Jim Augins was thinking about his yarn.
In the first week of September 2004, when The Weather Channel and local newscasts were making dire predictions about the possibility that Hurricane Frances might ride the spine of the Blue Ridge north, Augins took heed.
“I saw those graphics on TV, the pie-shaped thing that showed where this storm could go,” recalls Augins, who co-owns Yarn Paradise in Biltmore Village with his wife, Renee. “And given my personality—all the employees thought I was nuts—we removed all the merchandise that was in the first couple feet of the first-floor level.” Caught in the fork between Sweeten Creek and the Swannanoa River, Biltmore Village flooded 4 feet deep. Water poured into Yarn Paradise, covering the floor nearly a foot-and-a-half deep and lapping at the second-floor stairs.
Compared with neighboring businesses, Augins says theirs was fortunate. Nevertheless, they lost $6,000 worth of merchandise, sustained more than $100,000 in damages to the building and fixtures—and missed thousands more in anticipated sales as the upscale shopping district struggled to revive in the wake of the twin floods inflicted by Frances and Ivan.
It was the region’s wettest September on record. The back-to-back storms, though considerably weakened as they crossed our mountains, still brought floods nearly as devastating as the monumental 1916 deluge. Frances alone dumped 23 inches of rain on Mount Mitchell’s flanks. And the usually placid Swannanoa River, which rises near the high mountain and flows through south Asheville to join the French Broad, became a malevolent force. From Black Mountain to Biltmore Village, the floodwaters tore out trailers, stranded livestock and motorists alike, inundated businesses and ruined livelihoods. In Asheville, the destruction was particularly severe in Biltmore Village, due to its low elevation.
All told, the two storms wreaked $200 million worth of damage in Western North Carolina during a two-week period, according to the National Climatic Data Center. And despite some efforts by local governments to buy up at-risk properties and beef up emergency preparedness, the failure to rein in development and revamp storm-water regulations leaves the area more vulnerable than it was three years ago, says James Fox, director of operations at National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center, which is based at UNCA. NEMAC, which produces 3-D renderings of environmental conditions for academic, governmental and industrial use, has created computer models of the kind of damage a new Asheville flood would inflict.
If a comparable weather event came today, “The flooding and property damage and loss of life would be much higher,” Fox predicts.
Managing the flow
Asheville Water Resources Director David Hanks feels his department, at least, is better prepared now to deal with a big flood. “The bottom line,” he says, “is how we would operate the floodgates.”
In 2004, rain from Francis and Ivan fed into a reservoir that was already full, and there was no plan in place for opening the gates at the North Fork Reservoir—nor for warning those downstream that big water was coming.
At that time, says Hanks, the prevailing wisdom was to keep the reservoir full during drought-prone seasons. “The previous study said keep as much water in the lake as you can,” he explains. The emphasis, he notes, was on avoiding the need for conservation measures by water customers.
But a new study, produced by Schnabel Engineering and longtime Water Authority consultant Brown and Caldwell using data from the 2004 floods, advises keeping the water level high enough to avoid imposing conservation measures but still below the edge of the spillway. Furthermore, a detailed chart gives specific recommendations for managing the North Fork gates. (Some of the information involving emergency procedures is not available to the public, notes Transportation and Engineering Director Cathy Ball, because of security concerns at the North Fork Dam.) The lake level is monitored daily, and twice a week a computer program crunches incoming weather and seasonal data to project future water levels. Additionally, monitoring gauges have been placed along the Swannanoa to track flow, Hanks reports.
If anything good came out of the 2004 floods, it seems, it was information. “We captured as much data as we could, because none of us had been through this before,” he explains.
Ironically, however, the current drought conditions actually limit the city’s ability to control the water level (under more normal conditions, the city doesn’t have to worry about lowering the lake too far, as it will refill). Accordingly, Hanks says he’s hoping for a wet winter that will saturate the ground and recharge the reservoir.
But if another situation arises like what happened in 2004, when Hurricane Frances parked on top of North Carolina and dumped 20-plus inches of rain in six hours, these precautions alone won’t be sufficient to prevent flooding. Enough water ran into the North Fork Reservoir that, even if it had been empty, it would have filled back up again, says Hanks.
“Now in those sort of events, you just have to hold on,” he observes. “There’s just not enough capacity.”
Augins, meanwhile, has moved from victim to advocate for change, arguing that despite millions spent on planning, much remains to be done. “Today, if we had a similar storm, we would have the same flood,” he maintains. “If tomorrow there was another hurricane coming up from the Gulf, what we know to do is essentially the same as it was in 2004—and that’s to open the front door and open the back door and let the flood waters roll through.”
Jerry VeHaun, who’s directed emergency services for Buncombe County for the past 35 years, says that “while there wasn’t anything slack” about the way the county prepared for the last round of floods, improvements in the way of response time and communications are being made.
“We’re looking at some better ways to get word out ahead of time,” he said. And while VeHaun says his office has “seen very little” in the way of additional funding for storm preparedness and response, it has been involved in clean-up and strategy efforts, from the new protocol at North Fork Reservoir to the ongoing removal of snags and debris the Swannanoa River.
But despite the planning, Biltmore businessman Augins still believes the county and city are missing a golden opportunity to prepare for the next flood by developing better emergency procedures, limiting growth within the Swannanoa watershed, and perhaps building flood-control structures that would divert water from the most vulnerable areas.
“We haven’t done our homework,” Augins asserts. “And because we haven’t done our homework, we’re at fault.”
Besides hatching strategies for controlling floodwaters, local governments are also taking steps to remove structures from the most vulnerable areas.
Armed with state and federal funds, Asheville and Buncombe County have been buying up property in the floodplain. A $300,000 flood-mitigation grant enabled the city to purchase three properties including the former Riverside Café. All of those structures will be razed and the parcels left as open space. Similarly, Buncombe County has bought properties in Candler and Swannanoa.
Another boost in funding came with the N.C. General Assembly’s 2004 passage of the Hurricane Recovery Act, which allocated $30 million for flood relief in 19 heavily affected western counties. (Asheville and Buncombe County’s combined share was $4.6 million.)
In mid-September, the city signed a contract with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to develop a plan for preventive measures in the Biltmore Village area, Ball reports. That plan is expected within the next six months, she says.
RiverLink, an Asheville-based nonprofit, began pushing for action almost immediately after the floods. The group organized a series of workshops, marshaling panels of experts and promoting dialogue among local officials (see “The Human Touch,” Nov. 10, 2004 Xpress). The most recent meeting, on Aug. 17, pulled together a wide range of stakeholders including city, county and state officials, Schnabel Engineering and the Corps of Engineers. The goal was to coordinate their efforts, look for overlaps or gaps in their initiatives, and update one another on their progress.
A conscious decision?
But unless governments take steps to limit new development, it will undercut those other efforts, says Fox. New buildings and roads increase both the amount and speed of water heading into streams and rivers, he explains, making such development a major factor in determining the extent of future flood damage.
The Asheville City Council has started tinkering with the city’s storm-water ordinance, and bigger changes are anticipated within the next year. But Council put off fundamentally retooling the law until new flood maps became available from the state Division of Emergency Management.
“It’s kind of hard to do flood planning when you don’t know where the floodway is,” observes RiverLink Executive Director Karen Cragnolin.
After a couple of missed deadlines, the new maps finally landed on the desks of city and county officials the first week of October, says Ball, and various staffers are now reviewing them. The public, she continues, will have a chance to review the maps before local governments sign off on them, probably next summer. Unfortunately, however, the maps are based on data that’s two or three years old, which significantly limits their accuracy, notes Fox.
In a sense, the area appears to be moving in two contrary directions at once, because the continuing rapid pace of development over the last three years—with its attendant increase in impervious surfaces—has probably expanded the size of the floodplain, says Fox.
“I have to believe [the new state] maps are going to show us that the 100-year floodplain has grown,” he predicts. “We’ve put a lot more people and property in that area that flooded. We are putting more people in danger, and that’s just a conscious decision we are making.”
In other words, even as we whittle down the number of at-risk structures, we are busy creating new ones elsewhere.
Meanwhile, people are continuing to build or rebuild in places that were under several feet of water for days a mere three years ago.
“People have short memories,” he says.
A scary experience
Black Mountain Alderwoman Mary Leonard White spent much of Hurricane Frances hunkered down in the Town Hall listening to emergency calls from residents.
“It was a scary, scary experience,” she recalls. “Here in Black Mountain, we were worried about the Black Mountain [Correctional] Center and whether they had electricity and water. And we were getting calls like, ‘The road’s washed out, and my grandmother needs her insulin or she’ll die.’”
After the storm, White began attending public meetings concerning the recovery process and the need to prepare for the next big storm. She chaired the Asheville-Buncombe Flood Damage Reduction Task Force, which delivered its preliminary recommendations last month to the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners and the Asheville City Council.
White isn’t seeking re-election this fall, but she plans to continue serving on the task force “as long as is necessary.”
Along with a majority of her fellow task-force members, White believes the city and county need to try to predict what the watershed will be like at maximum build-out: how much of its slopes and bottoms will be covered with impervious material (in the form of asphalt and roofs), and where the water will go when a big rainstorm hits.
“People don’t understand water. It just gets reinforced to me over and over,” says White. “And therefore, we’re not able to make the right decisions. I think the decision-making bodies aren’t aware, and I think the developers and the builders are not aware enough. We don’t know much, and we just keep making the same mistakes.”
As the development pressures continue, believes White, so does the risk of another disaster. But in a drought year, three years removed from the Swannanoa’s last big flood, it’s easy to let the hard decisions slip by without action.
“We just sort of forget,” says White.