Federal regulators say Duke Energy didn’t violate its hydropower license when the fast-rising Catawba River flooded dozens of homes in northwest Charlotte in June, but ordered Duke to reevaluate what happened and how to prevent future flooding.
In a letter Tuesday to Duke, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said waterfront residents “have concerns regarding project operations and the timeliness and effectiveness of public notices and warnings.”
FERC directed Duke to reassess how it responded to the June storm that dumped up to 14 inches of rain into the Catawba and its chain of 11 lakes. The agency told Duke to involve local emergency agencies and the National Weather Service, as well as the public, in its evaluation.
Duke is to look at the effectiveness of its high-flow operations and warnings to the pubic, as well as ways to improve both.
Duke said in a statement Wednesday that it was pleased FERC found no violations of its license “and that all communications were in accordance with Duke Energy’s license and emergency action plan.” Duke said it will submit a plan and schedule for the evaluation within 30 days.
Asked by The Observer for Duke’s own assessment of its response and whether practices will change in the future, the company said only that it “has worked closely with local emergency management agencies and will continue to do so.”
Mecklenburg County officials initially estimated $3.3 million in damage to 107 homes inspected along Riverside Drive, Lake Drive and Riverhaven Drive on the Catawba River south of Mountain Island Lake.
Three months after the flooding, Sabrina Hilario says her Riverside Drive neighborhood is “like a deserted place” of debris and ruined homes. She and her husband are still working with city officials on what repairs they’ll be allowed to make as their property value plummets.
Hilario maintains that Duke wasn’t prepared for the rising water, and that communication with the public was poor. She says she got her first text warning of a flood threat at 10 p.m. the day that flooding peaked, June 9. By then, she said, she was already fleeing her home on a paddleboard.
The experience was unlike a flood from 2013, she said, when an emergency official had knocked on their door with estimates of how much water to expect and when it would arrive.
“Nobody knew I was going to get 7 feet of my water in my home. I could have saved so much stuff,” Hilario said of the June flooding. “It seems like they’re learning as they go, at our expense.”
Battalion Chief Robert Graham of the Charlotte Fire Department, who is deputy director of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Emergency Management, said the agency has been talking with Duke about responses to the flooding.
As water rose June 9, he said, Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s notification system, which sends alerts by text, phone or email to people who have signed up for them, issued two alerts. The National Weather Service issued an alert. Firefighters also went door-to-door with voluntary evacuation notices.
While emergency responders were told of a flood threat, he said, they weren’t told that a record volume of water was flowing downstream.
“We followed our protocol, as we had in the past,” Graham said. “But I can promise you that we will be over-communicating with those people in the future. These are our people and we take taking care of our people seriously.”
Water release set a record
Days after the rainfall and flooding, FERC had ordered Duke to explain the event and responses to it.
Duke initially said its staff meteorologists had expected rain to total 4 to 6 inches over seven days, an amount its reservoirs could store without problems. The company said lowering lake levels in advance of the storm would have risked having too little water at the start of summer.
Instead, up to 14 inches of rain fell, “substantially exceeding all forecasts,” Duke told FERC in June. Water rapidly filled its reservoirs and forced the company to open dam floodgates on Lake Norman so water could move downstream.
Duke later said that more water was released than had ever rushed through the gates in the dam’s 56-year history. The surge of water washed into Mountain Island Lake, then spilled over its dam into the residential areas along the Catawba River that were flooded.
FERC challenged Duke’s forecast after the storm, saying the National Weather Service had predicted 6 to 9 inches of rain would fall over seven days, with some areas getting 10 to 15 inches.
In July, Duke corrected what it said was an error in its initial account, saying 4 to 6 inches had been expected to fall in only three days, not seven. As evidence, Duke sent FERC National Weather Service precipitation forecasts for the shorter period that also called for 4 to 6 inches of rain.
Duke said it alerted county emergency response agencies, which it said have “authority and responsibility” to order evacuations. Duke said it also posted warnings to its website and its lake information phone system.
But some residents said they weren’t alerted to the floodwater soon enough.
Mount Holly resident Pam Beck, who lives on Mountain Island Lake, wrote FERC that Duke responded too late to the rising water. Duke’s lake information website was also confusing and contradictory, she said, repeatedly increasing the lake’s expected level. The lake peaked at nearly 7 feet over its full level.
“Clearly, operators had lost control and had no idea of the extent of the impacts,” Beck wrote.
“If hydro operations continue operating on short-range forecasts, give minimal consideration to outside meteorologist’s forecasting, and do not respond to coming weather events by lowering target (lake) levels appropriately and correspondingly, then man-made flooding will become commonplace for those living along the Catawba-Wateree (rivers),” she wrote FERC.