By ROBERT JUMPER
One Feather Staff
“That really hit close to home.” You hear that every time a tragedy strikes a person or a community. Maybe it is a family member. Maybe a next-door neighbor. It could be a metaphoric statement, saying that you relate to what folks are going through. In some cases, it is literal.
Last Tuesday, Aug. 17, remnants of Tropical Depression Fred cut a path through the southeast and dumped rain on western North Carolina. Flood and tornado watches were up for hours that day, which included the Qualla Boundary in its scope. Fortunately, we were spared much of either.
I got home from work around 6 p.m. on Tuesday, after picking up something to eat for me and the wife. I knew from watching my weather apps on the phone that we were in for a long night of waiting. We live in Clyde, maybe a football field and a half distance from the Pigeon River. I was all ready to ride out the storm at our home. Clyde has a big siren horn at the fire department that screams a burst of piercing sound during weather emergencies, each blast of the horn indicating the extent of the rising waters of the Pigeon. The flood siren had already blown once before I got home. It wasn’t long before the second blast sounded.
We had made the decision to stay put because, from the flooding from hurricanes in 2004-05, we were sure that these flood waters wouldn’t get to our home because of the slight rise in land elevation we enjoy you get farther from the river. We figured that it would likely wash over the Charles Street bridge but would quickly recede once the rain event was over. So, we thought to just ride out the storm. Almost immediately after that decision, there was a knock at the door. A member of our local volunteer fire department came to tell us that we needed to evacuate now. “There is another big surge coming from Lake Logan and if you don’t get out now, we won’t be able to come back to get you.”
So, the wife and I gathered a few things and drove through an already submerged section of Charles Street, up to a relative’s home to ride out the storm. There is immediate fear, frustration, and anger when things like this happen. I began to get upset at it all, when suddenly I thought about all those folks who lived or had businesses much less than 150 yards from the riverbank. And my frustration turned to sadness. Because I knew that there were many people in Haywood County that were facing much more than a one-night inconvenience.
According to news reports, the Pigeon River rose to nearly twice its maximum flood stage (a total of 19.4 feet above normal river levels). River water, debris, and mud inundated homes, churches, and businesses in the Canton and Cruso communities, as well as many dwellings downstream in Clyde. Entire houses and outbuildings were knocked off their foundations and destroyed by flood water, leaving many in the hardest hit areas immediately homeless. As of this writing, there are five confirmed dead because of the flooding (Frank Mungo, 86; Charlene Mungo, 83; Franklin McKenzie, 68;Judy Mason, 73; and Frank Lauer, Sr., 74). All were from the Cruso community in Haywood County. And, there is still one person unaccounted for.
Churches and local government immediately opened their doors to provide shelter and sustenance to the dazed, confused, and hurting. Hundreds of volunteers, from trained professionals, like Cherokee’s Swift Water Rescue Team, to next-door neighbors with little skill but a heart full of compassion, were pressed into action quickly in an attempt to eliminate, or at least minimize loss of life and suffering. Members of the EBCI Emergency Management continue to work in Haywood County to search, clear access to homes and businesses, and generally help the devastated community to get back on its feet. Take a moment and check out the photos on the Cherokee Fire and Rescue Facebook page. As the workers are moving through the gut-wrenching task of sifting through the destruction, they are documenting it in the pictures. Hearts are full of respect and gratitude on both sides of the tragedy. There is post after post from Clyde, Canton, and Cruso residence, tearful “thanks” to the Cherokee men and women who have stepped into their lives at their lowest moments with a hand to lift them out of it. And the appreciation is reciprocal. One post from Cherokee Fire and Rescue saying, “Cherokee Fire and Rescue and NC Task Force 8 Raleigh Durham working Haywood floods! Please keep the rescuers and residents in your thoughts! Thank you to the residents that even in their time of need take the time to feed (us) and just say Thank you!” Our Cherokee Fire and Rescue have been working alongside Task Force 8 (Raleigh, NC) in the recovery efforts.
Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort purchased, then donated 20 pallets (roughly 24,000 bottles) of half-liter Cherokee Bottled Water for the impacted residence. Cherokee Bottled Water handled the logistics of getting the water to the donation staging area in Haywood County, enlisting Cherokee Boys Club to transport all the water to the ailing community in one quick trip. The bottled water was critical to the disaster relief effort because the flood also damaged water lines and contaminated wells, so the flood affected areas are still without running water. Water is one of those things you take for granted until you don’t have it. If not for the kindness and generosity of folks like Harrah’s, Cherokee Bottled Water, Cherokee Boys Club, and the hundreds of other businesses, churches and individuals, unbearable suffering would be even more intense.
The EBCI and Cherokee Tribal Emergency Management have also organized and are currently coordinating a donation drive so that anyone in the Qualla Boundary community may join in the effort to help our neighbors get back on their feet after this devastating loss. The drop off site is 282 Seven Clans Lane in Cherokee during the week of Aug. 23. Coolers, water, Gatorade, diapers, towels, and cleaning supplies are listed among the needed items.
EBCI Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed stated, “This is a tremendously tragic loss that has impacted so many. My heart goes out to the families and citizens of Haywood County and prayers to the families of those whose lives were taken so suddenly by this devastating calamity.”
This past Sunday, while attending church, a friend who also lives in Clyde but not near the Pigeon River or its tributaries, shared that, at his house, it was just like another summer storm. Several hours of rain and it was over. He couldn’t tell a difference after the rains where he lived. It looked like just any other day, until he got out and started driving around Clyde near the river the next morning. People were already dragging household goods, furniture, bedding, clothing, etc. out to the side of the road for trash pickup, river water and mud soaked. Large sections of drenched carpet and contaminated wood were torn out of their homes and trashed. He saw pile after pile as he drove along the homes near the river. And this was “light” damage compared to the mess in Canton and Cruso. As of Saturday, large sections of both communities were still blocked from public access, including a large portion of the Old Asheville Hwy.
I am so very proud of and humbled by the uncountable acts of generosity from and by our Tribe and the many other self-sacrificing entities and individuals who came to the aid of the people who needed help where the water ran. Haywood County is just minutes away from the Boundary and this tragedy indeed hit close to home.