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Extreme flooding leaves 2 dead, 20 unaccounted for in North Carolina

Drone video captured on Aug. 17 shows the aftermath of Tropical Storm Fred in Haywood County, N.C. (Video: John Cayton via Storyful)
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A previous version of this article misstated the day the storm hit western North Carolina. It was Tuesday, not Wednesday.

CANTON, N.C. — At least two people were killed after Tropical Storm Fred swept through western North Carolina on Tuesday night, dousing the area with heavy rain that caused severe flooding.

Authorities warned that the death toll could rise, as 20 people are still unaccounted for. Nearly 100 others had to be rescued from flooded homes and cars, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety said in a news release.

The department described the flooding of the Pigeon River, which runs along the base of the Appalachian Mountains, as “historic." Several towns, including Cruso and Bethel, were affected. "Cruso saw some of the worst destruction in Haywood County that I’ve seen in my life,” county Emergency Services Director Travis Donaldson said.

Even as the water receded, Haywood County residents were grappling with the destruction. Officials estimated that about 500 families had been displaced by the damage, and some lost their homes. Rockslides closed roads, one college’s hallways flooded and at least 10 bridges were damaged or destroyed, officials said in a Facebook post.

Haywood County Sheriff Greg Christopher told reporters Thursday he wasn’t sure how many vehicles were still stranded, but emergency crews were working to check every remaining car for passengers.

“We are a mill town,” said Zeb Smathers, mayor of the town of Canton. “We are a proud mill town. We know what it is to be down. We know how it is to fight back when the odds are against us. We have been here before — we will get through this.”

Smathers spoke at a news conference Thursday with Sen. Thom Tillis (R), who traveled to western North Carolina to survey the damage. Smathers’s father, Pat, was mayor when historic hurricane-related flooding struck the town back in 2004. This time, Canton wasn’t spared, but most of the destruction is concentrated in rugged, rural areas just south of town.

On Thursday, pharmacist Kim Ferguson shoveled mud from the concrete floor of a building she was renovating to become her second pharmacy. “That was the plan,” Ferguson said. “It’s still the plan, it’s just gonna be a little bit late.”

Ferguson’s building, which sits more than three feet off the ground on a cinder-block foundation, ended up with more than two feet of water.

Others in the area weren’t so lucky — one Canton alderman’s home was swept off its foundation.

Blake Stanbery, the lead pastor at New Covenant Church in Clyde N.C., said residents only had a few minutes to seek safety when floodwaters began surging down the Pigeon River. Parts of Clyde and Canton, including the Central Haywood County High School, were quickly engulfed in up to 12 feet of water, Stanbery said.

“Before when we had floods, we had days to get ready because it was rising water that comes over time,” Stanbery said. "This was a flash flood, and we just were not ready for it.”

Stanbery said numerous businesses and homes were damaged or destroyed along with some critical establishments that serve as a safety net for impoverished residents, including the Canton Community Kitchen. The county school board was scheduled to meet on Thursday night to consider where to relocate high school students.

Local officials are still restricting access to the hardest hit areas, Stanbery said, but he believes entire campgrounds and RV parks have been washed away, leaving local residents eagerly awaiting updates about the number of people still missing or presumed dead.

“One of our congregation members lived on a campground that they run, and their entire campground is obliterated, as well as their own house,” Stanbery said. “It’s just gone, but we can’t get to them. They won’t let us.”

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

Haywood County, along with at least seven other western North Carolina counties, declared a state of emergency on Tuesday evening as the storm approached, warning that there was a potential for landslides, flooding, structural damage and unsafe road conditions. The mountainous county had requested residents in low-lying areas near the Pigeon evacuate, warning them to “seek higher ground immediately.”

The area’s steep geography hastened the flooding.

“It happened in a matter of about 45 minutes,” a local resident told the WYFF TV station.

Bill Martin, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Greenville-Spartanburg, S.C., office, said that parts of the North Carolina mountains received eight to 12 inches of rain as Tropical Storm Fred moved through the region.

Martin said the event is a classic example of how destructive tropical systems can become as they traverse over the Appalachian Mountains.

“They release moisture as the air rises over them, and it’s that lift that rings out the moisture,” Martin said. “The tropical storm brings the moisture in, and the mountains lift it out.”

Martin said meteorologists are still trying to determine whether the rainfall set any records, but he noted that western North Carolina has suffered other “tremendously destructive floods” during tropical weather events.

One especially deadly flood occurred in 1916, when two tropical systems merged over the area and dumped more than 20 inches of rain near Asheville, N.C. Eighty people are believed to have died. The area also experienced major flooding in 2004, as the remains of Hurricane Ivan passed through.

“We have data going back 100 years that shows this is not isolated but it’s not something that happens every five years or even every 10 years,” Martin said.

Assistant State Climatologist Corey Davis said the area is prone to flooding because the terrain is like an egg carton. If you dump water on top of it, it’ll pour down the mountains and flood the communities at the bottom.

Davis said that as the climate continues to warm, creating the right conditions for more rain, heavy rainfall like the stint that preceded Fred will become more common. The hurricanes of the future are likely to become more frequent and rainier as well, he said.

The 2020 North Carolina Climate Science Report predicted rainfall from weather events such as hurricanes would become more fierce.

Two other Atlantic storms were circulating Wednesday evening. Hurricane Grace’s strong winds made landfall on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula early Thursday morning, and the storm is expected to shift over the southwest Gulf of Mexico, according to the National Hurricane Center.

The Category 1 storm struck Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula on Aug. 19 with maximum sustained winds of 80 mph after soaking Haiti, Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. (Video: Storyful)

Grace had maximum sustained winds of 80 miles per hour on Wednesday evening, a day after battering earthquake-ravaged Haiti as a tropical storm.

Fred’s remnants spin up more severe weather, while Grace and Henri strengthen in Atlantic Ocean

Parts of Mexico’s eastern mainland could also see hurricane conditions starting Friday, the center said.

Elsewhere in the Atlantic, Tropical Storm Henri was “almost a hurricane” as of Wednesday evening, the center said. Henri was moving west of Bermuda on Wednesday evening with maximum sustained winds of 70 mph. The storm is set to affect the northeastern United States this weekend and into early next week, the center said, potentially bringing storm surge, wind and rain to the northeastern United States and parts of Canada.

Henri’s swells could reach the United States and Canada by the weekend, potentially causing “life-threatening surf and rip currents,” the center said.

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