When the floodwaters from Tropical Storm Fred receded early Aug. 18, Saturnia Farm co-owner Ben Pick struggled to take in the damage. The nursery’s mowers and delivery van were kaput. Chemical- and sewage-laden silt covered the fields, including the cut-flower garden planted for a new subscription service. Plants he and co-owner Sarah Coury had elevated to keep safe fared worst of all, floating away on tabletops that became rafts in the rushing current.
Environmental sustainability was at the heart of Coury and Pick’s decision to start Saturnia Farm in Clyde in 2019. Of its inventory, 75% is native plants that thrive without the assistance of fertilizers or pesticides.
Now, all of that was buried under a toxic sludge.
“I remember just [thinking], ‘Where do you start?’” Pick recalls.
Before he could sink into despair, however, hope arrived in the form of their neighbors. Some helped Ben — Sarah was out of town — air things out to prevent mildew. Others shoveled away the sludge and rinsed off plants. Still more volunteers brought coffee and food.
“That is what sustained us initially,” Pick says.
Government agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency prioritize environmental sustainability through programs like the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program for state and local governments. When it comes to home and business owners receiving assistance, however, FEMA spokesperson Ron Roth acknowledges that survivors may need to prioritize economic rather than environmental sustainability. FEMA neither considers sustainability when approving applications nor requires mitigation measures beyond flood insurance for properties in flood zones.
“When a storm hits, you’re trying to rebuild and recuperate as fast as you can,” Roth says.
For Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers, sustainability in the town’s recovery goes beyond flood mitigation and prevention measures to encompass rebuilding and strengthening the town’s economy, culture and community.
“Sustainability means a whole lot more than just environmental,” he says. “Sustainability is understanding what our culture is — our traditions, our heritage — and how to literally sustain that, but also at the same time evolving, bringing new people [and] new ideas.”
As recovery enters its eighth month, Tropical Storm Fred survivors in the hardest-hit areas of Haywood County find strength in these less quantifiable types of sustainability as they navigate the ongoing challenges of rebuilding both environmentally and economically.
Building back sustainably
To ensure both that Canton traditions persist and that new people can continue to reside in the town, Smathers says, environmental sustainability remains crucial.
“It’s going to happen again,” he says of the flooding. “To sustain what we have, we have to mitigate.”
According to a N.C. Department of Public Safety press release, mitigation projects begun after Hurricane Frances and Tropical Storm Ivan flooded the area in 2004 helped minimize the damage from Fred. In 2006, the state bought and demolished 22 structures so the Pigeon River could flow more freely during floods. N.C. Emergency Management estimated that $1.19 million in damage was avoided as a result, more than recouping the initial financial investment.
According to NCDPS state hazard mitigation officer Steve McGugan, local and county governments have applied for 11 Hazard Mitigation Grant projects in Fred’s wake. He said the most common grants for residential areas are to acquire or elevate homes, while public projects include stream restoration, creating retention ponds and installing generators for critical infrastructure.
“It behooves anyone to take any mitigation matters that they can take,” Roth adds, noting that every $2 of mitigation saves $6 in the long run.
FEMA has already pledged over $4.9 million for 805 homeowners, business owners and renters across Buncombe, Haywood and Transylvania counties.
The state government will provide $44 million for homeowners through its Residential Recovery Program, according to Rich Trumper, senior construction manager within the Office of State Budget and Management. Almost half this amount will go to residential repairs, with the rest budgeted to repair or replace private roads and bridges and provide short-term housing.
“As we look at what repairs make sense, we always want to see how we can build back more [resiliently],” Trumper says. There are limits, however. “Sometimes we can’t retrofit an older home.” Since the August flooding, 547 applications from 11 counties have been submitted.
“Our challenge is finding a third way that doesn’t just build it back as it was [and] doesn’t tear it down,” Smathers says about rebuilding downtown Canton. “How can we do both?”
Smathers is particularly excited about replacing the old playground in the Canton Recreation Park with an all-accessible one. “When you rebuild, you have a chance to define what you stand for,” he says. “No matter who you are, what your lot in life is, you can come to this playground … and smile.”
Cruso United Methodist Church pastor Peter Constantian became passionate about sustainability working with Ecuadorian farmers as a Peace Corps volunteer.
“I think what we want to sustain is the relationship between our community and the natural world. … [We want to] sustain and improve it,” he says.
With the most immediate needs of flood survivors now met, Constantian can focus more on that goal as part of the church’s Western North Carolina Conference Committee on Relief. Summer volunteer projects include river cleanup, as well as controlling erosion by planting native shrubs and grasses that can stabilize riverbanks. “Climate disaster response can look like [more than] just serving the humans in a particular environment,” he says. “It can serve the entire creation.”
At the same time, he recognizes the importance of community in sustaining flood survivors’ spirits. Sitting on higher ground, the church stayed dry, and it quickly became a focal point for the community.
“At first, it was just a bathroom for the swift-water recovery teams to use,” Constantian says. “Then, it was a place for people to find photos that had washed downstream. Then, it was a place for picking up flood buckets. Then, it was a place for getting hot meals and boxes of food that they could take home and prepare. We fed probably an average of 140 people per day, seven days a week.”
The recovery teams have left, the photos have been collected, and the flood buckets stashed away — but the community dinners initiated during the recovery efforts continue every Wednesday evening. “One of the things I noticed was really needed was not just hot meals, but a sense of community,” Constantian continues. He estimates about 35 people come each week — more than three times the average size of the church’s congregation on Sundays.
“My Christian perspective is that we can’t really love our neighbors unless we know our neighbors,” Constantian says. “This becomes sustainable [because] it’s something that we’re doing together — with and for one another.”
As much as Coury and Pick appreciate their community’s support, they know their business cannot survive another flood.
“For our business to remain sustainable in the future, we have to have a place that we know is safe,” Coury says. This summer, they will start looking for a new site. The search won’t be easy: “The land prices … are priced for developers right now and not growers,” she says.
Of the challenges that remain for Canton, one with much symbolic significance to the community is the question of whether Pisgah Memorial Stadium can acquire a flood permit to be repaired and available before the 100th anniversary of the clash between the county’s two high school football teams, Canton High and Pisgah High.
Such practical concerns often weigh heavy on Smathers’ mind. “We’re replacing stadiums and businesses and parks,” he says, “[but] there are homes that are not going back in [the community of] Cruso.” Losing these homeowners, he points out, will reduce taxpayer funding for crucial services like Cruso’s fire department.
“I want to remain positive and give people good news,” says Smathers. “But we’re not out of the woods yet.”