‘I’ve just never seen water that angry’
By Bill Graham • Special to SMN | Poet T.S. Eliot wrote that there’s something about growing up beside a river that’s hard to communicate to people who didn’t.
Travis and Jesse Gresham and Sherrie McArthur know all about this. They were raised in and near the mouth of Horse Cove in Cruso, where the east fork of the Pigeon River squeezes through a narrow spot between a shoulder of Cold Mountain and Piney Field Top mountain, and where the sense of place and community is strong.
Eliot grew up by a big river, the Mississippi, set in its ways and quiet, but the sound the young Pigeon makes as it gathers itself for a trip to the sea is the song of the Gresham's and McArthur’s childhoods.
McArthur and her brother would pitch their tent by the river on summer nights, and their father, keeping a watchful eye, became inspired to open Laurel Bank Campground. That was in 1970. The campground grew and grew and came under Sherrie’s management two decades ago. She raised her sons there, Ashley and Andrew, and they were best friends with the Greshams.
Travis and Jesse grew up in a 130-year-old farmhouse on an idyllic spot in the mouth of the cove. Their parents settled there 50 years ago, after their dad, Jack, returned from Vietnam. He used the GI Bill to enroll at Haywood Community College, and he and Patricia Lou started a family.
“They were two hippies, with friends coming in and out,” said Travis. “They produced most of their own food. We had a nice garden. We baked our own bread.”
Twin Oaks, the Gresham farmhouse in Cruso. Angie Schwab photo
“It was great,” said her brother Jesse. He learned to hunt with his dad, who passed away in 2008. “We didn’t have cable so we were outside all the time.”
The river was central to their lives. Its constant breeze flowed through their house at night, and they tubed all summer. Their play spots were all on the riverbank, and when they were older they found peace there. “You know, like Siddhartha,” said Travis.
“Listening to the voices in the water.”
The McArthur family was close to the Greshams from day one. The farmhouse, made of sturdy stone, was once part of the campground property. Travis calls Sherrie “my second mama.”
Many years ago, the Tennessee Valley Authority considered a dam in this narrow spot, but instead of a lake at the upper end of Cruso, the valley contains one of the few uncontrolled watersheds in the region. That distinction came into sharp relief on Aug. 17, when remnants of Tropical Storm Fred dropped an incredible deluge on the high mountainsides, and the river became a raging torrent very quickly.
The east fork of the Pigeon River at the mouth of Horse Cove during the flood. The Gresham house is hidden in the trees at far top left. Photo courtesy of Mitchell Burris
The flood was unprecedented, easily sinking the high water marks set in the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan in 2004, and before it subsided over 500 homes and numerous businesses from Cruso to Clyde were damaged or destroyed and six lives were lost.
The Gresham’s house, affectionately known as Twin Oaks, was high enough up the hillside to be clear of the Pigeon, but was struck from behind by a cascade roaring down a tiny stream bed that usually carried no more than a trickle.
“The stream went right through the house,” said Jesse, who lived there with his mom, but who was at work the evening the flood came.
Patricia Lou — known in the community as Lou — is 71, not far removed from a broken hip, and is fighting cancer. She spent the night on her soaked bed as it slowly drifted around on water standing in the dark house.
Lou doesn’t use a cell phone, only a landline, and couldn’t be reached during the flood. Travis and Jesse spent a sleepless night at Travis’s house in Clyde, and when Jesse talked his way past a roadblock the next morning and made his way to the house he found her on the porch, looking down on the void where the bridge to their house once was. The span, normally 20 feet above the river surface and sturdy, had completely disappeared. Rescuers were eventually able to take Lou across the stream on a gurney.
Just downstream, Laurel Bank Campground was utterly destroyed, and three guests lost their lives.
“I’ve never seen water that angry,” said McArthur, who spent a traumatic night helping elderly campers to higher ground and watching as her life’s work and family land were swept away.
Nearby, Jesse’s close friend Jacob McKenzie’s house was high enough to be spared, but his father, Frank, was cleaning a culvert in the driving rain when an enormous landslide from the ridge behind the house caught him unaware. He was 67.
As is usually the case with upland floods, the water receded quickly. The next day was sunny, and help began to arrive. Friends and good Samaritans helped muck out the Gresham house.
“It was overwhelming the amount of help we got,” said Jesse, “but once that happened, we saw what we were up against.”
Sherrie McArthur pictured next to all the debris at the former Laurel Bank Campground.
More neighbors helped McArthur make slight order of the startling wreckage of a 100-site campground, mostly filled with the RVs of seasonal guests. Heavy equipment pushed wildly tortured and twisted metal and debris into dozens of heaps 10 feet high as campers, most of whom lost everything, made their way out of the valley.
Sherrie said there is no way to reopen the campground. She had expensive insurance when Ivan hit, but it didn’t really help much, so she didn’t bother after that. Furthermore, she said, putting more RVs by the riverside is probably a non-starter.
Her house is an A-frame, perched slightly higher than the surrounding campground, and was damaged but survived. It’s being repaired with the help of a Rapid Rehousing program funded through Mountain Projects and the United Way and executed by the Baptists on Mission Disaster Relief. Over 50 houses have been repaired or are being repaired so far.
McArthur intends to stay, but despairs at the likelihood she’ll have to continue life in the midst of mountains of debris. She can’t afford to have it removed, and there’s no clear path to help, so she waits.
“I guess I’ll just keep living right here in the middle of it,” she said.
The Gresham’s Twin Oaks is probably beyond rescue. It was built directly on the ground, so its interior timbers couldn’t stand much more moisture than they’d absorbed over the decades.
“It was pretty bad off before the flood,” said Jessie.
Patricia Lou Gresham.
Still, it’s the only place Lou wants to be in her later years, and it’s a place Travis and Jesse love and have no intention of letting go.
But what to do? They were uninsured — and probably uninsurable for what happened. They’ve raised a fair amount of money through GoFundMe, and FEMA provided a modest amount, but like many in Cruso, they find themselves in a limbo of sorts. Without a bridge their only access is by foot, and the bridge alone will cost as much as a house.
“Nothing against FEMA,” said Travis, “but we thought there would be more help.”
Help might find its way through a recently approved state relief package, $20 million of which is earmarked for private bridges and roads, but the way those funds will be administered or when they’ll be distributed remains to be seen. Meanwhile, both Jessie and Lou live in close quarters with Travis’s family in Clyde.
Bill Martin, construction manager for Baptists on Mission, has made lots of friends in the valley, and is exasperated for those whose lives are on hold.
“It’s sort of strange how things are,” he said. “There’s money for clothes, money for food, some money for houses, but infrastructure gets lost in there somewhere. I don’t know what anybody can do if they can’t get to their house. We’ve got to find some way to get some bridges built.”
The big picture — and its irony — aren’t lost on Travis. She shares sentiments that are repeated in different ways up and down the valley.
“It’s just sad all the way across the board,” she said. “That this river that’s given so many people so much happiness has also caused so much pain.”
Want to help?
As we head into the winter season, Mountain Projects is requesting community donations in support of the Emergency Needs Fund. Contributions will be used to support friends and neighbors in Haywood and Jackson Counties who have unmet basic needs: food, heat and shelter. Between now and March 2022 we anticipate over 200 requests for emergency utility assistance alone.