The area has grown explosively, its population tripling. Today, the streets of this college town are crowded with students, boutique shops and trendy restaurants. The mountains all around are dotted with gargantuan homes with architecture that seems to challenge gravity itself, perched along sheer cliffs overlooking some of the best views across Appalachia.
So when the same conditions present in 1940 materialized once more this week — ground soaked, remnants of Hurricane Florence coming in hard — experts and geologists started expressing alarm that something bad could happen again, but with the potential for effects that could be even more devastating.
That mercifully didn’t occur. The mountains were spared the worst of the rains, and there was no significant flooding or landslides. But what about the next hurricane? Are people even aware of, let alone prepared for, this danger up here in the mountains?
“People have forgotten that landslide reoccurrences are at intervals of 75 to 100 years,” said Bradley Johnson, a geologist with Davidson College who had warned of the possibility of dozens to hundreds of landslides along the Blue Ridge’s eastern escarpment, which cleaves the county. “The spot I’m at now may make it through this storm, but maybe not the next one. But because I made it through this one, I’ll then think, ‘Whew, I’m safe.’ ”
The story of building in foothills and mountains prone to landslides feeds into the broader narrative of development in America. As the globe warms, and as natural disasters increase in frequency and ferocity, it has increasingly become clear that development is amplifying the fallout. Houston wetlands are paved over. California homes are built in wildfire-prone areas. And the Carolina coast, frequently the target of hurricanes, is heavily developed.
It belies an unsettling reality: The most attractive places to live, with the stunning views and warm climes, also are some of the most dangerous and costly.
It says something “about our willingness to shoulder risk and take a gamble on building in areas with a history of hazard impact,” said Stephen M. Strader, a professor of geography and environment at Villanova University. “The increasing trend in developed land throughout the U.S. illustrates this time and time again, from wildfires to flooding.”
One of the most challenging aspects of studying the interplay between development and natural disasters is simply getting anyone to listen. People want to buy nice homes. Developers want to sell expensive properties. Experts are often ignored.
That sentiment was illustrated in interviews with a dozen or so residents throughout Watauga County, even as rains and winds thrashed its mountains, some of the state’s most prone to landslides, and as experts were predicting the possibility of disasters here.
Said Travis Weed, 37, who lived in a development where, in 2004, the consecutive impacts of Hurricane Ivan and Hurricane Frances led to landslides that destroyed six houses: “I’ve lived here for two years, and I’m not worried . . . If you didn’t bring it up, I wouldn’t have thought about it.”
Said John West, 48, who lived near a gated community, where a landslide in May contributed to the deaths of two people: “I would say I’m more curious than worried about how it will impact us.”
And some residents in nearby Blowing Rock, who live in mansions bearing names like “Hang Over” and “Timbertops” that are practically hanging off cliffs, argue in part that the experts and academics are expressing worries based on theories.
Years ago, before the rush of people from faraway states started pumping money and homes into the mountains, buildings like “Hang Over” weren’t as common, said Ellen Cowan, a geologist with Appalachian State University. But the crowding into the region, along with the views, have pushed people higher and higher.
“Early people, they were living away from streams and up on flat lands,” she said. “They weren’t the best views, but they were the safest to be. But now there’s nowhere to go, so the slopes have been cut.”
Some municipalities, like Boone, have adopted ordinances requiring a steep slope assessment by an engineer or geologist before development, but there’s less oversight in rural towns and communities throughout the region. And that’s something that has concerned Johnson when he’s been out house shopping.
“When you buy a place up in the mountains, someone comes and inspects the well and the chimney and there’s a home inspection, but no one hires a professional geologist to look at edge-slope stability,” he said. “It’s just not part of the buying process, and realtors aren’t even thinking about it.”
People are often bound by memory of lived experiences, he said, making it difficult to conceive of something that hasn’t happened for decades, even if the rocks — the science — say that it will again.
“It’s the way people think,” Johnson said. “It’s harder for us to comprehend. We’re not good at assessing risk . . . And my realtor was surprised about me not wanting to buy a place right at the foot of a big steep hill.”