Ruin and rescue in Appalachia's floods

Ivan brought western North Carolina worst floods in 64 years.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

As the waters rose Friday morning, Dot Townsend knew she was in a heap of trouble.

Stuck in her little brick ranch house as the Linville River breached its banks under hurricane Ivan's deluge, she watched as doors and propane tanks sailed past her window, swept along by dark waters that sometimes funneled into huge waves. Sitting on the soaked sofa, comforted only by her poodle, Peaches, she whispered prayers.

As daylight came, volunteer fire crews tried to reach Ms. Townsend twice, using large trucks, but had to back out of the current. Finally her nephew, J.C. Hartley, could stand it no more: Against officials' protests he waded out, up to his chin in the raging waters, grabbed Ms. Townsend and the dog, and carried them back up to the road in his arms. "It was sheer willpower," Townsend says of her nephew's Herculean effort.

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In a way, her rescue is an analogy for Appalachia's weekend struggle against the biggest floods in 64 years. With relief crews slow to arrive and proper flood planning long overdue, Mr. Hartley's actions speak of an independence hardened amid these granite peaks: Don't let a stranger do for you what you can do best for yourself. But with casualties and damages still mounting, the back-to-back Frances and Ivan floods have reminded inland residents in several states that hurricanes can spread their devastation far beyond the surf-wracked shoreline.

Here in Appalachia, rescue and recovery efforts often lack the manpower seen in coastal areas. And experts say flood planning hasn't kept pace with the dangers posed by strip mining, vacation-home development, farming, and rugged terrain.

"An average person building a house on a beach should know that he or she is taking a risk," says John Schorr, a sociologist and director of the Stetson Institute for Social Research in DeLand, Fla. "The situation is a little different in Appalachia, where it's not always quite so obvious that the little creek in the hollow can turn into a torrent."

Despite the region's independent streak, many here say this year's damage may be more than they can handle on their own. On Friday, Mary Isaacs woke at 5 a.m and shook her son Tyler awake. Their blue mobile home, which sits on the Watauga River in Foscoe, had already been nearly swept away by Frances. Now Ivan's torrents were filling the creek again.

They got out just in time. Minutes later, the creek overtook the mobile home and washed it off its foundation. "We just hope help will come soon," says Ms. Isaacs, salvaging sodden possessions.

The last time the waters came this high - 20 feet above flood stage at some levels - was in 1940, when a roaring flood washed houses down streams, killed dozens, and bankrupted the region's main railroad. Still, this year's floods were devastating enough, with dozens of bridges washed out and 140 roads closed in western North Carolina alone.

Near Franklin, a 100-foot-wide slash of Fishhawk Mountain came sliding down, destroying more than 20 homes and killing at least three people. Ten were still missing Sunday morning, and the floods went down as the worst disaster in Macon County history.

In the tiny riverside town of Foscoe N.C., where bearded mountain men gather at the gas station every morning under a sign reading "Real Mountain BBQ," there were few warnings. One father and his two kids tried to drive across a boulder as the Watauga River rose, and were temporarily stranded in their car. The smell of gas was pervasive as propane tanks tumbled downstream. A trout pond overflowed, spilling thousands of fish into the torrent, and residents tossed fish back into the stream. A concrete garage had a huge hole in the wall, as though a tractor trailer, not a creek, had crashed through.

"This shall pass," a sign on the Foscoe Christian Church promised.

In Valle Cruces, the historic Mast Store barely it. Part of the foundation was washed out, and everything but the oldest part of the building, built in 1907, was damaged. Dozens of employees carried mud-soaked clothes out of the general store, as a wrecked racing car - No. 83 - sat in a cornfield across the road, washed down from a campground.

In Candler, a woman named Sarah Arrowwood was still in her home when a mud bank crashed through, trapping her until family got to her at daylight.

Officials closed the town of Banner Elk completely as flood waters coursed down the main roads. "We're still in a state of emergency," says Banner Elk firefighter Robert McFadden. In Newland, where 15 people had to be rescued, the local grocery store was wrecked.

As the Ohio river rose, West Virginia was in a state of crisis, too: Flooding and mudslides blocked 207 roads and damaged hundreds of houses in the state. The National Weather Service predicted the river would crest on Sunday at 46 feet - close to its record - and in the town of Wheeling, water covered the riverfront park and amphitheater so that the only landmarks were the tops of light poles and trees.

But all told, western North Carolina had more fatalities per capita than anywhere else, and the region was hit harder than most expected. State road crews and emergency responders, including boat crews from Tennessee, rescued dozens. Yet only a single Salvation Army van made it in Saturday morning to deliver supplies to a hard-hit three-county area on the west side of Grandfather Mountain.

Residents here are on the bottom of the list for storm-weary relief workers. Cleanup on the Gulf Coast after three storms has already stretched the country's relief crews - which are largely volunteer - to the limit.

"There's a tremendous need and the cost is going to be beyond what funding is available," says Dick German, a staffer at the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief Service in Atlanta. The Red Cross reported that it had about $800,000 in its emergency relief fund this year, but that costs from the hurricanes have now topped $60 million. "We will not back down from our promise to the American people, but we also trust the American people" to refill the coffers, says Anna Correa, a spokeswoman in Washington.

As disaster fatigue begins to set in from Key West to Linville, the weeks and months ahead will test the country's largess.

"I think responders and relief workers are starting to get worried that the public will become disaster-weary," says Susan Kim, editor of Disaster News Network in Columbia, Md. "I was talking to an emergency responder in Florida today who said, 'I think I'll do this for a couple more days and then go into hiding.' You become desensitized."

After Hurricane Floyd, the state of North Carolina began to fund updates on its flood-plain maps, but western North Carolina was last on the list, and has not yet been done. Such maps not only help to set insurance rates, but guide development proposals, and the research helps officials figure out how various industries affect the runoff. Still, conditions have improved since 1940, when many of the slopes here were almost completely deforested.

"We get flooding about every eight years," says Alfred Pritchett, a Valle Cruces farmer with an Abe Lincoln beard, who lost all his tobacco and potato crops. But this year, he continues, the flood plain has reached the 100-year mark three times - meaning that the area has been swept with floods so severe they're expected only once a century. "You have to ask the question: Is it due simply to weather patterns or has development outdated these flood maps?"

Some, of course see it as bureaucratic bungling - and, more harshly, as a conspiracy to bilk the area's residents. For years, Robert Ward has begged the state to widen a culvert near his shop in Valle Cruces. "I sent a letter to Raleigh and they told me there was no water here," Mr. Ward says as he walks through a four-inch layer of mud in his washed-out wood shop.

Ira Fowler got no official warning of what was coming down the mountain. Instead, a neighbor came calling at 4 in the morning, yelling, "Time to get out!" A day later, his garage destroyed, Mr. Fowler kept remembering small things, projects, and tools, that had been washed out of his life.

"All the attention's on Florida and, as usual, we're the little folks up here," he says.

But his wife, Susan Newlin, insists: "We have a strong community here. We'll make it through together."

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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