Asheville – It is all water under the bridge now, but last Tuesday, Chairman Brownie Newman, on behalf of the Buncombe County Commissioners, declared a second state of emergency. The first emergency declaration ordered all citizens of age, health permitting, to resume masking and social-distancing protocols; the second addressed damage from Tropical Storm Fred.
The commissioners’ regularly scheduled meeting was canceled, as all county offices closed at four, with crews dispatched to work overnight. An emergency meeting was scheduled for the next day, wherein the matter was only mentioned briefly; the county chair has the authority to unilaterally declare states of emergency, and the commissioners opted to spend the meeting listening to public comment on COVID instead.
The declaration of emergency doesn’t say much, just that the county was going to organize for mitigation and rescue and cooperate with other government agencies. The worst of the storm had not yet come when the emergency was declared, but having a signed document appears to be one of those boxes any government seeking federal assistance would want to check. Buncombe’s state of emergency is set to expire September 16.
Tuesday night, three to seven inches of rain fell in the French Broad and Swannanoa river valleys, causing waters to rise 9.5 to 10.5 feet. The “torrential rains and high winds” caused power outages that affected 7,495 Duke Energy customers.
In western Buncombe County, landslides closed a number of roads, including portions of Smokey Park Highway and two lanes of westbound I-40 near Exit 37. In the eastern part of town, late-night advisories went out to residents in the Grovemont area. Predictably, the French Broad flooded, causing many cars to be abandoned on Amboy Road.
The morning after, the sun came out, and all was quiet. Some side streets remained closed, but the Interstate had been cleared within hours. Along the French Broad and in Biltmore Village, dry mud caked low-lying surfaces, while waters had receded in all but a few places. By sunrise, crews were still hard at work; most roads were barricaded to allow only one-way traffic as several city trucks worked on the other side.
Some businesses on Smokey Park Highway would be removing caked mud for days; but in Biltmore, the Swannanoa River trucked merrily along, in its place, a foot or so below the bridge – without much debris, either. This was a far cry from the scenario with the aftermaths of Hurricanes Frances and Ivan in 2004. Granted, Frances dumped eight to 12 inches; and Ivan, another six to 10. The result was the flooding of Biltmore Village, and many businesses along the Swannanoa River, with mud rising four feet high in some stores, and some businesses being totaled.
The events of 2004 spurred the city to get serious about stormwater abatement. It not only asked work crews to clean debris out of manhole grates, etc.; it asked citizens to do the same. It also revised its flood ordinance in 2010 to, among other things, require the floors of new buildings in Biltmore Village to be at least two feet higher than the surrounding ground. That’s why the rows of shops on the north side all sit on a berm.
The city further worked with the Army Corps of Engineers, and they developed an emergency action plan. They also redesigned some of the riverbanks in what was known as the Azalea Road project.
The North Fork Dam had failed during the heavy rainfall of 2004, although the city claimed the failure only added inches to the feet of floodwaters. After Fran and Ivan, though, the water department started lowering water behind the dam prior to rain events. Still, it wasn’t until 2016 that work started on $38.5 million in improvements to the dam. Changes included raising the dam four feet, improving the existing spillways and adding another, and buttressing the dam for seismic stability.
While viewed suspiciously in those years as end-around runs for piping water system revenues into the general fund, against the letter and spirit of the Sullivan acts; the investments appear now to be paying taxpayers dividends. With 10 inches of rain, Fred tore up Haywood County much worse.
In Canton, all roads leading to the Pigeon River were barricaded and manned. On the bright side, it is good the public safety personnel were out on the streets, as the police and fire stations were reportedly destroyed.
Advisories encouraged persons in low-lying areas to seek higher ground. Before nightfall, a bridge and retaining wall were reported down. Making national news were stories of houses, and at least two people, being seen carried away in the floods. At one point, 35 persons were reported as missing. Three days later, with four fatalities, all but five were accounted for.
At the time of this writing, a crew of over 225 swift water rescue personnel remains at work. They are being aided by canine teams and drones.
On Thursday, as Governor Roy Cooper toured Haywood County, 225 homes were reported as damaged or destroyed, and 10-15 bridges were damaged or destroyed in Cruso alone. Cruso, along with Bethel, were hit worst by the storm.
To assist, Cooper signed Executive Order 227. It waives size and weight requirements for vehicles supplying materials and services to relief efforts. It also suspended vehicle weighing requirements for farmers moving crops and livestock. Cooper is pursuing federal disaster assistance as well.