The Sound of Silence: Disaster relief now a waiting game
As state elected leaders toured areas of Haywood County decimated by deadly flooding that killed six people last week, local agencies were busy assessing damage and compiling reports in support of a federal disaster declaration that would bring badly needed resources.
Local and state officials completed their tasks late last week after “methodical” documentation and a formal request for a declaration was submitted to the White House late last week, but with some in Cruso still sleeping in flood-damaged homes or makeshift cinder block lean-tos, local leaders are growing ever more frustrated with the silence from President Joe Biden’s administration.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper returned for the second time to Western North Carolina on Wednesday, Aug. 25, exactly one week after much of the region awoke to flooded homes, intersections under water and bridges that had been washed away.
Gov. Roy Cooper visited a Candler business that experienced devastating flooding. Cory Vaillancourt photo
This time, he started on Smoky Park Highway, where Mountain Power Performance owner Alexis Giese showed him a waterline inside his diesel shop four feet high. Hominy Creek had flooded Giese’s business, as well as several others across the street from the iconic Miami Restaurant. The flooding, Giese said, was made worse by pre-existing debris in the creek that created an ersatz dam, driving water a dozen or more feet above its usual level.
From there, Cooper headed over to Haywood County, just east of Canton town limits on Asheville Highway.
There, he met with David Clark, owner of Chestnut Mountain Auto.
“Just this year, I’ve took all my life savings and bought equipment to try to get out of the automotive work so much, it’s just so hard on my body,” Clark said. “I bought a backhoe, dump truck, excavator. It all went under water. All my welders, you know. Everything that I worked so hard for over the years, it’s totally gone.”
David Clark (left), owner of Chestnut Mountain Automotive outside Canton, explains to Gov. Cooper what happened on the night of Aug. 17.
Clark said the equipment was uninsured.
Keeta Bryson said the flooding didn’t stop Clark from trying to help his neighbors.
“This man came to my momma’s and dug out what he could with what he had left,” Bryson said, fighting back tears. “Digging out cars, whatever he could do to get my brother and my momma safe. This man, even when he didn’t have anything, he came and did it.”
During a short press conference at the scene, Cooper repeated what Haywood County officials had been saying for more than a week about the pursuit of a federal disaster declaration.
“We’ve been through a lot of these, unfortunately, in North Carolina. One thing that we have learned is that your damage assessments need to be right when you submit them to the federal government, because that greases the wheel of getting money back quicker,” Cooper told reporters. “If you ask for the declaration before you have the right kind of damage assessments, then that slows down the process toward the end, so everybody’s working as hard as they can to get these damages assessments. We’ve lost a lot of roads, bridges, businesses, public institutions, and we want to make sure that we are eligible for everything that we can get.”
Further east on Asheville Highway, motorists were greeted by a scene so surreal it almost defies description — 70 pianos, caked with mud, stacked in a huge pile like cord wood.
“And that’s not even all of them,” said Kelly Ward, who with her brother Alden operates Ward Piano, a business started by their grandfather shortly after World War II.
“It came about 3 p.m. I’m thinking 3 p.m. I’m not really sure. Within 15 minutes, it seemed like it was just there. And then it just kept coming and coming and coming,” Kelly said. “They blocked the road and you couldn’t get through. I couldn’t get my car out. It was flooded. Our big truck was ruined. The water was to the windows. It actually picked [the truck] up, and shifted it in the parking lot, our big box truck. That’s what the current of the water was. We just didn’t have any warning.”
Kelly and Alden Ward said they’re not even to the point of figuring out if they’ll reopen.
The next morning, during an emergency meeting, Haywood commissioners approved several contracts for debris removal and rehousing services.
Chip Patterson, of Southern Disaster Recovery, said that they’d be removing upward of 4,000 cubic yards of debris a day, segregating white goods from plant material. More than 70 percent of trucking operations were being completed by Haywood County residents.
The county’s contract with SRD may run as high as $4 million. Another company, DebrisTech LLC, was given a $939,000 contract for monitoring services — in essence, tracking each load of debris to ensure that work that would be paid for was actually being performed, and that different types of waste were going to the correct landfills.
Like SDR, DebrisTech said it was employing a large number of locals.
The final contract, for $175,000, was awarded to nonprofit Baptists on Mission for a rapid rehousing program. Bill Martin, who spoke on the contract, said that the group rips insulation and other materials out of flood-damaged houses, along with furniture and other debris, so that residents who have safe, sanitary and secure homes can return to them.
During the meeting it was reported that 241 homes in Cruso had no damage, 232 were damaged, 140 had failed, and 164 were completely destroyed.
A total of $5 million was transferred from the county’s fund balance to pay for the services. Bryant Morehead, Haywood County manager, said this was only possible due to conservative management of fund balance.
A federal disaster declaration means the county would be see 75 percent of the cost reimbursed by the federal government, and 25 percent by the state. If a federal declaration is not issued, the state would pick up 75 percent of the tab, and the county would be on the hook for the rest.
Later that day, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson became the latest statewide elected official to visit Haywood County. Along with WNC reps Mark Pless and Mike Clampitt, Robinson spoke at a press conference at the Haywood EMS base in Hazelwood.
Robinson had spent plenty of time in the region during his 2020 campaign, but said the damage was apparent.
Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson (left) speaks in Haywood County as Rep. Mark Pless (center) and Rep. Mike Clampitt (right) await their turns.
“This is what makes North Carolina the greatest state in the union is the way North Carolinians come to each other’s aid,” Robinson said. “When disasters like this happen, our office is going to be working around the clock with anyone who needs any help in the relief efforts. We’re a hundred percent dedicated to doing anything we can in this effort.”
That night, the Town of Canton held its regular meeting. Town staff reported that all the mud had been removed from town buildings, and that basic services were returning. Champion Credit Union donated office space and call center capabilities to the town, and debris pickup was slated to begin the next day.
Town Manager Nick Scheuer remarked that despite the damage, seeing the community come together in times of trouble had convinced him that the disaster was both “horrible and beautiful.”
Canton Recreation Director Ben Williams said he’d seen tremendous volunteer support at Recreation Park, and the fact that the pool was still full of water meant that the foundation hadn’t cracked. The pool would remain closed, Williams said, because if drained it might end up being pushed out of the ground by still-saturated soils. Chemicals added to the pool will prevent mosquito colonization and bacterial growth.
On Friday, less than 10 days after the disaster struck, enough documentation had been gathered by state and local officials that Gov. Cooper felt confident asking the White House for that federal declaration.
As of press time on Tuesday, it had been almost exactly two weeks since the remnants of Tropical Storm Fred began their deadly advance on the mountainous region of Western North Carolina.
Although Cruso bore the brunt of the damage, the town of Canton and its elected officials have taken a central role in coordinating disaster-related activity. Aldermen there are largely content with how local and state resources have been made available thus far.
“Am I satisfied where we are? Yes. Am I hopeful for where we may be going? Yes,” said Canton Alderman Dr. Ralph Hamlett. “I’m well aware that it takes time to process. You have Buncombe County hit, and parts of Transylvania, so there’s multiple requests being made on the state. Do I want more? Of course, but I think we should be patient as the process unfolds.”
Hamlett said that help was needed sooner rather than later, and commended a $50,000 donation made by Duke Energy for small business recovery.
“Our board is taking the necessary actions, passing emergency budgetary amendments to make sure that we move around the monies that we need to make sure that the work is progressing as it should understanding that reimbursements will come later,” he said. “But we need money now, so the board is taking the necessary actions we can to make sure that locally as a town we’re taking those steps to ensure that our staff, our workers, our town manager have those funds available so they can make progress towards recovery.”
Canton Alderwoman Kristina Smith expressed similar sentiments.
“I believe that on a local level, we’re doing everything we can to collaborate and I believe everybody is doing everything they can to collaborate with us on a local level,” said Smith. “I think on a state level, they’re crossing their T’s and dotting their I’s and they’re going by the book to ensure that we can get the help that we need so desperately.”
Zeb Smathers, Canton’s mayor, has been thrust into the national spotlight for his role as the highest-ranking local official impacted by the flooding, which wiped out houses in Canton and flooded downtown, devastating businesses and wiping out town hall while temporarily diminishing police and fire protection services.
“On the local and state level, our county commissioners, our local state delegation of Rep. Clampitt, Rep. Pless, Sen. Corbin, even [Macon County Rep.] Karl Gillespie, have all been to Canton,” Smathers said. “[N.C. House] Speaker Tim Moore I understand has been here twice, and Gov. Cooper’s had a very sophisticated approach to getting those numbers before sending them last week to the president. I have been just amazed and I think that people should be very satisfied how non-partisan this has been.”
Despite the meticulous, back-breaking boots-on-ground nature of the documentation process, there’s still no word from Biden and the White House on Gov. Cooper’s disaster request.
With damage overwhelmingly apparent – and basic food, water and shelter needs going unmet – and Hurricane Ida moving towards Western North Carolina, officials like Smathers, Smith and Hamlett, all Democrats, aren’t happy with the silence from the Democratic administration in Washington, especially as subsequent flooding in Tennessee and Louisiana has already earned federal disaster declarations in two days and one day, respectively.
“I’m not satisfied, period,” Smathers said. “With all due respect and prayers, and I have personally prayed for the people of Tennessee and everyone affected on the Gulf Coast, I think this has been on [the federal government’s] radar for some time. The governor’s office did exactly what they said they would do. We have the support of Sen. [Richard] Burr and Sen. [Thom] Tills. My understanding is those letters have been sent, and we are in a waiting game and every single day I receive the same question over and over again — when is FEMA assistance coming? What’s that assistance going to look like? you have people that are ready to rebuild their homes and businesses that are waiting in bureaucratic purgatory for something, uh, that is needed and well deserved. Our citizens deserve every assistance and resource entitled to them. And at this point, that has not happened. There’s no excuse for that.”
Alderman Hamlett was in agreement with Smathers.
“I’m speaking for myself and not the board. I have some disappointment with the level of advocacy from, our representative in the 11th District,” he said, of Rep. Madison Cawthorn. Cawthorn was the first federal elected official to visit Haywood County in the wake of the floods, and sent a letter to Biden around that same time.
Alderwoman Smith, like Smathers, has taken to social media to continue beating the drum for the federal disaster declaration.
“On a federal level. I’m frustrated,” Smith said. “I believe that we need to speed up this process. I think that the people of Western North Carolina, specifically Haywood County deserve better.”
Smith said she thought it was important to remain active in pushing for news from the White House, even though the declaration is now largely out of local hands.
“I believe that people need to know that we are outwardly pushing and I encourage other people to do the same. You know, these are people that are in crisis. People are without homes and we don’t know where the money is going to come from,” she said. “We can’t hope and wish that we’re going to do the best we can with our communities with what we have right now. I mean, at the end of the day, the funds and the help and the organization and the structure and the infrastructure is where the federal government really can shine. And we need them to shine right now. And they’re not.”
When asked what she’d say to those in Cruso — and elsewhere — sleeping in mold-ridden campers or ad-hoc shelters constructed of storm debris, Smith was adamant that she wouldn’t relent.
“Everybody deserves better than that,” she said. “We’re failing people and these are our people, this is our community. And if I could talk to those people today, I would say, ‘I am sorry. This is unacceptable. I’m going to keep fighting, because that’s what I can do.’”
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This is an outrage! I have never seen a President who has utterly failed Internationally, our country and locally.
I am giving my name and probably will be removed that's how out of control we are!