Storm 'proving deadly': NC declares state of emergency as rivers hit record-high levels

Rains leave a wreck in their wake

After two weeks of sometimes torrential rains western North Carolina towns like Edneyville have been left to pick up the pieces and to rebuild their lives.
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After two weeks of sometimes torrential rains western North Carolina towns like Edneyville have been left to pick up the pieces and to rebuild their lives.

Gov. Roy Cooper declared a state of emergency for North Carolina's mountain counties Wednesday after heavy rains triggered mudslides and landslides that closed Interstate 40 east of Asheville and forced evacuations downstream of a McDowell County dam that was thought to be near collapse.

By the end of the day, the Lake Tahoma dam near Marion had been declared safe and I-40 reopened. But rivers across the mountains surged with record-high water levels for the day and flooding was reported on the French Broad River, affecting Asheville and the nearby communities of Fletcher and Marshall.

A person died when a home in Watauga County collapsed at about 6 p.m. Wednesday due to flooding and mudslides, Observer news partner WBTV reported. The home collapsed in the 200 block of Pine Ridge Road, in the Heavenly Mountain subdivision, according to WBTV. Two people were inside, the station reported.

Four to 7 inches of rain fell in the 24-hour period ending Wednesday morning, adding to ground saturated by two weeks of rain that totaled 10 to 20 inches in parts of the mountains. Transportation officials closed 50 roads in 13 counties, including Gaston, Catawba and Iredell near Charlotte.

The emergency declaration was intended to help coordinate storm response and prepare for further events, Cooper's office said. More rain was expected Wednesday night and Thursday, but not on the scale of the earlier deluge.

"People in North Carolina need to continue to take these conditions seriously, because they are proving deadly," the governor said at a press briefing Wednesday afternoon.

Heavy rain overnight caused flooding on Swannanoa River Road in Asheville, North Carolina, May 30, 2018.

In Henderson County, nearly six inches of rain isolated the community of Bat Cave from the rest of the county.

Several minor mudslides in the area forced one resident to evacuate, while other families voluntarily left Wednesday morning, county Fire Marshal Kevin Waldrup said. Transportation workers and Duke Energy crews spent the day clearing trees from roads and restoring power to residents' homes.

In Edneyville, just south of Bat Cave, the two dozen families in one community couldn't leave their homes despite the flooding. A bridge across Reedy Creek, which connects to a main road, collapsed two weeks ago.

Since then, residents have used Tricia Stokes' homemade bridge to cross the creek. But half of that bridge fell into the creek Wednesday morning.

"This is the only way we've had to get in or out to the doctor, go to the grocery store, or do anything," Stokes said.

Stokes and her husband installed a few wooden boards as a makeshift bridge, but she said most of her neighbors are trapped. One of her neighbors is pregnant and expects to give birth any day. Stokes is unsure how they'll be able to cross the creek now.

"They're depending on us," Stokes said. "They don't have any resources. A lot of them are on disability, a lot of them are on fixed incomes. None of them have any other way out. This is it."

Tom Johnson Rally Park Campground in Marion, North Carolina, is under water following heavy rains May 30, 2018.

Rebecca Doyle stared in disbelief at the eroded bank of Reedy Creek. Doyle, 69, owns a 12-acre farm in Edneyville, on the other side of the creek. She left to teach a night class at a local college Tuesday night but returned to find she was unable to get home.

"The people on that side can't get to work," she said. "They're having to find other ways right now. We need help."

Raging rivers

State officials said a primary concern is the stability of mountain slopes and dams, state officials said. Mudslides and landslides triggered by heavy rain were reported in numerous areas.

In McDowell County, a landslide had compromised the integrity of the privately-owned Lake Tahoma dam and forced mandatory evacuations around the dam at about 2 a.m. Wednesday. By 10 a.m., emergency response officials canceled the order after engineers inspected the dam and found it safe.

State engineers continue to monitor dams at Lake Lure, Lake Tuxedo and North Fork Lake.

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Fears of a collapse at Lake Tahoma had begun at around midnight, when witnesses reported water was spilling around the sides of the dam. McDowell County Emergency Management sent out a tweet saying failure of the dam was "imminent."

"Act now to preserve your life!" the National Weather Service tweeted. "This is a life-threatening situation."

Local officials also ordered an evacuation of downtown Old Fort on Tuesday night, asked residents of Chimney Rock to voluntarily leave and evacuated a licensed-care facility and mobile home parks in Buncombe County, Cooper's office said. More than 200 people stayed in shelters.

Video from Hickory Nut Gorge Brewery in Chimney Rock, NC shows the raging Rocky Broad River after heavy rains Tuesday, May 29, 2018. Several areas of western NC have reported flooding and mudslides as a result of heavy rain over the past 15 days.

The Catawba River near Pleasant Gardens, near Marion, was at 14.4 feet, more than three feet above flood stage, U.S. Geological Survey data showed at midmorning Wednesday. The amount of water flowing down the river at that point was the largest since 2004, when back-to-back hurricanes drenched the mountains for two weeks.

Portions of the Johns River in Burke County and the Watauga River near Sugar Grove also were above flood stage.

Three of Duke Energy's reservoirs on the upper Catawba River were brimming and spilling excess water from their dams. Lake James, which drains the area of most intense rainfall, was nearly four feet over full pond by late Wednesday morning but was not expected to exceed five feet. Rhodhiss and Lookout Shoals were more than two feet over full pond and were expected to peak at 3.5 feet over full pond.

Multiple water rescues were reported in McDowell County, including that of two state Department of Transportation workers who had to be rescued after rising water pushed their dump truck into the Catawba River. The pair climbed through a passenger window and stood on the side of the truck in the water until they were rescued, officials reported.

WSOC reported "several" landslides in the county and that four swift water rescues were carried out Tuesday night.

Shortly before 10:30 p.m. Tuesday, a mudslide closed both directions of Interstate 40 near Old Fort. Local officials told WSOC that some cars on the interstate were trapped in the mudslide, but the motorists were able to get out and none were hurt. The interstate was reopened at about 4:30 a.m. Wednesday.

Tropical storm Alberto's remains killed two people in the state — journalists with WYFF, the NBC-TV affiliate in Greenville, South Carolina. Anchor Mike McCormick and photojournalist Aaron Smeltzer were covering hazardous weather conditions in Polk County on Monday when a tree crushed their news van, the station reported.

I-40 is also closed in both directions in McDowell County due to a landslide Tuesday night. Here is video of the landslide from Ashley Riddle and Randy Seay.

Staff writer Joe Marusak contributed.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051; @bhender
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