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Harrowing North Carolina floods left farm animals stranded, lifted houses off their foundations

Four died and four remain missing after a tropical storm brought torrential rain to the area

Wreckage of homes in Cruso, N.C., washed up along the roadways on Aug. 19, after Tropical Storm Fred struck the area. (Maya Carter/Asheville Citizen Times/AP)

Cynthia Cordle’s daughter burst into the house.

“Y’all better come on,” she said. “We’ve got animals drowning.”

It had been raining for days when Tropical Storm Fred swept through western North Carolina this week, killing at least four people, with four others unaccounted for. The flooding ravaged this swath of Appalachia, destroying roads and bridges, washing cars away and displacing an estimated 500 families.

In Canton, N.C., about 20 miles west of Asheville, Cordle stepped outside her home to see three of her donkeys and Cowie the cow fighting to stay upright in what looked like rapids. Her 5-month-old calf Penelope was standing up to her knees in silt from the creek, shivering.

“If anything else had turned loose, it would have killed them,” Cordle said. “It looked like — I called it Niagara Falls. I’ve never seen that creek that rough.”

Major flooding has rocked the area before, most recently in 2004. Some residents said this event felt more catastrophic because of how fast it happened. There was no warning before the deluge; no time to prepare.

“We really just thought we were going to have an afternoon of rain,” said Emily Christopher, director of communications at New Covenant Church in Clyde, N.C.

Drone video captured on Aug. 17 shows the aftermath of Tropical Storm Fred in Haywood County, N.C. (Video: John Cayton via Storyful)

Instead, rushing water from Pigeon River lifted houses off their foundations and swept family heirlooms away. Facebook groups popped up to reunite people with toy cars, children’s drawings and photo albums that washed up in strangers’ yards. Desperate pet owners posted photos of their missing animals.

Residents of Cruso, one of the hardest-hit areas, tried to figure out if anyone had heard from their neighbors.

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The creek on the Cordle’s property usually runs about 450 feet from her house, she said, but it had overflowed, spilling up to her front door. The water was only about ankle-high in the front yard, so she, her daughter and husband tried to move the animals from the front pasture closer to the house.

The water, up to their knees at that point, rushed so fast it threatened to knock them down, Cordle said. She waved a blue pole with a flag on the end at the animals as her daughter shook the remains of their grain stores, hoping to get their attention.

Cowie, who had been a bottle baby, responded first, fighting the current that was up to his chest to head toward the food. The donkeys — Eeyore, Shrek and Fiona — were a bit harder to persuade, and the littlest cow was terrified. The rapids nearly knocked her down, but she eventually made it to higher ground.

Once the water finally started retreating, Cordle went outside to survey the damage to the 10 acres where they’ve lived for more than a decade. The bridge over the creek and into their property had been washed sideways by the swells, trapping them on the farm. Just-purchased bales of hay had been swept downstream, leaving them short on animal feed. Fences across the property had been destroyed.

Her other animals, 2-week-old calves, another donkey, seven goats, two pigs and some chickens, seemed to be okay. The pigs probably enjoyed the mud, she said.

Christopher, the church communications director, has spent the past few days trying to connect flood survivors with supplies. She said she’s never seen devastation at this level.

She was at a 100-year-old house Friday that had been lifted off its foundation and deposited on its side. The man who lived there told her he had been taking a nap when his dogs started barking.

Noticing the torrential downpour, he went to move his cars to higher ground. When he looked back at the house, what appeared to be a six-foot wave crashed into it, moving it maybe 20 feet.

“To see legacy be destroyed in a matter of minutes, it’s just heart-wrenching,” Christopher said.

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She helped another man pack a backpack of food so he could hike back to his house — all the roads to his home were closed or blocked. She said since some of the people affected weren’t in the normal flood zone, many didn’t have flood insurance.

“It's going to be completely up to the community to help them rebuild and to get back on their feet,” she said.

As she drove through Cruso on Thursday, she saw cars stuck in trees, propane tanks and children’s toys strewn on the side of the road. Loose barn animals wandered aimlessly.

Christopher said the tragedy brought out a lot of good in the community.

“I’ve never seen, like, the human spirit of hope displayed like it has been in these people who are literally just standing in debris of what used to be their homes and their lives,” she said.

Residents reported washed-out roads and bridges after tropical storms dumped heavy rains on Aug. 19-21, flooding rivers and forcing evacuations. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Delana Fuller Swinford via Storyful/The Washington Post)

Donation centers asked for a pause in giving as they ran out of space, having been inundated with donated items. People drove in from surrounding states and beyond to offer help. Off-duty truck drivers helped haul debris, hotels gave displaced survivors a place to stay, and Christopher said some residents even opened their homes to those without shelter.

By Friday, Cordle’s husband and a friend had repaired the bridge enough that she could leave the farm to pick up some donated supplies. She returned with cleaning products, canned goods and bottled water to hold her family over as the mud in their well settled. Some people on Facebook helped connect her with donors giving away hay to feed the animals.

Rebuilding the farm will be a long process, she said, but she feels lucky nonetheless.

“God blessed me by not taking everything I had,” she said, her voice breaking. “I still have a home. We are in some bad times, but I just feel for the people that have nothing.”

Read more:

Tens of millions of people have been moving into flood zones, satellite imagery shows

Moon ‘wobble’ and climate change could mean ‘double whammy’ of flooding in 2030s, NASA warns

Wet and unwelcome, Fred spawns twisters and flooding in U.S.

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