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Gaston floodwaters start to recede

By Steve Lyttle, Joe DePriestand Elisabeth Arriero
slyttle@charlotteobserver.com jdepriest@charlotteobserver.com

Floodwaters slowly receded Monday afternoon along the South Fork of the Catawba River, after the highest river levels in more than 40 years caused widespread flooding in Gaston County.

Meanwhile, officials farther to the north and west in Catawba, Cleveland and Lincoln counties continued cleaning up and assessing the damage from torrential rainfall of more than 12 inches in some places Saturday.

The heavy rain and flooding led to the deaths of two Charlotte residents who drowned in the rapid current of a Caldwell County stream Saturday evening.

Officials in Cramerton, scene of the worst Gaston County flooding along the river, said a communitywide sandbagging effort by volunteers appeared to prevent serious damage. Water levels began dropping around sunrise.

“A little crisis brings people closer together,” Cramerton Mayor Ronnie Worley said Monday, after the river’s waters had reached the foundations of buildings in the downtown district.

Up in Catawba County, officials continued surveying the flood impact and said the torrential rain had caused major damage to nearly 20 buildings and had left dozens of roads closed.

Evidence of the flood could be seen in sand traps at Rock Barn Golf & Spa, a Conover golf course that hosts a number of tournaments each year. Golfers reported some sand traps contained dead fish that had been washed onto the course when nearby streams overflowed Saturday morning.

The heavy rain also caused landslides and washed-out roads in parts of Wilkes, Watauga, Alexander and Iredell counties.

Meteorologists expect dry weather for the next two days, allowing crews to clean some of the mess left by the rainfall.

Another round of showers and thunderstorms is forecast for Wednesday and Thursday, however.

The National Weather Service office in Greenville-Spartanburg said the South Fork of the Catawba River crested at about 17.3 feet at 4:45 a.m. Monday near Lowell – more than 7 feet above flood stage.

That is the third-highest crest in river history at that location, surpassed only by levels of 21.3 feet in August 1940 and 17.38 feet in August 1970.

A community effort

Several communities rallied to help towns along the river.

Worley, Cramerton’s mayor, said the community and neighboring towns of Belmont and Gastonia came together Sunday night to fill sandbags, in an effort to keep river water at bay.

The work began about 8 p.m. on Eighth Avenue, a main road through Cramerton’s business district, and focused on the fire department, Cramerton Drug, and Floyd & Blackie’s Coffee Shop.

At its peak, more than 100 people stood in rising water that eventually got waist-high, filling sandbags. Officials say they went through five dump-truck loads of sand.

But the South Fork rose relentlessly, and the effort was called off about 1 a.m.

“I can’t say enough about the people – young and old alike – who came out to help,” said Worley, who was interviewed Monday morning on NBC’s “Today” and by the Weather Channel. “It makes you feel good to be in a small, close-knit town.”

While some water seeped into the fire department, sandbags “kept the majority of the water out,” he said. “We did what we had to do and hopefully in a few days we’ll be back to normal.”

Greg Ramsey, owner of Floyd & Blackie’s Coffee Shop, said he joined the sandbagging effort Sunday.

“Man, we went at it,” he said. “I was really impressed by the community effort.”

As he assessed the business Monday morning, he said it appeared “that we made it.”

Ramsey said that while a tremendous amount of water caused the flooding, he thinks a study needs to be done about cleaning up sediment in the South Fork River.

Also assessing damage Monday was Preston Guy, an owner of Cramerton Drug. Some water got in, apparently through the foundation, but “it was not measurable,” Guy said.

He called the sandbags “a great community effort” that definitely helped protect his business.

More than 12 inches of rain fell Saturday morning in the South Fork of the Catawba River’s headwaters, in the Mountain View area of Catawba County. That rainfall washed out dozens of roads and led to the deaths of two Charlotte residents who drowned while swimming in a Caldwell County creek Saturday evening.

As the high water moved down the South Fork on Sunday, it caused major flooding in Lincoln County.

Lincoln authorities rescued two men late Sunday evening after their boat overturned in high water near Betty Ross Park in southwest Lincolnton. Floodwaters covered much of the park Sunday.

Lincolnton resident Tom Kulczyk was awakened just after midnight Sunday to his dogs barking at the rising waters of the South Fork of the Catawba River behind his house.

He went to sit outside in the darkness to observe the floods, which he said have been the worst he’s seen in years.

“It was pretty eerie sitting out in the dark near the river listening to all the cracking and crashing of the trees,” he said. “We lost eight trees at least. They’re gone. Swept right away.”

Lyttle: 704-358-6107; Twitter: @slyttle
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