Amid gloom and doom in the mountains, the big one is remembered

Cars splash through flooded streets Saturday in Asheville.
Cars splash through flooded streets Saturday in Asheville. mwashburn@charlotteobserver.com

A peculiar atmospheric speedway spread misery across the North Carolina highlands Saturday, knocking out power, tearing down trees and sparking memories of catastrophes past.

Torrents of moisture whipped in from the distant Atlantic, pouring inches of rain on the drought-stricken Blue Ridge with another deluge in the wind for Sunday. In all, some areas could get up to 12 inches of rain through the weekend.

Rivers like the French Broad, reduced to a relative trickle by the rain-stingy summer of 2015, shot back to life, fed by swollen creeks and streams.

Sandbags stood in reserve outside shops in Biltmore Village. Flooding there in 2004 submerged more than five blocks of the artsy tourist enclave where even the McDonald’s and Hardee’s are built to look like fancy lodges.

On Saturday, the Swannanoa River stayed within its banks, but surged through town in a roiling brown rush hauling a steady cargo of limbs, bottom debris and foam cups it scavenged from the forest floor.

Flood memory

Hendersonville scrubbed its Main Street art festival, disappointing merchants like Mark Ray, who runs Dad’s Collectibles. His biggest two days of retail sales for 2015 came during the town’s popular Apple Festival and he was ready for another lucrative weekend.

Ray, who grew up in Charlotte and is active in historical preservation in the mountain hamlet, pointed out – in the gloom and doom spirit of the day – the menacing nature of this weekend’s drenching and its similarities to the calamity of 1916.

Back-to-back storms, remnants of Atlantic hurricanes, first saturated the mountains, then unleashed the region’s worst flooding in historical times. More than 22 inches of rain fell in a single day during the second storm.

At least 80 people died, railroad bridges were torn from their moorings – in some places the tracks alone hung eerily aloft like stitches across a wound – and Hendersonville was an isolated island for weeks.

“When they do the flood plains,” said Ray, “they talk about the 100-year flood. I thought that was interesting – we’re just a few months off.”

Warnings unheeded

Authorities across the region asked residents to stay home for the weekend unless they had urgent business.

If the Asheville Mall were any barometer, few complied. It was flooded by rain-weary customers Saturday, the parking lots filled to their banks.

Hell and high water teamed up for a moment in McDowell County, where a fallen power line near Jacktown Road managed to ignite a brush fire.

In Swannanoa, Warren Wilson College canceled homecoming weekend and asked visitors to avoid its forested campus through Monday because of safety concerns. Rescue crews searched the French Broad River near Asheville Saturday night for a person reported missing.

Forecasters warned that gusts of up to 45 mph could rake the region overnight Saturday, ripping trees from the earth by their sodden roots.

Federal authorities, concerned about mudslides and falling trees on the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway, closed the road south of Boone until the storm passes.

In Bryson City, on the southern border of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Tuckasegee River was expected to rise above flood stage Sunday morning and water was expected to reach some parts of the town of 1,400.

Rain in waves

Throughout the region, battleship-gray clouds scraped the peaks. During some downpours, it was hard to tell where the mountains ended and the clouds began.

At times it seemed like just another rainy day; at others it seemed like a bad day in the Old Testament. Two inches of rain fell in a short period Saturday morning in Henderson County, then the sun made a brief cameo appearance in the afternoon.

October is historically one of the driest months in the Asheville area, an average of with less than 3 inches of rain.

By Saturday evening, the city had gotten more than two inches this month and if the forecasts for the weekend pan out, it will meet or exceed its monthly average by Monday, the fifth day of the month.

Mark Washburn: 704-358-5007, @WashburnChObs

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