Muddy waters: WNC feels the blues following unrelenting rainstorms
A four-day stretch of heavy rains fell on Western North Carolina, leaving residents wondering if it would ever end. Some areas witnessed up to 10 inches.
The following collection of stories and interviews captures the drama and tension of the unrelenting rains as they wreaked havoc across the mountains.
Creeks flooded. Mud flowed down the mountainsides. Trees toppled onto homes. Bridges washed out. Roads caved in and looked as if someone misplaced the last piece of a puzzle.
There were no deaths or major injuries reported, but the 10 westernmost counties were plagued with landslides, some small and some narrowly missing homes.
Unceasing rains put mountain and valley dwellers alike on edge
As the rain continued to pelt down with no signs of stopping, emergency workers stayed on alert.
“All week was busy for us. We just worked one call after another,” said Tim Carver, chief of the Maggie Valley Fire Department.
With one eye trained on creeks and rivers for flash floods, the other eye was turned upward to the mountainsides where the risk of landslides loomed large.
Maggie Valley’s history of landslides made it a potential danger zone — and in particular the site of a mammoth slide three years ago that tore a giant swath of destruction from Ghost Town down Rich Cove.
While lightening doesn’t strike in the same place twice, the opposite holds true for landslides. Despite a $1.4 million clean-up intended to shore up the destabilized mountainside above Rich Cove, it’s impossible to completely abate the risk of another one.
Sure enough, one afternoon last week, the fire department got a call that another landslide had occurred on Rich Cove, in the same spot as before. In the driving rain, Carver took a crew straight into the line of fire to size up the landslide — first from the bottom, and then from the top, ultimately walking the length of the slide on foot to assess it.
Landslides also made a debut appearance in Maggie at the head of Soco. One led to an emergency middle-of-the-night evacuation on Tuesday, Jan. 15.
“It missed the house by 30 feet, not by much. It destroyed the driveway and knocked the lady’s car off the bank,” said Marc Pruett, erosion control inspector in Haywood County.
Just a few hundred feet away, another slide came down an embankment and landed in the road, stopping just short of a house.
“It came down so hard it knocked trees down on her house,” Pruett said.
After spending all Wednesday night responding to landslide calls with the Maggie Valley Fire Department, Pruett said he was not optimistic that the saturated mountain slopes would fare better under the duress of more heavy rains Thursday.
“The ground was pretty wet,” Pruett said Thursday. “We are just sitting tight, hoping everything stays in place.”
While Maggie Valley was plagued with landslides, creeks in Waynesville swelled into full-blown rivers during the deluge of precipitation.
The unrelenting rain brought memories of 2004 flooding back, when the Pigeon River submerged hundreds of homes and businesses in Canton and Clyde. The town of Clyde warned residents to listen for emergency sirens warning of high waters and to get out quick if they heard them.
Richland Creek, which courses through the heart of Waynesville, jumped its banks by the Waynesville Recreation Center flooding the Frisbee golf course. Upstream, the normally gentle Plott Creek had become a raging torrent.
Chuck Dixon, who lives along Plott Creek, found the creek surging across his and his neighbors’ backyards after it jumped its bank and cut a new course — unfortunately its favored path surrounded Dickson’s back porch, giving him the distinct feel of being on a houseboat. Two days later, it showed no signs of returning to its original channel of its own accord. Dickson quipped that his wife always wanted a pool.
Thankfully, for the Dicksons, their house did not sustain significant damage other than roughing up the yard and displacing the gravel driveway. Although he has flood insurance, it will not cover any property damage, other than structural damage to the home or garage, meaning Dickson will have to cover the cost of, somehow, moving the creek out of his backyard.
Brush with a landslide leaves Macon couple shaken but thankful
Cheryl Stacy was in her living room watching television with her husband, Wayne, winding down before bed when the couple heard a loud rumble, and then whoosh, the ground moved.
The Stacys moved into a high mountainside home in Macon County about a year ago from Boiling Springs to enjoy their golden retirement years. As relative newcomers to the mountains, they didn’t know what all the commotion was when the ground shuddered around 9 p.m. Jan. 15. Wayne thought it was a tornado, Cheryl an earthquake.
In truth, it was a landslide that took out part of their garage and washed over their driveway, trapping them inside their house.
Cheryl counts herself among the lucky, who perhaps narrowly avoided peril last week. Cheryl had driven up and down the driveway several times that Wednesday heading to the grocery store and running other errands.
Had the slope collapsed as she was coming or going, “You would not have survived,” Wayne said soberly.
But, thankfully, it waited until evening, both said.
“You have to count your blessings after you cry,” Cheryl said. “We have a lot to be thankful for.”
The couple was still in a state of shock Wednesday morning as they looked out from their front porch to a view of the nearby mountains, an packed bag still sitting by the front door as a sign of their hurried evacuation the night before. Cheryl leaned against the railing, her head resting on a wooden pillar, while Wayne compulsively jumbled the change in the right pocket of his jeans.
They had been prepared for everything, the couple thought. They had a backup generator and a wood-burning stove, just in case a strong storm knocked out the power or heat. But, they didn’t think about landslides. Standard homeowner’s insurance won’t cover the thousands of dollars of damages.
The night of the slide when the Stacys peered outside and found a thick layer of mud caking their driveway and the walls of their garage disjointed, they weren’t sure what to do — whether they must deal with the aftermath of the landslide alone or should report it.
“We just thought, ‘It is our problem,’” Wayne said, since the slide was on private property.
But, they called the highway patrol and were told to hang up and call 911 immediately. The slide may not be done slipping, and they should get out now. But they couldn’t on their own. Volunteers with the Mountain Valley Fire Department arrived not 10 minutes later, tied a rope to a secure tree above the house for footing and led the couple down the muddy mountainside in the dark rain.
The Stacys spent Wednesday night at the Hampton Inn but returned the next morning with the Macon County building inspector to survey the damage.
After hearing the house was fine — with the exception of the garage — Cheryl continued describing what had happened a little more than 12 hours earlier when she was suddenly caught by a realization. She fell silent for several seconds, and as if waking from a haze, Cheryl suddenly stated, “The birds are back.”
“Yesterday, there was no birds,” Cheryl said. “We’ve commented for the last three days, ‘Where are the birds?’”
Birds were not the only things missing in the days leading up to the landslide.
The drainage ditch along their driveway, which should have been a small torrent, was only a trickle. Cheryl, in passing, noted that water wasn’t flowing down like it usually did in heavy rains, but didn’t suspect anything was amiss.
“We didn’t live in the mountains. We didn’t know,” Cheryl said.
In truth, something was wrong. Debris had clogged the drainage ditch, causing water to build up in the ground above the Stacy’s house. With no place for the water to go, it continued to soak into the already saturated soil.
Rain is a chief ingredient in landslides. When there’s too much too fast, water builds up between the bedrock and the soil layer above it. The soil lifts up and sloughs off, carrying rocks or trees with it, sometimes gathering steam, momentum and mass as it travels down the mountainside.
When it comes to erosion and landslides, “water is our biggest enemy,” said Marc Pruett, director of Haywood County’s Sediment and Erosion Control.
Landslides shorten the lifespan of many mountain roads
More than 55 landslides struck state roads in North Carolina’s 10 westernmost counties during the four-days of torrential storms that inundated the region with rainfall.
The rash of landslides reported to the N.C. Department of Transportation last week was abnormally high, but most luckily logged in as small slides. The most common type: the embankment above the road sloughed off and landed in a heap on the roadway. The debris was a nuisance but could be hauled off and cleared in a day or less with equipment.
Dozens more of these small slides and slumps plagued mountain subdivisions. Homeowners associations will be emptying their pockets to repair the damage themselves.
It’s impossible to know just how many of these slides in mountain subdivisions happened, as some will never be reported. But even of those that were, Marc Pruett, director of Haywood County’s Sediment and Erosion Control just hasn’t had time to tally them yet. He was too busy assessing landslide and slope failures on the ground last week to file the requisite county paperwork detailing all the sites he and other county staff visited.
“We were running and jumping from one to the next. You just couldn’t get to it all,” Pruett said.
Reports of slides and slumps began coming in Monday, less than a day into what would be a marathon four days of solid, heavy rain.
In some cases, debris fell down on the road from above. In other cases, the road itself crumbled away and slid down the mountain, posing a much bigger repair job.
One of the larger landslides took out part of the Cherohala Skyway, a scenic high-elevation parkway that travels through rugged mountains of Graham County.
The slide traveled 900 feet down the mountainside, cutting a cut a 150-foot-wide swath in its wake. It only damaged a small section on the shoulder of the Cherohala Skyway, but DOT officials deemed the route unsafe for motorists and have shut the scenic tourist route.
DOT officials had no time frame or cost estimates for repairing the area along the Cherohala Skyway as of press time.
An even larger job lies ahead with a slide that buried Newfound Gap Road through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The DOT had road crews double as landslide spotters during the storms, watching likely problem spots, but predicting slides is impossible.
“Only God knows those things,” said Mark Gibbs, a maintenance engineer with DOT’s Division 14. “We just have to stay vigilant.”
Luckily, Interstate 40 through Haywood County, which is normally a high-hazard zone for landslides, was spared this time.
“Keeping I-40 open is certainly important,” Gibbs said.
With a list of slides and washed out gravel roads needing urgent maintenance, DOT was not for want of work when the rain finally let up Friday. But where to begin?
“We try to look at the sites that affect people the most,” Gibbs said, adding that the size of a landslide or project does not factor into what gets attention first, so much as how many vehicles travel over the road.
How long repairs takes depends on the best way to tackle the particular slide. A traditional slope repair can be completed in a couple of months. The department carefully rebuilds the missing slope on a foundation of large rocks. But, others necessitate the construction of a stone retaining wall to hold the slope in place — which takes more time and can jack up the price.
“It’s a very costly and expensive repair,” Gibbs said.
Rainstorm trifecta of flooding, slides and wash-outs strikes Cherokee
Flooding along the Oconaluftee River, creeks jumping their banks and washed out roads could come with a likely clean-up price tag of $3 million on the Cherokee reservation, based on early estimate from the Eastern Band’s Department of Transportation.
However, in Cherokee Friday, the feeling was still “things could have been worse.”
“I think we were pretty lucky,” said Mollie Grant, program manager for the tribe’s Emergency Management.
When water submerged Oconaluftee Island Park mid-week — at one point leaving only the roof of a picnic pavilion poking above the high water mark — many feared the damage being done by the raging river would destroy Cherokee’s prime recreation area. But when the water finally receded, the pavilions, benches, picnic tables and trashcans in the park did not sustain structural damage, so the clean up will simply include removing the mud, stones and logs littering the island. Grass reseeding will likely be in order as well, Grant said.
Residents were cautioned to stay home and avoid bridge crossings at all costs, particularly overnight Tuesday as rising water covered some roads. However, only one road was bad enough to warrant closing — Saunooke Bridge Road in Big Cove community.
To help ease clean-up, Principal Chief Michell Hicks planned to issue a state of emergency. That gives tribal public safety employees extra authority to ensure safety, including trespassing on private property to clear debris posing a hazard, Grant said.
Grant estimated that most everything on the reservation will be back to normal within a week. However, Grant said she does expect to receive more calls about slides or other weather-related problems in the days to come from remote areas of the reservation.
Cherokee’s worst damage was a slide on Mt. Noble Road that will cost an estimated $1.3 million to repair. The slide covered part of the road, but one lane remained open to give residents above the slide a way in and out of their homes.
As the waters receded last week, hairstylist Jennifer Bigmeat was taking the flooding in stride, despite her salon being in a mobile home just a couple of yards away from the Oconaluftee River.
“We didn’t expect it to get this high, but we’ve seen it higher than this,” Bigmeat said.
Slide takes out giant section of main Smokies thoroughfare
A football field-sized section of Newfound Gap Road in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was destroyed by a landslide in last week’s rainstorms, cutting off the lone road through the park from Cherokee to Tennessee.
The slide took a large bite out of road, leaving a 45- to 50-feet deep hole. The slide is on the North Carolina side of the park, nine miles from the park entrance. There is no timeline for repairs.
The road is a the only direct route between Cherokee and Tennessee and a critical route for tourists going to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort or Cherokee’s cultural attractions. It was also the only route through the Smokies for people living on the North Carolina side of the park.
The landslide will undoubtedly translate to a bottom-line loss for Cherokee’s casino, as well as the myriad mom-and-pop hotels and shops that line Cherokee.
“Overall, the impact is nothing short of substantial,” said Jason Lambert, director of commerce for the tribe. “Everyone feels the affects when the park is closed.”
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park sees more than 9 million visitors a year in all. The entrance to the Smokies outside Cherokee alone counted 2.2 million visitors entering the park from the N.C. side.
“It’s a great source of drive-through traffic,” Lambert said.
National Park and Federal Highway officials plan to visit the site of the landslide on Jan. 28 with leaders from the Eastern Band to view the damage and talk about possible solutions.
“Our immediate goal is to get an assessment,” said Michell Hicks, principal chief of the Eastern Band.
For Hicks, and business owners in Cherokee, the thought that Newfound Gap Road could be impassable for months is concerning.
“We just don’t want it to completely shut down traffic flow,” Hicks said.
The Eastern Band is already devising a marketing plan to let people know about the slide and encourage them to visit Cherokee anyway, even if it means adding time to their trip with detours.
“We are looking at multiple opportunities for how to get our message to different markets,” Lambert said, adding that specifics of its marketing campaign are still up in the air until the tribe finds out how long the road will remain closed.
Lambert has spoken with the chief’s office as well as leaders within Cherokee’s Chamber of Commerce to get and give updates on how the tribe plans to deal with the closure.
“Our biggest message to them right now is ‘We are on top of it. We are planning,’” Lambert said.
This is not the first time that the park road has closed because of weather-related hazards. Since the road traverses high elevations, snowfall and ice can prompt park rangers to shut it down for periods of time during the winter months.
“We have seen historically how temperature closures on the mountain for weather will negatively impact our businesses,” Lambert said.
Rising Tuckasegee forces late-night evacuation
Steve Dow, resident at Bear Hunter Campground in Bryson City, stood smoking a cigarette Wednesday, surveying the Tuckaseegee River and the muddy mess it left after it started receding.
Half of the campground — the part without a five-foot tall earthen berm that was supposed to protect it from flooding — sat empty, except for a single camper that had sunk into the mud. While called a campground, it was actually home to a dozen year-round dwellers and had a regular seasonal population.
In addition to his normal pair of jeans and cut-off black shirt, Dow had tied plastic grocery bags around his socked feet before slipping them into his tennis shoes. He was tired of being wet after moving his camper, where he lives fulltime with his wife, in the middle of the night during a downpour.
Despite plopping down roots in a campground that sits directly on the Tuckaseegee River, the former resident of Fort Myers, Fla., was not prepared for the flooding Tuesday night. He’d weathered multiple hurricanes in Florida and didn’t think a little heavy rain would ultimately lead to a forced evacuation as water rose around him.
“We were going to sit out there and ride it out,” said Dow.
But, in the late hours of Tuesday night, Swain County emergency officials ordered residents to relocate seven or eight of the campers and get out of dodge.
Neighbor John Porter helped unhook and move trailers closest to the rising river. It only took 10 or 15 minutes to get each camper out, Porter said, but the hard part was staying on his feet as the water levels rose to meet his ankles and continued rising.
Most of the campers were empty; the owners left them in the care of others while they wintered elsewhere.
“That was the understanding when they left them here, that we would do everything we could to get them out,” Porter said.
With some campers littering higher parts of the campground and some moved up the road toward downtown Bryson City, the campground was in a state of “disarray” Wednesday, said David Breedlove, head of Emergency Management Services in Swain County.
Meanwhile, six dwellings in a small Bryson City trailer park were condemned, at least temporarily, last week after heavy rains caused the ground beneath them to become unstable.
Pipes carrying rainwater that ran beneath the dwellings got clogged with debris when heavy rainstorms hit Western North Carolina last week.
“It started building up pressure,” said Brenda Fortner, who owns and rents out the trailers.
And eventually, the pipes burst, opening up a sink hole in the ground underneath the homes. After the ground collapsed, county emergency officials evacuated the families who lived in the six structures.
“We just tried to make it safe until the water went down,” Breedlove said. “We are very fortunate” there were no injuries.
The trailers were low-end housing, and the occupants have little money to find a new place to live. Some may be eligible for rental assistance from the Department of Social Services or the American Red Cross. Fortner took one of her female renters in.
“I am just trying to help them. They are just people,” Fortner said. “They need help. They need clothes. If you don’t have the money, you know, it makes it hard.”
County water and soil conservation officials will be assessing the stie to see if it is possible to fill in the miniature canyon that has formed beneath the dwellings, and whether she has any hope of reopening the small trailer park.
“Right now, I am just sitting and waiting,” Fortner said.