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‘Taking care of the people wasn’t a priority.’ Is Duke Energy to blame for flooding?

Scenes of flooding in the Charlotte area

Caldwell and Catawba counties were placed under a State of Emergency and a community on Mecklenburg County was evacuated as flooding threatened the areas Sunday.
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Caldwell and Catawba counties were placed under a State of Emergency and a community on Mecklenburg County was evacuated as flooding threatened the areas Sunday.

Faced with angry complaints from residents, Duke Energy is denying accusations that mismanagement of Lake Norman and other waters along the Catawba River led to flooding that damaged or destroyed more than 100 homes in northwest Charlotte.

In a letter to federal regulators, Duke said there was no way to anticipate heavy rainfalls that doused the area in early June.

Weather forecasters had predicted 4 to 6 inches of rain June 7-12, but some areas received as much 11 inches in one day, the Charlotte-based company said.

“Duke Energy operated all available hydro units to prepare for the forecasted rainfall amount of 4 to 6 inches in the Catawba River Basin,” Duke said in the letter dated June 18. “This reservoir configuration was appropriate given the forecast and would have successfully managed the runoff from 4 to 6 inches of rain.”

The letter came in response to questions from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which had demanded Duke explain its actions. The agency licenses and inspects hydroelectric projects.

As the rains threatened to send the Catawba River over its banks, Duke said it was forced to open gates to a massive dam, sending a record release of water gushing toward the Mountain Island Lake area, which suffered the worst flooding in Mecklenburg County.

Some people living near the Catawba River say Duke’s decisions contributed to the damage. They have said that the company kept water levels in Lake Norman too high before the rains, leaving the area without a place to store rainwater traveling down the Catawba River from upstream.

Brandon Jones of the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, an environmental advocacy group, said it is true that more rain fell than was forecast.

But Duke should have taken precautions in case meteorologists’ predictions were off, Jones said. Lake Norman — which covers 32,000 acres and holds trillions of gallons of water — should have had enough capacity to handle a weather event that did not approach record rainfall, he said.

“This is a tragedy,” Jones said. “The lesson of this is to err on the side of caution.”

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Pat Cotham said Duke appears to bear some responsibility for what happened since the company employs its own team of meteorologists.

Mecklenburg officials have estimated $3.3 million in damage to 107 homes inspected along Riverside Drive, Lake Drive and Riverhaven Drive, but have warned that figure could go higher.

Some homes had up to eight feet water, leaving some homeowners facing thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket costs to repair their homes. Based on historical data, only about half of residents have flood insurance policies, county officials have said.

“It seems like taking care of the people wasn’t a priority,” Cotham said. “They are trying to sweep this under the rug.”

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After a weekend of heavy rains, residents along Riverside Drive on Mountain Island Lake had to evacuate due to flooding. Members of the Cook’s Community VFD return to Riverside Drive to unload June 10. Also, a dock with boats attached broke loose and became jammed against the supports for the Hwy 16 bridge that crosses the lake into Gaston County. Boats were being towed to the Riverbend Access ramp. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Preventable?

The federal government licenses Duke Energy to manage the flow of water in a chain of 11 lakes along the Catawba River.

Duke’s main duty is to produce power, but the license also makes the company responsible for helping with flood control.

Two days before the rains started, Duke says it prepared by moving water from the upper Catawba River basin and passing it through Lake Norman. The lake had capacity for 1.5 feet of storage, which Duke insists was enough based on the rain forecast.

But the storage capacity disappeared amid intense rains, Duke said.

That’s when the company says it opened the Cowans Ford Dam, moving the most water through the floodgates in the dam’s 56-year history. Floodgates are opened to protect a dam’s structural integrity and control the flow of water downstream.

Critics say that Duke should have lowered waters levels in Lake Norman in advance of the rains.

In the letter to federal regulators, Duke suggested it tried to strike a balance between preparing for the coming rains and keeping water levels high enough for other uses.

When the lake levels go too low, some experts say water quality suffers and it can be more difficult to generate electricity.

“Lowering reservoir levels further would have increased the risk of creating a deficit in stored water going into the summer if the storm had delivered less than the forecasted amount of precipitation,” the letter said.

But Jones, the environmental activists, said the episode should lead Duke to re-assess how it handles such weather events in the future.

“When a reservoir system floods, it is preventable,” he said.

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After a weekend of heavy rains, residents along Riverside Drive on Mountain Island Lake had to evacuate due to flooding. Some of them survey the high waters June 10. Also, a dock with boats attached broke loose and became jammed against the supports for the Hwy 16 bridge that crosses the lake into Gaston County. Boats were being towed to the Riverbend Access ramp. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Enough warning

Since the rains, some residents have questioned why they didn’t get more advance warning about the floods and weren’t told about the release of water from the dam.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg emergency officials said on June 9, firefighters began going door-to-door to ask residents if they would voluntarily evacuate between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. Roughly, 40 people were evacuated, emergency responders have said.

But Charlotte-Mecklenburg officials say many residents didn’t leave until after 8 p.m. when waters began to rise rapidly. They said they did not warn the public about the opening of the dam because they focus their messaging on the threat of flooding.

Resident Dave Holland, who lives on Riverside Drive, said people can typically hear sirens meant to warn them when Duke opens the dam to release water. This time, Holland said, there were no sirens.

Duke says the company notified local and state emergency officials of its operations and made information available on its lake website and via a toll-free phone system, according to the letter to regulators.

Duke disconnected power to some homes and later restored power in some places at the direction of emergency responders, the letter said.

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