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This must be the place: Ode to the flood, ode to Cruso, Bethel and Canton

The Cruso landslide. (Garret K. Woodward photo) The Cruso landslide. (Garret K. Woodward photo)

Sitting on a barstool at The Water’n Hole in Waynesville last Monday afternoon, I took a pull from the cold Budweiser bottle and let out a slight sigh. Stories and tales were being exchanged all along the bar counter about where folks were and what they were doing during “The Great Flood of 2021.” 

It’s wild to think the flood that ravaged the small mountain communities of Cruso, Bethel and Canton was a year ago this Wednesday. But, time rolls on, as it always does, and with the memories, for good or ill, either somewhere back there in the rearview mirror, or carefully placed on the shelves of your mind for safe keeping.

Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021. Trying to kick that week’s newspaper out the door and to the printer, dark clouds started to culminate over downtown Waynesville and greater Haywood County. Tropical Storm Fred was moving in, as the forecast said to prepare for heavy rains and possible flooding in the region. 

By that evening, as I plopped down onto the couch and began to find something to watch on Netflix, my smart phone kept dinging. It was the newsroom group text. Apparently, word was getting around town that there was a serious flooding problem in Cruso, Bethel and Canton. 

Reports were coming in from across Haywood County of extensive flooding, missing residents, houses destroyed, mud and debris everywhere. One source said downtown Canton was underwater and there was great fear as to how the flood would affect the paper mill and so forth. 

Our publisher, Scott McLeod, said it would be “all hands on deck,” as every reporter would be sent out into the field as soon as the sun came up on Wednesday morning. By 6 a.m. images were starting to surface and be shared around Western North Carolina of the unimaginable destruction of people, places and things in Cruso, Bethel and Canton. 

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Over my 10 years at The Smoky Mountain News, I’ve made a lot of friends in those communities listed in the previous paragraph. Faces and interactions, memories and camaraderie. 

Of which, I reached out to a good friend to see how her family was doing. Her folks live in Cruso, though she’s in Asheville these days. She said their house was spared, but the same couldn’t be said for countless others nearby.

By midday Wednesday, she picked me up in downtown Waynesville and we motored down to Jukebox Junction. At the crossroads, a heavy police presence stood guard at the entry point into Cruso, the epicenter of the natural disaster. My friend flashed her license with a Cruso address and we were let through. 

Once we got past the gas station and meandered down towards the Pigeon River, the smell of mud and gasoline started to waft into the open car windows. Mud all over the roads, the fields and homes, as well as on any car or truck we drove by. 

The river was filled with debris. Broken windows, doors and walls torn from buildings. Farm tractors. Garbage barrels. Materials of any and all origins. And those thousands of green peppers ripped from nearby fields mere days before they were to be picked for the late summer harvest. Those damn peppers — a symbol forever chiseled into our collective memory. 

Further along U.S. 276, heading towards the Cruso Community Center, there were cars dumped up in trees on the riverbanks, a massive boulder in the middle of the road that had fallen from the cliff high above. By the time we reached the community center, we could see a mobile home smashed to pieces in the road, bridges washed away, and that enormous mudslide across U.S. 276, just narrowly missing a home several feet from where the mud and trees stopped.

And yet, a year later, what I remember most were all of the people, whether known or unknown, coming together to help one another, trying desperately to find missing loved ones or to simply salvage what was left of their once normal lives just a day prior. 

A few days ago, when I wandered down to Cruso to do some interviews in preparation for this week’s rememberance, I found myself again drifting along the same route I took that fateful Wednesday morning with my friend. I kept comparing and contrasting what was in my memory and what was now the current reality in Cruso.

The smell of mud and gasoline is no longer present. And so are the green peppers scattered all over the road, river, fields and front lawns. The emergency vehicles and rescuers returned home many months ago. Only recently have the countless RVs that were damaged have been removed from the campgrounds and riverbanks. 

Pulling into the Cruso Community Center, I put the truck into park and got out to take a look around. There were still a couple of construction cranes next to the newly-built bridge. The riverbanks were still filled with innumerable trees ripped from their roots. And certain parts of the river still have debris that was either unreachable, too heavy to remove, or simply forgotten by the sands of time. 

The mobile home that was smashed up against the tree next to community center is long gone, with a new trailer now placed in its former location. The landslide a few houses down also remains, and probably forever will, with green grass slowly overtaking the dirt — a true sign of the passage of time. 

Getting back in the truck, I sat there for a brief second, just to listen. I didn’t hear any sirens, nor the voices of rescuers or flood victims. I didn’t hear construction vehicles or dump trucks. All there was, was silence, and the slight sound of the nearby Pigeon River continuing on in its ancient rhythm.

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