Historic Flood Response Provides Lesson on Importance of Coming Together in Times of Crisis | Life
I have camped several times over the years alongside the swirling streams and streams that meander through these glorious mountains we are lucky enough to call home.
From Standing Indian on the Nantahala Springs to the busy Davidson River in Transylvania County, and from Santeetlah Creek in the middle of the ancient Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest at Sunburst on the West Fork of the Pigeon River I at repeatedly pitched tents along peaceful waters rolling carefree in the world.
It is the hypnotic sound of water constantly flowing over rocks, around bends and under mossy logs that has made a creek-side site such desirable real estate for our groups of happy campers. Combine that with a mesmerizing campfire and an open flame meal after a long day of hiking or fishing, and I can’t think of a relaxing place on the face of the planet anymore.
This makes the weather tragedy of August 17 so incredibly difficult to understand. Six people were killed when the remnants of Tropical Storm Fred dumped more than 17 inches of rain over the rugged terrain where Haywood and Transylvanian counties converge, sending a wall of water tumbling down the river’s east and west forks. Pigeon. The six victims were on or near a popular campsite on the banks of the Pigeon when the waters rose so quickly that they could not escape.
Hundreds more have seen their lives, homes and businesses turned upside down. The community of Cruso was devastated, while the downstream towns of Canton and Clyde suffered significant flood damage. It wasn’t the first taste of Mother Nature’s wrath for eastern Haywood County. Unfortunately, it will not be the last.
Once upon a time we used to call weather events like this “centennial floods”. The Geological Society of the United States states that “the term” 100-year flood “is used to describe the interval of flood recurrence. The 100-year return interval means that a flood of this magnitude has a 1% chance of occurring in any given year. “
The last time the placid Pigeon turned into a raging whitewater monster was in 2004, when twin hurricanes Frances and Ivan dropped nearly 30 inches of rain in less than two weeks. Experts told us that the resulting flood was one of the record books. Experts are now telling us that the flooding that decimated east Haywood last month was even worse.
I don’t specialize in math, but I can do simple subtraction. The Pigeon River underwent a 100-year flood in 2004. Those who live on its banks are now digging another 100-year flood in 2021 – just 17 years later.
Look, I understand that’s not exactly what the USGS means by “centennial flood.” The term actually indicates that there is a 1% chance each year that a river will reach a flood level of historic proportions. Having said that, it should be obvious to anyone paying attention that our climate is changing.
Just days after the torrent crashed through the Forks of the Pigeon, central Tennessee was hit by a flash flood that left 20 people dead when 15 inches of rain fell in six hours. Across the nation, California is on fire. Conservatives among us might be wondering what to expect from a place slightly to the right of Sodom and Gomorrah. But other places on the planet are also burning – from Greece and Turkey to Finland, Siberian permafrost from Russia to British Columbia.
It is high time to move beyond seeing climate change as a political issue pitting left against right, Democrats against Republicans, environmentalists against capitalists. As we experienced locally in mid-August, people can put differences aside and work together to solve a common problem.
A few weeks ago it didn’t matter if you were a Baptist or a Methodist, a commuter or a rural, Tuscola or Pisgah (remember, Tuscola High School served as a refuge for the people of the Pisgah area). People who have never had a sip of “demonic liquor” mobilized to help the neighbors of Bearwaters Brewery, and the brewery has become the ground zero for much of the flood relief efforts. People who have never crossed the threshold of a place of worship rolled up their sleeves and helped a church in distress. Through Haywood, neighbors and strangers have come together in times of crisis.
Folks, this is a time of crisis going on. Our hundred-year floods are more frequent. Thunderstorms are intensifying. Water reserves are dwindling. Forests are burning. Icebergs are melting. We are seeing weather events once considered unprecedented now happening more and more frequently. It’s time to act.
Just ask your friends and neighbors in Cruso and Bethel. Or check with the locals of New York City, who saw the nation’s largest subway system turn into a nightmarish underground cascade of whitewater when Hurricane Ida visited earlier this week.
Bill Studenc, who began his career in journalism and communications at The Mountaineer in 1983, retired in January 2021 as director of communications at Western Carolina University. He now writes about life in the mountains of western North Carolina.