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Park officials warn: Watch river levels

Authorities in North Carolina’s mountain parks are on heightened alert this holiday weekend, saying they are concerned that heavy thunderstorms could send torrents of water down streams and rivers.

Park rangers say storms can create sudden surges of water that can be deadly for swimmers, boaters and campers.

“With the forecast of rain throughout the week, I encourage all visitors to be extremely cautious around rivers as conditions can change unpredictably,” said Steve Kloster, acting chief ranger at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where crews have conducted several water rescues in recent days.

Such an event was reported Monday evening, when several college students became trapped by a flash flood in Transylvania County while on a field trip. No injuries were reported.

A flood watch is in effect for much of the Carolinas through at least Wednesday evening, and meteorologists say the mountains’ heaviest rain is expected Thursday and Friday, at the start of the four-day holiday weekend.

“Many people are caught by surprise by storms that are miles away,” said Lauren Visin, of the National Weather Service office in Greer, S.C. “They might hear the thunder in the distance but aren’t concerned, because it’s not raining where they are.”

Instead, Visin said, a storm at higher elevations can send torrents of water racing down streams and rivers.

Monday’s incident was reported on the Davidson River and it involved students from Haywood Community College. According to the college, the students were doing lab work near the Pisgah Fish Hatchery when the water rose suddenly. Most students were able to escape safely, but two students became trapped on the side of the river opposite the road. Brevard County rescue personnel got the students and an advisor back across the river about 11:30 p.m.

Last Friday, rangers rescued six people who were tubing – including a 6-year-old and a 2-year-old – after they were trapped by rising waters on the Little River in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A swift water rescue team joined rangers to help the victims after they found themselves stranded.

“River levels can rise rapidly when thunderstorms strike the Smokies,” said Dana Soehn, a park public information officer.

Officials say the timing of the flood threat – during what might be the busiest weekend of the year in the parks – heightens the threat.

“There is little time to react,” said Kristin Bail, forest supervisor of the U.S. Forest Service National Forests in North Carolina.

Bail said water levels can rise 30 feet in a matter of minutes. That surge can roll boulders and vehicles, uproot trees, and destroy bridges.

She said campers are at risk because flooding is especially dangerous at night.

Bail said campers often choose low spots near the river to pitch tent. When a storm hits and water levels rise, the campers sometimes are caught by surprise, she said.

“When a flash flood strikes at night, it’s nearly impossible to know how deep and fast the water is,” she said. “It’s noisy. It’s dark. And it’s disorienting to wake up suddenly during a storm. You have to act quickly.”

Park officials say visitors should stay in touch with the National Weather Service. They suggest using a weather radio, a smartphone weather app, or a cellphone mobile alert system.

Bail said a little advance planning also helps.

“Families should discuss how they would alert each other and climb to safety if rushing water arrives,” she said.

Lyttle: 704-358-6107 Twitter: @slyttle
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