Buncombe County Commission

All around the room, people were talking feverishly. Middle-aged men in imperfectly fitting suits made awkward contortions to talk to those sitting behind them, eager to catch up on news of the most recent flood and its aimless, indiscriminate damage.

“Did you hear about all those cars that got washed away?”

“You’ll never guess what the rescue teams found in my neighbor’s tree!”

“How long were you without power? My goodness!”

It was almost exactly like watching a roomful of school kids just back after a lengthy vacation. Except it hadn’t really been a vacation. And a closer look revealed that these wide eyes and cheerful smiles were contained in dog-tired bodies and sleep-drained faces.

At the far end of the chamber, the county commissioners looked out at the crowd, exchanging something like bemused teachers’ glances. Even the public-comment portion of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners’ Sept. 21 meeting had gone pretty smoothly. Fred English, one of the more caustic regulars at these sessions, had blown into the chamber mere moments too late to claim a turn at the lectern. And after storming around the room while fellow citizens chided him for missing his chance to speak, English departed. One hurricane, at least, had passed over Buncombe County.

Meanwhile, those county residents who arrived on time to weigh in during the public-comment session were surprisingly upbeat. Don Yelton merely urged the board to reconsider outdated floodplain regulations and problematic environmental policies, while Jerry Rice spoke briefly about new changes in mental-health policy. No anger this time. No blame. Just a few words of caution from a pair of concerned citizens.

When the formal session began, the mood in the room seemed almost pleasant. After so much damage and turmoil in the past month, there was perhaps a certain comfort in returning to business as usual.

The agenda contained only a handful of topics, and the bulk of the meeting concerned a series of reports about various aid projects meant to help the county recover from the flood and wind damage inflicted by Hurricane Frances and Tropical Storm Ivan.

Maybe even more surprisingly, it was almost entirely good news.

“As of 5 o’clock yesterday afternoon, we finally ran out of states of emergency,” said Emergency Services Director Jerry VeHaun, adding, “I guess that’s good.” After extensive round-the-clock work in the wake of Ivan, fewer than 30 roads in the county were still closed, the bulk of them in problem areas such as the Hominy Valley. After a short report on the repairs, VeHaun introduced representatives from two federal agencies: Butch Ducate of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Doug Nichols of the Small Business Administration.

Ducate gave a straightforward explanation of the FEMA grant and loan programs available for those affected by the two storms. Since there were two declared states of emergency in the region, he explained, many people who suffered from both hurricanes would be eligible for two recovery grants. Ducate also urged victims to contact FEMA as soon as possible to launch the process of obtaining aid.

Similarly, Nichols discussed the SBA’s role in helping individuals and businesses recover. Even businesses indirectly affected by the disasters (such as downtown establishments that closed due to lack of water) might be eligible for low-rate government loans, he explained.

“We’re almost there,” proclaimed the next speaker, Progress Energy’s Nancy Thompson. “I called and checked our numbers before I came, and we’re down to 1,393 customers [without power] — from a peak of 96,000 on Friday morning. Everybody’s tired, but we’re not coming in tonight until we have the last customer able to receive electricity.”

According to Thompson, Progress Energy had repaired more than 47 miles of fallen cable and more than 250 broken power poles in the previous four days.

“We have never experienced this type of damage to our electrical system in Western North Carolina,” said Thompson. “It was much worse than the blizzard of ’93. We had over three-quarters of all of the people we serve in Western North Carolina without electricity, while the blizzard of ’93 was [only] about half.”

After Thompson had finished, VeHaun returned to the lectern to answer commissioners’ questions about the extent of the flood damage. Commissioners David Young and David Gantt wanted VeHaun’s opinion on whether the county should create a flood-management team to plan future prevention strategies.

“I think that would be good,” said VeHaun. “The last time, as you know, that we did any stream cleanout was back after the 1977 floods. It’s been at least 24 years. The Swannanoa River is in very bad shape. The larger, bigger streams have a lot of problems. We’re in a situation where we can’t wait any longer.”

“If you combine [the two floods] together, is this a 50-year flood?” asked Chairman Nathan Ramsey. “Or a 70-year flood?”

“Looking back at 1977, [which] was a 100-year flood,” answered VeHaun, “some of this [flooding] was worse. I hope we didn’t have two 100-year floods in two weeks, but that could very well have happened.”

County Manager Wanda Greene discussed the use of the public landfill for flood debris. Individuals can dump flood debris at the landfill for free (though businesses can’t). In the week since the free debris-collection program has begun, more than 10,000 tons of such material has been deposited in the landfill.

Social Services Department Director Mandy Stone spoke at length about the options available for emergency food aid, unemployment funds, emergency furnace repairs and other DSS aid projects.

And Asheville Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Rick Lutovsky talked about the Chamber’s work to help businesses recover. One of the bigger problems, he said, was the lack of federal government grants — as opposed to low-interest loans — for business owners. He also mentioned that many businesses that sustained damages are worried about losing revenue during the fall tourist season.

Yet for all the news and gossip, the worst and most dramatic parts of the twin disasters were over. Now, all that was left was the slow grunt work of cleanup and recovery.

Perhaps to everyone’s relief, there was almost nothing to vote on or even argue about. The bruised and tired county seemed to put aside civic debates and focus instead on getting everything back to normal as soon as possible.

Other business

In other business, the commissioners unanimously approved following the Integrated Behavioral Health Proposal, which would allow the Buncombe County Health Center to continue its program of incorporating more mental-health services into its primary health-care services.

BCHC Medical Director Dr. Susan Mims outlined the program, which Gantt favorably compared to other local health projects such as Project Access.

As part of the proposal, the board approved 10 new positions in the Health Center and $473,564 for the program. However, according to the budget request, no new county funds will be used. Most of the program’s $346,564 cost will be paid through a contract with the Western Highlands Network local management entity, a new public agency that administers mental-health contracts under state mental-health reform. The rest of the funding comes from fee-for-service revenues and grant funds already obtained by the Health Center, according to the budget request.

The commissioners also unanimously appointed Angie Ledford as the county’s designated agent for federal assistance. In addition, they proclaimed Kids Voting and National 4-H Club Week.

[Steve Shanafelt is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in North Carolina.]

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