved around a lot when I was little, and I always wanted a place that we could just stay. I always wanted that place that was going to be there always. When we moved here, that’s what I wanted this to be.”

Today, her cozy home is still filled with several inches of mud and debris. 

Bright may have lost nearly everything, but she’s fared far better than the people who lost their lives as a result of Tropical Storm Fred, despite almost becoming one of them. 

“I think never during this time did I really feel scared. I never felt like I was going to die,” Bright said. “Looking back on it, I realize I was like this close to dying, so close to dying. But at that moment I was just calculating, how do we get out of here? What do we do?”

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Now, as the community recovers while waiting on a federal disaster declaration, many residents of Bethel, Canton, Cruso and Clyde are asking themselves that same question. 

 

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Trapped in a log cabin just off Cruso Road, Natasha Bright could do little more than watch as deadly floodwaters surged. Natasha bright photo

 

Grey and rainy, Tuesday dawned like any other warm, humid mid-summer morning in the mountains of Western North Carolina. 

Bright woke up and got her two children, ages 10 and 13, dressed and out the door for their first day at school, and then returned home. 

A freelance writer, Bright sat down at her desk and began work. By the time 2 p.m. rolled around, she hadn’t finished her story, so she asked her husband Kile to go pick the kids up from school while she took a break to eat lunch. 

She couldn’t know it right then, but the next time she saw her husband, the idyllic scene would be much different, much more chaotic. 

“I was looking outside and I was like, ‘Hmmm, it’s raining a lot,’” she said. 

Having grown up in South Florida, Bright is familiar with natural disasters; she rattles off the names of hurricanes like they’re family members. Andrew. Charley. Frances. Opal. 

By 3 p.m., Bright started to get an ominous feeling. She called her brother, Jonathan Wood, who lived on her property in a camper just yards from her desk. Wood didn’t pick up. She called again. He didn’t pick up. Running out into the pouring rain, she banged on his door, imploring Wood and his cat to join her in the house. At the same time, she texted her husband. 

You cannot come back here. It won’t be passable. 

Like everyone living on the river side of Cruso Road, Bright depends on a small, single-lane bridge across the East Fork of the Pigeon River for access to her property. One way in, one way out. 

The Pigeon was currently lapping at the bridge’s undersides. 

Rain cascaded onto her tin roof in percussive staccato. 

Amidst the sound of the roaring, rushing water Bright said she could feel in her chest, a power transformer exploded, showering the area in sparkling embers just as a text alert from a river gauge flashed across her phone. 

Running back into the house, Bright made an alarming discovery. 

“Oh my God,” she said. “The water is coming through the floor.”

week earlier, Tropical Storm Fred had formed south of Puerto Rico and swept north through the Caribbean, weakening each time it encountered land. Fred was the sixth named storm of the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season and had dragged its way across the Dominican Republic, Haiti and then Cuba. 

On Saturday, Aug. 14, Haywood County Emergency Medical Services first warned  of an enhanced risk of flooding for the coming week. On Sunday, Aug. 15, Fred reorganized into a tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico and the next afternoon made landfall in the Florida panhandle with 50 mile-per-hour winds and heavy rain. 

Fred continued to work its way north all day on Monday, Aug. 16, spawning at least six tornadoes in Georgia and dumping record rainfall on Atlanta. 

Earlier that morning, the National Weather Service’s Greenville-Spartanburg office issued tornado and flash flood warnings for portions of North Georgia, Upstate South Carolina and Western North Carolina, including Cruso

As Haywood County residents waited  and watched the skies some nervously eyed the ground, still saturated with almost 3 inches of rain from the previous weekend. 

That soaker had pushed the Pigeon River near Canton to minor flood level of 8 feet on Monday, more than 6 feet above the river’s normal level of less than 2 feet. The same day, the French Broad River at Rosman  had risen from around 2 feet to 13 feet by 8 a.m. Neither had fully receded by the time Fred showed up in full force on Tuesday. 

Reports of sporadic flooding in Asheville began to appear on social media, as did more flash flood warnings for Brevard, Lake Toxaway and Rosman. 

At 2 a.m. on Tuesday, NWS issued rainfall predictions  of about 4 inches of rain for most of Western North Carolina through 8 a.m. Wednesday, although a narrow band stretching from Franklin through southern Jackson County into Transylvania County and southern Haywood County was slated for more than 5 inches. 

Eight hours later, at 10 a.m., Haywood EMS announced  that the entire county was under a flash flood watch. 

The rainy day wore on, and more and more warnings came out of the NWS office along with more and more social media reports of extreme weather. Tornadoes in Burke, Iredell and Wilkes counties. Trees down in Fairview. Jonathan Creek roiling in Maggie Valley. 

About an hour after Natasha Bright watched her bridge submerge, Haywood EMS issued a message urging  people near the East Fork of the Pigeon River to seek higher ground. 

As the raging Pigeon River seeped up through Bright’s floor just before 4 p.m., her immediate concerns weren’t for herself, or her brother or even her home.  

“The first thing that came to mind is, I need to figure out what to do with these animals,” Bright said. “I thought, ‘OK, what’s the highest point in this house?’ And the first thing I thought about of was my son’s bunk bed.”

Outside, water was now 4 feet high around Bright’s home, slapping the windowsills just two hours after her husband had left to pick up the kids, and an hour after she told him not to come back. 

Piling the animals atop her son’s bunk bed — the 80-pound pit bull lift was “interesting,” according to Bright — she noticed that her daughter’s cat, Chloe, wasn’t on the ark. Wood said he’d seen the cat run under a bed that was itself now under water. 

“I’m picking up the bed and trying to find her, and I can’t hear her, all I can hear is water and I’m calling and calling and calling and that’s the only time through the whole thing that I got upset was when I couldn’t find that cat,” Bright said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, where is she? Where is she?’”

The first of many tough decisions had to be made, and Bright told herself she needed to attend to other matters and hope for the best with Chloe. 

Wading through the hallways of her home, Bright searched for things that she could save. Her purse. Her computer. A safe with birth certificates and other important documents. Her only pair of dry shoes. 

During the chaos, Wood shouted out to Bright. 

“Shhhh … do you hear that?” he said. 

Bright rushed into her daughter’s room to find Chloe, sitting on the bed, looking like an angry drowned rat, mewing loudly. 

“While doing that, I saw that the water was coming into the house through the windows,” Bright said. “I was like, ‘Oh no.’”

Bright and Wood barricaded themselves inside her son’s bedroom by pushing a dresser against the door. In the matter of a few hours, they’d gone from being trapped on the wrong side of the river, to trapped inside their home, to trapped inside a room in their home — eight souls on a bunk bed in the dark looking down at the water steadily rising. 

Further down the Pigeon River sits the town of Canton. The river bisects it, as well as its century-old paper mill. Homes, schools and businesses lie just dozens of feet from the river in places, but not in as many places as they used to. 

Devastating floods happened here back in 2004, the result of a one-two punch from a pair of hurricanes, one from the coast and one from the gulf, both wandering inland dumping huge quantities of rain in short order. 

Around the same time Bright was sheltering in her son’s bedroom, water started to make an appearance in downtown Canton. BearWaters Brewing co-owner Kevin Sandefur posted a video  of the Pigeon slipping its banks and pouring into his brewery’s basement as employees scrambled to remove riverside seating.  

Flooding is particularly dangerous in Haywood County, the highest county east of the Mississippi River. Shaped like a bowl and crisscrossed with stony mountain ranges topped by relatively thin layers of soil, the county is prone to landslides after just a few inches of rain. 

When that rain falls torrentially in the southern part of the county, the area that serves as the headwaters of the Pigeon River, it gets hemmed in by rock as it flows downhill. 

With nowhere to go but up, local waterways swell, attempting to cram more matter into less volume until they’re squeezed to the point of behaving like the nozzle on a garden hose. Or in this case, a fire hose scouring narrow mountain passes with incredible momentum. 

From Canton, the Pigeon River veers westward, running through the small town of Clyde. Clyde wasn’t spared in 2004 either, but as videos and photos emerged  from downtown Canton, the residents of Clyde knew the water was coming for them, too, once again. 

Still barricaded in that bedroom 9 miles south of Canton, Natasha Bright and Jonathan Wood were aware that their situation was dire as they watched the cold, muddy river water rising. 

“It smelled like sewage, which could have been our septic tank. It could have been the propane from our propane tank,” she said. 

Bright opened another door in the bedroom leading to a small outdoor porch, which was facing north, away from the river’s swift flow. She’d hoped to get up on the roof, but an awning over the porch was in the way. 

In the pouring rain and with the river still rising, Bright and Wood took turns trying to rip the awning down, pulling, pushing, beating on it. After a few minutes, they realized it was futile and began stacking furniture out on the porch — a dresser, a bookshelf, a tiny children’s workbench, anything to make a precarious stepladder upon which to climb to safety. 

“It wasn’t gonna work,” she said.  

Stymied and sloshing through knee-deep water in the bedroom, Bright contemplated her next move. 

“My brother was like, ‘We gotta get out of here, we gotta get out of here,’ and I’m like, ‘We can’t get out of here. That is not possible right now. We cannot get out of here,’” Bright recalls. 

Now nearing 5 p.m., it had been just a scant three hours since Bright was at her desk eating her sandwich and watching the rain fall as Kile left to get the kids and Wood slept with his cat in his camper. 

“And then like two minutes would pass and he’s like, ‘We’ve got to leave. We’ve got to leave,’” Bright said. “I’m like, ‘We can’t leave. We’ve got to figure out what to do here.’”

About all they could do was remain in the bedroom as water rushed all around them. 

Wood spotted a tree next to the little porch, and then a spot on the trunk where a branch had broken away, leaving a small woody nub. 

“So, that was our gauge, you know? Every so often we would look at that branch,” Bright said, “and the water was still rising.”

The water in the barricaded bedroom was now almost waist-deep, not far below the top bunk where Natasha Bright and brother Jonathan Wood and four cats and two dogs had taken refuge from the raging Pigeon River’s floodwaters. 

But, at that exact moment, Bright’s husband Kile was frantically trying to reach her. He’d picked the kids up from school, dropped them off at a friend’s house, and was making his way back home, despite Bright’s warning him off two hours earlier. 

He made it as far as Frank’s Grocery, a BP gas station on Cruso Road, half a mile east of Jukebox Junction but still 8 miles from home. 

“He just couldn’t get any further and then that started to flood, so he had to leave and go back to the children,” Bright said. 

Cell phone service in Cruso’s isolated mountain coves is spotty on a good day, and with power out, the internet wasn’t an option either. Some of Bright’s texts to her husband went through, and some didn’t. Some of Kile’s texts to his wife went through, and some didn’t. 

Kile asked his wife to retrieve his backpack and several other items from a 1,000 square-foot outbuilding that served as both a workshop and a storage space. 

“We built it and it kind of looked like a Swiss chalet,” Bright said, telling Kile it wasn’t possible to reach the chalet at that moment. 

Still confined to the bedroom, Bright and Wood now knew that not only was there no way out, but no one was coming for them or the dogs or the cats or anything else, either.  

“I just couldn’t not look outside, you know? I kept on going up to the bunk and then coming down and then going up, because from the top bunk, you couldn’t see outside,” said Bright. “I couldn’t deal with that. I had to know what was going on.”

Peering out across the yard, Bright’s eyes came to that tree next to the little porch, the one she and her brother used to gauge the furious Pigeon River’s water level. 

Bright remembers when they located the woody nub by which they measured the high-water mark. 

“We saw,” she said, “that it had slowly started to fall.”

Crest occurred around 5 p.m. where Bright and Wood were, nine miles down Cruso Road in a log cabin 125 feet from where the Pigeon River usually is. Without power or hope of immediate rescue they settled in, watching the water slowly recede on their ersatz flood gauge, the tree with the woody nub. 

It was still raining. However, Bright became satisfied around midnight that the danger had passed once she saw the last of the water in the room drain back out into the river.   

She decided to get some rest — but first, the animals. 

“We broke the door from my daughter’s closet and made a ramp with my son’s other dresser and other pieces of furniture and tried to get them to come down,” Bright said. “That didn’t work.” 

Wet, cold, drifting in and out of abnormal sleep on the part of her bed that wasn’t muddy, Bright heard the cats and dogs becoming restless and decided to try again. This time, it did work. 

Retrieving a dry blanket from the top shelf of a linen closet, Bright wrapped herself in it and again tried to sleep, but it was of little help. Nor were the newly liberated animals, who remained unsettled as they encountered an unwelcome new development. 

“The whole house is filled with mud, like a foot of mud in some places,” Bright said, noting the sound of the dogs slopping around in it as she tried to sleep. “I was covered — covered with mud and that mud smelled so metallic. I still smell that mud.”

When the sun finally came up on Wednesday, Aug. 18, Bright heard that the whooshing sound of the water had been replaced by the sputtering sound of chainsaws and backhoes and tractors and people, doing what they could to begin to clear the way in and out of Cruso. 

Finally walking out of the house she’d been trapped in for the past 18 hours, Bright was greeted by a portrait of utter devastation. 

“Everything was gone. Our Subaru was completely gone,” Bright said. “Our two trucks — one was in the middle of the field behind my house and the other one was smashed into the trees. My husband’s chalet was gone.”

 

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Flooding in Clyde forced debris through a bridge’s guardrail and stripped farms upriver of thousands of dollars’ worth of ripe produce. Cory Vaillancourt photos 

 

Even before Bright first ventured out, the rest of the world was starting to get a glimpse of some of the things she’d seen over the past 12 hours. Bridges, washed away. Chunks of pavement, ripped up. Roads clogged with rocks and fallen trees. Mobile homes, sheds, cars, dumpsters, toppled and tossed and pushed into places they shouldn’t be, like trees. Thick, ripe, beautiful green peppers, inexplicably everywhere. 

Smoky Mountain News staff reports from Bethel, Clyde, Cruso and Canton around daybreak captured a county trying to reckon with both the destruction and with the knowledge that there was little information coming out of the hardest-hit, largely inaccessible upstream areas. 

In Clyde, most surfaces were coated in a thin layer of silty mud. Debris jammed into the grill of a van parked near Central Haywood High School suggests the water was at least three feet high on Hyder Mountain Road. A waterline on the nearby Smoky Mountain Cremations and Funeral Service building echoes that suggestion.  

Debris, both natural and artificial, collected under bridges — logs, branches, trees, foam coolers, basketballs, shoes, and in their furthest known downstream location, those green peppers

River’s Edge Park, designed  after the 2004 floods to be an overflow location of the Pigeon River in an area that floods regularly, performed as designed and was coated with more than 6 inches of mud. 

Canton’s floodwaters had already receded, but evidence of their presence was everywhere. 

In Recreation Park, Canton’s town pool was underwater. Large sections of Memorial Stadium’s chain link fencing had been peeled away from its posts before water swept under the football field’s carpet-like artificial surface, folding it up onto itself in places. A cinder block baseball dugout nearby was totally destroyed. Sandbags outside town hall, the police department and the Colonial Theater did little good; the front door to the theater’s annex hung limply off its top hinge, revealing mud-splashed walls and standing water. 

 

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Damage to Pisgah’s football field (right) is significant. Cory Vaillancourt photo

 

By 10 a.m., the West Fork Pigeon River was still high and muddy with whitewater riffles in an ordinarily placid section at the junction of Lake Logan Road and N.C. 215, debris deposits in the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church giving away its earlier fury. Even worse damage waited downstream along N.C. 110, where the floodwaters had turned Accurate Auto Repair into a mud pit and covered fields full of harvest-ready vegetables with dirty water, which had since receded to leave behind a thick layer of muck. 

Todd Ford, whose home is between the East and West Forks of the Pigeon River in Bethel, said the water came so fast it was scary. He said the two rivers came together just in front of his home, which is perched on higher ground. 

“Sometime between 5 and 6 p.m., the rivers just started coming together. I could see water on one side, and then the two just joined together so fast I couldn’t do much,” said Ford. “Thankfully my family was already evacuated.”

Lake Logan Road was closed at its junction with U.S. 276. Just up the road, past the Jukebox Junction, N.C. 215 (Love Joy Road) remained open and heading toward Lake Logan there was little sign of the catastrophe from the night before — soggy, muddy fields and a few slow-moving trucks with windows rolled down, passengers surveying the damage. 

Further up Lake Logan Road that damage was more apparent. One woman walked the edges of a garden now underwater. Lake Logan, usually the deep, blue-green of mountain lakes, was muddy brown and full to the brim, as was the water spilling into and out of the lake. 

In Cruso, a couple who did not want to give their names but live in a campground near the Cruso Community Center told The Smoky Mountain News that they feared that many residents of Laurel Creek Campground may have lost their lives. They said they’d been told that residents huddling in a pavilion in the campground had been swept away by the raging waters during the storm. 

Dozens of bridges and roads in the area were damaged, including several sections of U.S. 276. A mobile home was left resting on U.S. 276, and it had pushed a utility building and a car into a tree. 

Another SMN report from Cruso  chronicled boulders the size of trucks blocking roads, gasoline and propane wafting in the air, and a terrified family spending a harrowing night clinging to a tree for survival (see CRUSO, p. 4). 

At noon, the first of what would become several press conferences took place in Hazelwood, as the greater Haywood community launched massive relief efforts that soon became regional. 

“Yesterday afternoon we started getting reports about high water and at approximately 3 p.m. Haywood County Sheriff’s Office deputies began to assist families in evacuating areas that were at risk of flooding,” said Sheriff Greg Christopher. 

Specially trained water rescue units from across the state, including the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, had been hard at work for hours searching for the 35 who were still unaccounted for at that hour. 

“We have been searching abandoned vehicles, homes and buildings for survivors and will continue to search until every community member is located or at least accounted for,” Christopher said, imploring residents not to drive through standing water, and to remain at home off the roads if at all possible. 

Christopher couldn’t immediately confirm any deaths, but said detectives were investigating widespread reports. 

Cell phone and landline telephone service to Cruso were down, and Canton Alderwoman Kristina Smith said that boil orders had been issued in Canton and in Clyde. 

“We need people to stay away so the rescuers and searchers, our Department of Transportation, law enforcement, fire departments, will be able to continue to move about in the communities as they need to in order to help these people who need us so desperately,” Christopher said. 

Haywood EMS Director Travis Donaldson, speaking just before Christopher, said that the Pigeon River peaked at 19.6 feet — far above its placid 2-foot norm — and that Cruso had been closed to traffic at Jukebox Junction. More than 200 sets of boots, according to Donaldson, were on the ground at that very moment. 

A temporary shelter at Tuscola High School reported 54 people had taken refuge there. 

Western North Carolina’s Sen. Kevin Corbin said in a Facebook post the previous night  that he and Rep. Mark Pless were working within state government to mobilize assistance to the area. 

Congressman Madison Cawthorn, who appeared at the press conference, said that he and his team had been on the ground surveying damage, and that he’d sent a letter to President Joe Biden in support of a federal emergency declaration. 

Such a declaration would bring funding, supplies and personnel to the area to assist with recovery efforts. The first step in the declaration process is when a state identifies a disaster. Then, an assessment of the damage is made. After further review, the state’s governor submits a major disaster declaration request, which is reviewed by the president. Gov. Roy Cooper declared  a state emergency later that day. 

 

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When waters finally receded, Natasha Bright was left to survey the damage inside her Cruso home. Natasha Bright photo

 

A few hours after the press conference, Natasha Bright’s husband Kile finally made it home, more than 24 hours after he left. He got as close as he could in his car, and had to walk the rest of the way. Bright knew he was coming and tried to soften the blow before he arrived. 

“I didn’t tell him how bad it was, but before he got there, I told him, ‘Look, it’s bad,’” she said. “He just looked really dazed and he was looking around and I said, ‘It’s OK. We’re all alive.’”

They walked around, trying to figure out where many of their earthly possessions were, while checking in on friends in the area who told tales of RVs and campers rocketing downriver smashed to smithereens by the dozen-odd bridges that traverse the Pigeon River. 

Some neighbors were unaccounted for at that moment. One spent the night in a tree. Others were untouched. 

Dazed, Bright was overwhelmed by it all and couldn’t decide whether to stay and help or leave. 

“Looking around, I’m like, ‘What in the world do I even do?’ It’s all mud,” she said. “What do you, what do you even do? You know? Like, what do you even grab?”

She grabbed some clothes for her kids, who had only the uniforms they’d worn to school the previous morning. She also grabbed a few mementoes to help lift their spirits. Then, with Kile remaining behind, she walked out of Cruso in mud-filled galoshes to find somewhere to take a shower and wash the grime out from between her toes. 

All in all, the storm dropped more than 14 inches on Cruso in 72 hours, almost triple the National Weather Service’s Tuesday morning projection of 4 or 5 inches. 

An even greater disaster in Jackson County was narrowly averted  — some rain gauges notched 20 inches from Sunday morning to Wednesday morning, but all that water was divided between two separate watersheds, cutting the impact roughly in half. 

 

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Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers speaks during a joint press conference (above) held during Sen. Thom Tillis’ visit Aug. 19. Holly Kays photo

 

On Thursday, Aug. 19, Haywood County continued to assess damage while local officials asked for help. 

“Our residents are strong. Haywood County is resilient, and we’re all North Carolinians. We’re standing strong, but we’re needing support,” said Donaldson. “We need your prayers and your thoughts.”

Donaldson led off a press conference on the grounds of Canton’s flooded-out William G. Stamey Municipal Building, but Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers was asking for more than just thoughts and prayers. 

“As you can see, our town hall, our basic structures, our houses, our police department, our fire department, our emergency response — it is completely offline,” Smathers said, before leading U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis on a walkthrough of Canton’s mucky downtown, where several feet of water stood just 36 hours ago. 

“What you will see on this tour, you will go through our river businesses and homes that have been affected. This storm was so intense that one of our aldermen, Dr. Ralph Hamlett, has lost his home,” said Smathers. “The intensity of the storm literally pushed it off the foundation.”

And Smathers was there. According to a report in the Waynesville Mountaineer , Smathers ended up carrying a woman out of a home on his back through floodwaters after checking in on his sister, and on Hamlett. 

Smathers said he thought this most recent flood was worse than the historic 2004 floods that slammed Canton back when his father Pat was mayor. Smathers went on to plead for a federal emergency declaration that would free up aid, especially housing resources. 

In the immediate wake of the storm, 35 people were unaccounted for, but by Thursday that number had dwindled to around 20 as search and rescue operations continued. 

Kevin Ensley, chairman of the Haywood County Board of Commissioners, said that more than 500 people had been displaced, and more than 225 buildings had been damaged or destroyed. The Town of Clyde reported 92 homes and five businesses damaged. 

“We have probably 10 to 30 bridges out from the public safety standpoint, and education and quality of life,” Ensley said. “Folks are cut off for an extended period of time, so we’re looking to the state and the federal government to help those folks with bridge repair and with their homes.”

Sadly, the storm’s first two confirmed deaths were announced, Frank Mungo, 86, and Franklin McKenzie, 68, both of Cruso. Mungo and his wife Charlene had been at the Laurel Bank Campground, less than a mile downstream from Natasha Bright’s home. 

Later that day around 3 p.m., Smathers hosted N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper for another press conference and a tour of Cruso. 

“As you know, Balsam Range, a Grammy Award-winning bluegrass band, calls Canton home. One of my favorite songs by Balsam Range is simply entitled, ‘Grit and Grace,’” Smathers said. “Knowing the character of this mill town and our community, it will be the grit and grace that will carry us through because in this mill town, it’s like 2004. We have been here before. We have been knocked down. We have been counted out. But every single time we have found a way to bounce back stronger and better and united. And we are going to do that again.”

 

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BearWaters Brewing is devastated by flood damage. Cory Vaillancourt photo

 

The press conference was held at the muddy, gutted BearWaters Brewing, where employees were entering day two of cleanup efforts there. 

“So today it’s just more about getting a little more organized,” said Jennifer Sechrist, who’d been with the popular Canton brewery for about a year before water flooded the riverside building. “We’ve been doing everything, really. Power washing, squeegeeing, sanitizing, picking up trash.”

During the press conference, Ensley announced that a preliminary estimate of the total tax value of affected parcels was $300 million. Determining the amount of damage is a critical component of any potential disaster declaration

Were all the damaged parcels to be “zeroed out” — they won’t be — that would result in a worst-case loss of about $1.6 million in property tax revenue for the county, good for 2 cents on the tax rate. 

Fire districts in the area that rely on property tax for funding will also see a substantial impact due to the losses. 

By 5 p.m. that afternoon, Springdale resident Sandy O’Loughlin was at the end of a long and unexpected day of work. A volunteer with the Cruso Community Center for 15 years, she and her fellow volunteers from the Springdale area — who live close to the flooded areas but themselves received much more minimal damage — were eager to help. 

They spent the day organizing literal truckloads of donations in the 93-year-old stone building and cooking a gigantic lasagna dinner, which they hoped would be enough to feed all the first responders and displaced residents in need of a meal that night. They know it will be much more than a one-day effort, however. 

“We realize right now it looks like a lot,” she said, gesturing toward the tables full of boxed donations, “but this is going to last a while.” 

Alan Fisher, captain of the Hickory Fire Department, had been out in Cruso with his crew for a little over 24 hours by the time The Smoky Mountain News caught up with him that afternoon — checking campers for survivors, putting out a small car fire, doing whatever they could to help. Fisher’s been with the City of Hickory’s fire department for 20 years, and when asked how the flooding in Cruso stacks up to his past disaster experience, his reply was unequivocal. 

“I’ve never seen anything this bad,” he said. 

On Friday, Aug. 20, N.C. Speaker of the House Tim Moore, became the final elected official to visit Canton. Moore was joined by Haywood’s House members Mark Pless and Mike Clampitt, in addition to Rep. Karl Gillespie, of Macon County and Rep. Charles Miller , of Brunswick County. 

Miller has also served as the chief deputy sheriff in coastal Brunswick for more than 30 years and owns property in nearby Transylvania County. 

“When we deal with disasters in Brunswick, we can see the water rising, and we know it’s coming. This is my first time seeing something like this in the mountains, and they really had no warning,” Miller said. “It was just a wall of water.”

According to Miller, the state’s “rainy day fund,” something championed by Sen. Kevin Corbin when he was in the House, is ready to assist. 

“That’s what it’s for, and I think the Speaker said that earlier,” said Miller, who also sits on the House appropriations committee. “We’ll go through the process and get these folks whatever they need to help them.” 

Late that afternoon, Canton officials cancelled all musical performances associated with the 114th annual Labor Day festivities, but hinted that the Monday parade might still take place. 

On Saturday, two more victims were identified. Like the others, Judy Mason, 73, and Charline Mungo (Frank Mungo’s wife), 83, were all from Cruso. Sheriff Christopher announced at that time that four people were still missing. The next day, a fifth victim, Frank Lauer, Sr., 74, of Cruso, was confirmed, but the number of people missing had dropped to one. 

A Monday press conference offered no update on the missing person, but did offer startling insight into the vile, dishonorable nature of some  humans during a time of tragedy and great sadness. 

Sheriff Christopher said his office had received 10 reports of looting, with no arrests but plenty of names collected for future reference. Christopher said individuals they made contact with were told not to return, and that patrols in the area would remain vigilant. 

But further remarks by Donaldson show how communities come together across racial, religious, economic, social and partisan divides — instead of being flooded with water, Haywood County was now being flooded with grit and grace, in the form of a massive outpouring of volunteers and donations. 

So many donations, in fact, that they were running out of room to store it all, and asked people wanting to help to visit a new website, www.haywoodrecovers.com , to ensure their generosity could be accommodated. Alternately, the county’s non-emergency helpline, 828.356.2022, was also staffed for the same purpose. Both stand ready for those in need, as well. 

Plenty remain in need — and will — as Haywood awaits that federal disaster declaration, but Donaldson asked for patience as local government agencies and the Federal Emergency Management Administration set about the process of making their case. 

“If we don’t do it accurately, we hurt ourselves. We’re really putting strong emphasis on doing it correctly, methodically and as quickly as we can,” he said. “It’s not an immediate, ‘Hey, here it is, you have a disaster, we’re gonna turn all the spigots and faucets on and help.’ There’s a lot of work in the background.”

Natasha Bright’s forever home — that place she’d always wanted as a child, a place of stability and serenity for her and her children — is still there, 125 feet from the now-calm East Fork of the Pigeon River, but Bright isn’t certain she’ll return to it. 

“I’m not sure what we’re doing. At this point, we can’t even get anybody out there so we’re going to have to pull out the carpet. We’re going to have to do three feet of sheetrock or floorboards or whatever, to make sure that it’s even livable because of mold,” she said. “Our bridge, I don’t even know when it’s going to be built at this point. We still have to hike in through the back. I don’t know when there’s going to be electricity because no one can get to it to put the pole back up.”

Disaster relief can’t come soon enough for Bright and others in the southern and eastern sections of Haywood County, but when it does, it will be just the beginning of a healing process that will likely take years. And if that forever home does end up being habitable again, Bright will likely remain understandably reluctant. 

“Even if the cabin is OK, can I really put my kids through that again?” she asked. “What if they’re home? What if it’s worse?”

(SMN Staff Holly Kays, Hannah McLeod, Scott McLeod, Jessi Stone and Garret K. Woodward contributed to this report.) 

Leave a comment

2 comments

  • Excellent article. Very informative and very well executed. Prayers continuing to go up for all who were impacted by this tragedy.

    posted by Wendy King

    Friday, 08/27/2021

  • How devastating, So sorry for this disaster! Glad you are all safe and alive. Hope you receive recovery support from all this. My heart is with you!

    posted by Kathleen Schuh Ries

    Thursday, 08/26/2021

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