The human touch

“A landslide devil seems to laugh at human incompetence.”

That quote, attributed to a Japanese soil engineer, proved a fitting way for Richard Wooten of the North Carolina Geological Survey to introduce his presentation at an Oct. 19 forum at A-B Tech. The roughly 100 people who heard Wooten’s explanation of why landslides occur learned that Mother Nature is not alone in shouldering the blame for the devastation caused by the rampaging remnants of hurricanes Frances and Ivan — humans, too, played a role.

And now that the flood waters have receded and the slopes have stopped sliding, there are lessons to be learned, according to the panel of experts assembled by RiverLink, a local nonprofit that promotes the environmental and economic health of the French Broad River basin.

Of course, there’s no shortage of opinions on how and why the rivers raged and the mountains moved. But anecdotal reflection doesn’t quantify what happened over the course of two weeks in what one speaker called “the September to remember” — much less tell us what to do about it. So RiverLink pulled together a brain trust of scientists and engineers from across the Southeast to address key questions that have been floated in the floods’ aftermath, such as: What tools are available to track flooding? What triggers a landslide? And, perhaps most important, this one: How can we prevent such severe impacts in the future?

But one forum attendee argues that key local officials missed out on an opportunity to hear the experts’ answers to these questions. Susan West, co-owner of Blue Goldsmiths, one of the many flood-devastated businesses in Biltmore Village, proclaimed later: “It’s a damn shame that nobody cared enough from the city to be at this informative meeting. We have an incredible amount of talented scientists with important information that needs to be disseminated, and it isn’t.”

Although a few curious citizens attended the event, the audience was mostly a mix of academics and professionals. Conspicuously absent, though, were Asheville and Buncombe County government officials or staff members — the very folks best positioned to do what’s needed to prepare for future storms at the local level. In fact, an informal survey by this reporter revealed only one Buncombe County staffer in attendance: Geographic Information Systems Coordinator Janet Lowe. (Asheville City Council members had a work session scheduled at the same time.) State Reps. Susan Fisher and Wilma Sherill, on the other hand, both stayed for the entire forum — nearly three hours. They were joined by Jane Weldon, the director of Gov. Mike Easley‘s WNC office.

Sherrill later told Xpress that she’d learned a lot at the meeting. “I came out thinking ‘Wow! What an incredible amount of information that is out there.’ Why can’t we figure out a better way to utilize it — and maybe save people’s lives, businesses and homes. I’m frustrated because we did know; we watched this for four days. We knew we were going to have a flood. There’s got to be a way we can get people better informed and better protected.”

The unforeseen hazards of golf

First out of the chute, hydrologist Jeanne Robbins of the U.S. Geological Survey served up some numbers designed to put the floods in perspective. Based on measurements taken at water gauges, she noted, the town of Canton experienced flooding that “will likely be greater than the 500-year event.” A 500-year flood, Robbins explained, is the granddaddy of the more familiar 100-year flood event. People often assume that the terms refer to a flood event that happens every 100 or 500 years. But Mother Nature doesn’t abide by a calendar — instead, said Robbins, the terms refer to the likelihood of a flood occurring in a given area. In a 100-year floodplain, there’s a 1 percent chance of having a flood; in a 500-year floodplain, those odds dwindle to a meager 0.2 percent chance.

Behind all the numbers, of course, was the memory of the tragic loss of life. Three people were killed in a landslide in Macon County’s Peeks Creek community, and a pregnant woman suffered a miscarriage. According to Richard Wooten, that landslide was one of 73 “slope movements” associated with the storms.

Wooten explained that although natural phenomena such as earthquakes, volcanoes, flooding and the freeze/thaw cycle can all cause landslides, human activity can also play a part. One local mountain, noted Wooten, had four landslides — all of them associated with old logging roads. He added: “That’s not to say we shouldn’t log, but we should think about how we do it,” he emphasized, adding that a Yancey County landslide had originated at “a golf-course sand trap in a gated community.”

Wooten displayed many memorable images conveying the destructive power of landslides — particularly the deadly one in Macon County, whose mud flow was spiked with splintered trees and studded with boulders the size of small cars. Survivors said it sounded as if a freight train was coming down the mountain.

In the mountains of Appalachia, he pointed out, development often occurs in “debris fans” — relatively flat areas at the base of a slope where the flow from a landslide finally fans out and comes to rest. These areas, he noted, are often considered the best place to build because they’re already cleared and have deep soil. But unlike lightning, landslides apparently do strike twice. “Where it happened once, it can happen again,” cautioned Wooten. “We need to do a better job of planning; otherwise, we’re asking for trouble.”

Maps, gauges and radar

Two experts emphasized how tricky it can be to predict where flooding will occur in the mountains. Outdated floodplain maps are part of the problem, explained John Dorman, director of the North Carolina Floodplain Mapping Program. Of the 16 counties in the region’s five river basins, none have maps younger than five years, he said. And in eight of those counties, the maps go back 20 years or more. Updated maps, said Dorman, could have saved those counties millions in flood damage. After Hurricane Floyd in 1998, the state launched a massive effort to update all its floodplain maps, he reported, but the program began on the coast and has yet to reach WNC.

Another complicating factor is the added difficulty of producing accurate weather forecasts for the mountains. Meteorologist Joseph Pelissier is in charge of the Weather Forecasting Office in Greer, S.C. Doppler radar, he explained, is less effective in the mountains, because the topography disrupts the signal. Tom Burnett, resource coordinator for the Mills River Watershed Protection Project, told Xpress after the meeting: “The technology is there, and we can make better predictions — but we’re not quite there yet. … There needs to be change; we need better radar data. Right now, mountain ranges are blocking the radar signal. It’s hard to get very detailed site-specific predictions.” French Broad Riverkeeper Philip Gibson of RiverLink, who coordinated the forum, said Pelissier had contacted his office later that week and noted that the region also needs more stream gauges.

One audience member, however, argued that both the media and local officials had failed to properly alert area residents, despite ample evidence that WNC faced serious flooding. But Pelissier said his office had begun issuing flood warnings five days in advance of the event. “And two days in advance, we were calling it a historic storm. … I don’t see how this was a surprise to anyone in Western North Carolina,” he observed.

Now what?

For its part, RiverLink is wasting no time in trying to help the region get better prepared for future floods. The nonprofit has announced plans for another forum in late November. In the meantime, the group’s board of directors has unanimously adopted a resolution calling for “equitable distribution of state and federal dollars into Western North Carolina for flood mitigation and recovery.”

The resolution also urges the state to immediately endorse a series of recommendations made by the North Carolina Center for Public Policy in the aftermath of Hurricane Floyd: “Remap the floodplain of the entire state; adopt a series of ‘carrots and sticks’ for local governments to adopt both zoning ordinances and hazard-mitigation plans that exceed FEMA standards; establish an emergency trust fund to pay for hazard mitigation; limit the development of infrastructure such as bridges, roads and sewage-treatment plants within the 100-year floodplain; and to provide the necessary funds to buy out agricultural operations, junkyards and hazardous-chemical facilities within the 100-year floodplain.”

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