Archived Opinion

Why WNC remains vulnerable to flooding

Why WNC remains vulnerable to flooding

By Milton Ready • Guest Columnist | Psst! Have you heard that remnants of Tropical Storm Fred passed over Western North Carolina last week causing extensive power outages, flash floods, several deaths, and, yes, even tornadoes. And no, it’s not just about global warming. Now which area do you think suffers more flooding, the Outer Banks, eastern North Carolina, or the mountainous area of the French Broad River Basin? 

Historically, it’s a combination of geography, weather, and, not surprisingly, political indifference and ineptitude. First, WNC’s geography ensures that flooding only too easily occurs. Water falling to the east and south principally from an invisible but critical eastern continental divide flows into three rivers: the Broad, the Green, and the Pacolet, eventually emptying into the Atlantic Ocean 200 miles away.

Yet things change on the western and southern sides of the divide. There, almost every drop somehow finds its way into the French Broad, that organ of creation and genesis of much of WNC’s history, and helps turn Asheville, Fletcher, Canton, Waynesville and smaller communities into giant ponds. For reasons buried in history and governance, no Tennessee Valley Authority like dams and controls line the banks of any of these rivers. Nor will they.

Remember the New Deal of the 1930s and the Tennessee Valley Authority just across the mountains to the west? A multipurpose agency that sought not only to bring cheap electricity to rural mountain areas but also a sweeping program of damming rivers, controlling flooding, and aiding farmers in southern states, the TVA found few supporters in North Carolina. In fact, the state’s senators, congressmen, and governors largely opposed the TVA, forever suspicious of any federal program. This state’s leaders wanted nothing to do with a federal program like this, especially one with a centralized government agency given authority to relocate entire communities. They found it not only repellent but smacking of socialism and “communism,” eternal bogey words to fiercely independent mountaineers.

When offered electrification as well as flood control through the TVA, North Carolina instead created its own Rural Electrification Agency. By chartering state-sponsored power agencies, co-ops to most of us, North Carolina successfully bypassed the TVA and, in so doing, insured that the western mountain counties would be kept in the dark, flood-prone, and poor for decades to come. Situated on federal landholdings, areas further to the west near Fontana and Nantahala fared better, if marginally.

Powered by relatively cheap electricity, industrial giants like ALCOA and Eastman built sprawling plants near booming Knoxville and Newport while, just across the border in North Carolina, farming collapsed, people left, and mountain counties became Appalachian backwaters. Only a few branch factories buttressed local economies. Have you ever wondered why, for example, just across the border in Johnson City, Newport, Gatlinburg, and Bristol there are so many educational opportunities and jobs but so few in adjacent Western North Carolina? Or why Oak Ridge is near Knoxville and not Asheville? Or why it floods so much less in Eastern Tennessee?

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North Carolina has more than 3,100 dams, most privately owned and regulated — if poorly — by the state. Nationally, it also has the second highest number of inadequately maintained dams built in places that could kill people. When a storm like Matthew batters the Outer Banks, be assured that severe flooding will occur in mountain counties as well.  

When Hurricane Andrew swamped coastal hog farms in 1992, breaching earthen dams and sending enormous toxic “lagoons” of fecal matter foaming and fuming into coastal rivers and water supplies, much of Biltmore Village and areas along the French Broad River basin flooded. Floods in 1940, 1977, 2004, 2018, and now 2021 have devastated Western North Carolina. While some will argue the destruction of the floods of 1940, 1977, and 2004 were catastrophic, the Great Flood of 1916 nonetheless stands as Western North Carolina’s Katrina, at least for now.  

Tree falls and climate change? With a typical subsoil of perhaps 18 inches, a saturated ground, two or more inches of rain, and winds above 25 mph, hundreds of trees, many in newer “weather safe” mountainous developments and on clear-cut slippery slopes, will tumble onto homes, trailers, roads, power lines, cars, and, on occasion, people. Water rescues? More occur every year. Climate change? Just think of Chimney Rock and Lake Lure burning up in 2016 and with convulsive flooding in 2018.   

Yet rest assured that when the mountains have a few inches of rain, lots of flooding and trees falling, a Democratic governor with little or no power except to sign his own paycheck and a Republican senator who opposes the very notion of climate change and regulation will parachute into the mountains for a photo op and quickly depart, so politically impotent and vulnerable is Western North Carolina. Have you had a tree fall near you lately?

(Milton Ready is an emeritus professor of history from UNC Asheville. He is the author of The Tar Heel State: A History of North Carolina (2020), and an earlier edition in 2005. He has also written two books on Asheville, the last Remembering Asheville (2005), and another on Madison County and the mountains of Western North Carolina called Mystical Madison. He has also authored several other books. He currently lives in Flat Rock. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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  • Couple of things…

    Storms that “batter” the Outer Banks rarely, if ever, cause flooding in the mountains, and Hurricane Andrew didn’t swamp coastal hog farms in 1992, breaching earthen dams and sending enormous toxic “lagoons” of fecal matter foaming and fuming into coastal rivers and water supplies. Hurricane Andrew was primarily a wind event. I believe the author is thinking of Hurricane Fran, which decimated much of eastern NC in 1996.

    posted by Tueggs Krambold

    Sunday, 09/05/2021

  • The primary problem in WNC is the steep terrain. That will not be cured by building a multitude of dams without inundating a substantial part of the mountain region. Southeast Ohio has the same problem, although it is not mountainous, the terrain is still steep and rain water flushes quickly. Other regions of the east are similarly situated in regards to terrain and there is little that can be reasonably done other than enforcing floodplain regulations. Tennessee has areas with the same problem as here. Try doing a bit of research and a lot less emoting.

    "Climate change" as a prime cause is a myth.

    posted by Quartermaster

    Saturday, 09/04/2021

  • Suggestions ??? or just bad news for all of the residents commerce in this area?

    posted by MLS

    Friday, 09/03/2021

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