WNC landslide mapping gets new funding in state budget

Aftermath of a landslide with two workers looking over a tangle of dead vegetation.
STICKS IN THE MUD: Landslides can sweep tons of soil, rock and vegetation downhill very quickly, posing a significant danger to people and structures. Photo courtesy of Appalachian Landslide Consultants

Imagine the French Broad River as it flows downstream at a robust 3,000 cubic feet per second, the high-water limit for many of the region’s outdoor adventure companies. Now, imagine 14 more French Broads with the same intensity — all barreling down the same channel at the same time.

Macon County found itself on the receiving end of that scenario in 2004. On Sept. 16, as the remnants of Hurricane Ivan deluged the mountains with 6 to 10 inches of rain (in addition to the 8 to 12 inches that had fallen as Hurricane Frances passed through just 10 days before), a 45,000-cfs flow of mud, water, rock and vegetation hit the Peeks Creek community at 30 miles per hour. The landslide killed five people and seriously injured several more.

In the months that followed, the N.C. General Assembly launched a landslide hazard mapping program, employing historical records, topographical maps, aerial photography and computer modeling to locate and catalog potential landslide danger zones in the North Carolina mountains. While the project originally planned to cover 19 counties, it surveyed only Macon, Buncombe, Henderson and Watauga counties before lawmakers cut its funding in 2011.

This year, in the wake of multiple Western North Carolina landslides that together destroyed at least 30 homes, buried a stretch of highway under tons of debris and left five people dead, the state budget again allocates $3.6 million for landslide mapping. But why did the state eliminate funding for the program to begin with? The answer, officials and scientists say, involves a combination of revenue shortfalls and lobbying by development interests.

More than money

The June 5 landslide that buried a portion of N.C. Highway 9 in the northeast corner of Henderson County lies within Rep. Chuck McGrady’s (R-Henderson) district. Even though that recent incident hit especially close to home, McGrady says he’s been fighting to get money for landslide mapping restored to the state budget ever since it was lost “during the financial crisis during the Great Recession.”

Yet geologist Stephen Fuemmeler, who was part of the first mapping project, says the reasons for the program’s demise go beyond dollars and cents. While he says he can’t recall the exact funding level, it was “maybe $600,000. We only had seven people, so from a saving-the-state-money standpoint, not much.”

Instead, Fuemmeler argues that anti-regulatory sentiment, fears about devalued property and a lack of education about landslide mapping were also among the factors that torpedoed the effort.

“It’s probably more misunderstanding than skepticism,” he explains. “When people think something is happening behind their backs, or in a black box, and then are just presented with it — there’s a knee-jerk reaction of, ‘Whoa, what are you saying?’ versus if you bring them along in the process.”

McGrady agrees that political considerations played a significant role in the discontinuation of the program. “It was really a combination,” he says. “There were Republicans — newly the majority — who wanted to get rid of the program. The budget shortfall gave them an excuse to do away with the program as part of a large number of budget cuts that were necessary to balance the budget.”

These days, however, McGrady has plenty of pull when it comes to funding decisions. As a House budget chair, making recommendations for disaster relief is part of his responsibilities. When the House began drafting its two-year state budget last year, much of the available funding for responding to disasters was needed to repair damages related to 2016’s Hurricane Matthew. But during this year’s legislative short session, McGrady says, money was available to add the landslide mapping work back in.

The funding for mapping had already been allocated before the recent landslides hit, McGrady adds. He also notes that the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality will determine the timeline and staffing for the new mapping effort.

Freelance geologists

The need for landslide mapping didn’t suddenly disappear with the loss of state funding in 2011, Fuemmeler says. Along with fellow former N.C. Geological Survey geologist Jennifer Bauer, he formed Appalachian Landslide Consultants to provide property owners with information about potential landslide dangers and to assess whether specific properties were at elevated landslide risk.

Jackson County hired ALC to conduct a mapping study similar to the state’s discontinued mapping effort. Private developers, real estate firms and landowners make up the rest of the company’s clientele.

Business has been “consistently busy” since the firm’s launch, says Bauer. “We have had more calls recently after the May landslide events, many of which were from landowners unfortunately affected by the landslides.”

According to Bauer, building awareness of landslide risks is a key part of the company’s work. “Since we started ALC, I have given presentations to over 2,000 people, many of whom are in the real estate industry, civic organizations, nonprofits and local governments. We understand how important landslide awareness is when it comes to protecting lives and property from these natural hazards,” she says.

But aside from Jackson, no WNC counties have taken the initiative to fund landslide mapping on their own, which Fuemmeler estimates at $150,000-$250,000 per county. While he says he continues to put out feelers, the counties “haven’t been knocking at our door.”

“I’m glad the state legislature added funding for landslide mapping back into the budget. If there is an opportunity for us to help with this effort, I would be happy to do so,” Bauer says.

Life and death

In May, soil movement following heavy rains claimed the lives of five people in WNC. On May 18, Patricia Case was killed when a landslide swept away half of her Polk County home. Her husband, Leon Case, was on the other side of the house and survived.

On-duty journalists Mike McCormick and Aaron Smeltzer of upstate South Carolina’s WYFF-TV news staff died when their vehicle was crushed by an uprooted tree that fell across Highway 176 near Tryon on May 28. And on May 31, Jim and Audri Lanford were killed in Boone after a landslide destroyed their home, causing a gas leak and subsequent explosion.

While Fuemmeler says he hasn’t looked at those sites specifically, many people could be living in the path of a future landslide without knowing it. He believes that if the state mapping project had been completed, more people would have been warned about the potential danger.

“What we hope to explain to landowners is that you need to look at where your house is on the map, look at what zone you are in,” says Fuemmeler. “We have a guide available on our website that helps people walk through some of this with our maps. If you are in a landslide-prone area based on the maps, you need to pay attention when there are flash-flood advisories or regional flood warnings and go stay with somebody who is not in one of these areas.”

WNC counties have also suffered extensive property damage and road closures as a result of this year’s rains. Dozens of homes were damaged or destroyed across the region, and the June 5 landslide near Bat Cave left 110,000 cubic yards of material that must be removed from the roadway at an estimated cost of $1.49 million.

Learning about landslides

An area flagged by a landslide mapping study is not automatically considered a danger zone or in violation of a regulation, Fuemmeler hastens to point out. Instead, mapping provides just one piece of data to consider when building structures and roads or assessing those which already exist.

ALC has made a concerted effort to include the Haywood and Jackson county communities in its process, Fuemmeler continues, which has helped build trust and demonstrate that mapping is ultimately in everyone’s best interest. “It’s really great, the awareness, and explaining what the maps show and what they don’t show,” he says. The company’s educational outreach has led to greater cooperation and acceptance of its mapping projects, even in the absence of government funding.

“We had a big turn-around with the Haywood [Realtor Association] … and even though right now we only have maybe 40 percent of Haywood County mapped, they are in favor of mapping the rest of the county, whereas before you would never have been able to get that kind of support,” he says.

“And the big thing is, when we do the maps, we don’t care about regulations — we’re not looking at that,” Fuemmeler adds. “We’re only looking at the science behind landslides and landslide susceptibility and trying to find the best way to keep the downslope people in the community safe.”

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