I have camped many times over the years beside the babbling brooks and swirling streams that meander through these glorious mountains we are blessed to call home.
From Standing Indian on the headwaters of the Nantahala to the heavily visited Davidson River in Transylvania County, and from Santeetlah Creek amidst the old-growth Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest to Sunburst on the Pigeon River’s west fork, I’ve repeatedly pitched tents along peacefully rolling waters without a care in the world.
It was the hypnotic sound of water constantly flowing over rocks, around bends and beneath mossy logs that made a streamside site such desirable real estate for our bands of happy campers. Combine that with a mesmerizing campfire and a meal cooked on the open flame after a long day of hiking or fishing, and I can think of no more a relaxing place on the face of the planet.
This makes the weather-related tragedy of Aug. 17 so incredibly difficult to fathom. Six people were killed when the remnants of Tropical Storm Fred dumped upwards of 17 inches of rain on the steep terrain where Haywood and Transylvania counties converge, sending a wall of water rushing down the east and west forks of the Pigeon River. All six victims were at or near a popular campground on the banks of the Pigeon when the waters rose so rapidly they could not escape.
Hundreds more have had their lives, homes and businesses turned upside-down. The community of Cruso was devastated, while the downstream towns of Canton and Clyde sustained significant damage from the floodwaters. This was not the first taste of Mother Nature’s wrath for eastern Haywood County. Sadly, it won’t be the last.
Once upon a time, we called meteorological events like this “100-year floods.” The U.S. Geological Society says “the term ‘100-year flood’ is used to describe the recurrence interval of floods. The 100-year recurrence interval means that a flood of that magnitude has a 1% chance of occurring in any given year.”
The last time the placid Pigeon transformed into a monster of raging whitewater was in 2004, when twin hurricanes Frances and Ivan dropped nearly 30 inches of rain in less than two weeks. Experts told us the resulting flooding was one for the record books. Experts now tell us the flooding that decimated eastern Haywood last month was even worse.
I’m no mathematics major, but I can do simple subtraction. The Pigeon River endured a 100-year flood in 2004. Those who live on its banks are now digging out from another 100-year flood in 2021 — only 17 years later.
Look, I get that’s not exactly what the USGS means by “100-year flooding event.” The term really indicates there is a 1% chance each year of a river reaching a flood-stage level of historic proportions. That said, it should seem obvious to anyone paying attention that our climate is changing.
Mere days after the torrent came crashing through the forks of the Pigeon, middle Tennessee was hit by a flash flood that claimed 20 lives when 15 inches of rain fell in six hours. On the other side of the nation, California is ablaze. The conservatives among us might ask what do you expect of a place slightly right of Sodom and Gomorrah. But other places on the planet are burning, too — from Greece and Turkey to Finland, from Russia’s Siberian permafrost to British Columbia.
It’s way past time to move beyond looking at climate change as a political issue pitting left against right, Democrat against Republican, environmentalist against capitalist. As we experienced locally in mid-August, people can put aside differences and work together to solve a common problem.
A few weeks ago, it didn’t matter if you were Baptist or Methodist, a suburbanite or a ruralite, Tuscola or Pisgah (remember, Tuscola High School served as shelter for folks from the Pisgah area). Folks who have never had a sip of “demon alcohol” stepped up to help neighbors at Bearwaters Brewery, and the brewery became ground zero for much of the flooding relief effort. Folks who have never crossed the threshold into a house of worship rolled up their sleeves and helped a church in distress. Across Haywood, neighbors and strangers pitched in during a time of crisis.
Folks, this is a time of ongoing crisis. Our 100-year floods are occurring more frequently. Storms are intensifying. Water supplies are dwindling. Forests are burning. Glaciers are melting. We are seeing weather events once considered unprecedented now occurring on a more frequent basis. It’s time to act.
Just ask friends and neighbors in Cruso and Bethel. Or check with the residents of New York City, who saw the nation’s largest subway system transformed into a nightmarish underground cascade of whitewater when Hurricane Ida paid a visit earlier this week.
Bill Studenc, who began his career in journalism and communications at The Mountaineer in 1983, retired in January 2021 as chief communications officer at Western Carolina University. He now writes about life in the mountains of Western North Carolina.