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NC towns recall duo storms

Canton and Clyde - river towns nestled in the western North Carolina mountains - have haunting memories of the 2004 floods.

BY SUSAN KIM | CLYDE, N.C. | August 1, 2005


"I wish we had communities everywhere like this."

—Charlie Moeller


Canton and Clyde - river towns nestled in the western North Carolina mountains - have haunting memories of the 2004 floods.

On Sept. 7, when the remnants of Hurricane Frances brought 36 hours of steady rain, the Pigeon River burst its banks, ruining homes and crushing businesses. Nine days later, the same communities saw even worse damage when the outer bands of Hurricane Ivan delivered a second round.

In Haywood County alone, Ivan killed three people. The force of the storm’s flooding combined with its 45-mph winds swept houses entirely from their foundations, and spawned mudslides that wiped out roads and power lines. About 276 homes were destroyed or severely damaged. Five hundred more were damaged to some degree.

The floods dealt an especially hard blow to Haywood County’s 1,245 farmers, flattening corn that was ready for harvesting. Thousands of tomatoes and bell peppers were plucked from the vines and deposited downstream by the floodwaters.

The crops that were left in the fields were ruined by contamination. When floodwater inundated the paper mill, the mill’s waste treatment facility - which also treats Canton’s sewage - shut down, and contaminated waste flowed into the river.

As residents surveyed the damage, many of them remember Canton Mayor Pat Smather’s heartrending words as he waded through the mud: “I could just cry,” he said.

Past and future

Senior citizens who are lifetime residents of the two towns have noted remarkable similarities between the back-to-back 2004 floods and two floods in 1940 that occurred 17 days apart. Both deluges flooded and closed the Blue Ridge Paper Products mill, Canton’s largest employer. Both had first-round flooding that set the stage for a more severe hit the second time.

The first flood in 1940 claimed no lives, while the second killed two people. In 2004, Frances claimed no lives in the county but Ivan killed three people. The first of the 1940 floods was caused by a hurricane, while both 2004 floods were caused by hurricanes.

Geologists and residents alike have noted that both events forever changed the depth and the width of the Pigeon River as surging floodwater sliced large tracts of land from the riverbanks.

Meteorologists say that flooding in Canton and Clyde will continue to be a naturally recurring event, and environmental consultants are recommending that the towns try to mitigate flood damage using stream flow gauges and time water storage and release.

Long-term recovery is happening

Now, nearly a year later, some of the river towns are still active in long-term disaster recovery. Faith-based disaster response groups, community organizations, local officials, volunteers from many states and hardworking townspeople themselves have joined together to help dozens of flood survivors rebuild and repair their homes.

Charlie Moeller, president of the North Carolina Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD), said Clyde, Canton and other western North Carolina neighbors are resilient and have been able to work together. “I wish we had communities everywhere like this,” said Moeller, who also served as a North Carolina-based Church World Service disaster response and recovery liaison in the wake of the floods.

In Haywood County alone, the Unmet Needs Committee is still identifying up to 10 new cases of flood-related needs each month. Many are families with uninhabitable homes who have scraped by in temporary housing and now must either pay rent or move. With the extra cost of flood repairs, other families are having difficulty paying for utilities or making mortgage payments. Still others, who are waiting for help repairing their homes, say they’re grateful for volunteer groups who have come from across the country this summer to help.

Region’s collaboration commended

Canton and Clyde were only two among many hard-hit communities across western North Carolina, hit by seven of the nine named tropical storms in 2004. Frances, Ivan and Jeanne - all occurring in September - caused the most damage. In all, the storms claimed nine lives.

Moeller - with help from CWS’s denominational partners, local faith community leaders and North Carolina VOAD members - has been involved in organizing five multi-county long-term recovery groups that have been addressing unmet needs for nearly a year.

United Way of America provided a grant through United Way of North Carolina, with funding by the Lilly Foundation, to support four local disaster recovery coordinators in western North Carolina for one year. CWS provided seed grants to help supplement startup costs.

The collaboration in western North Carolina caught the eye of national VOAD leadership. North Carolina VOAD and United Way of North Carolina received the National VOAD’s 2005 Partnership Award for Excellence at this year’s annual NVOAD conference.

“One of the distinct advantages of the United Way/North Carolina VOAD effort is the connection with and support of disaster recovery funding approved by the North Carolina General Assembly,” said Moeller. “Working with the Western North Carolina Redevelopment Center, the recovery coordinators are assisting local unmet needs committees, churches and other organizations involved in storm recovery work.

“This could be a valuable model to be considered in other areas of the United States to help serve the recovery needs of survivors of a disaster,” he added.


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