Our Piedmont terrain is hills, valleys, ravines and creeks. Rainwater runs downhill. The result of those immutable facts is that when it rains, Charlotte's creeks swell with water and spill out of their banks.
Tuesday night and Wednesday it rained – and rained. Some spots got up to 10 inches, and more rain was forecast for Wednesday night. The result – as usual – was major flooding, plenty of disruption from evacuations and closed streets, and serious property damage.
In Charlotte, an estimated 100 houses were damaged or destroyed. Dozens of houses were also damaged or destroyed in Cabarrus County.
Creeks overflowed and flooded streets. Briar Creek, which cuts through a large slice of southeast Charlotte, was out of its banks for several miles. Several major traffic arteries – East Independence Boulevard, Albemarle Road and Central Avenue – were closed.
Some of that mayhem is inevitable. But too much results from decades of unwise building and development.
Mother Nature has ways to handle flooding: creeks in shallow banks meander across wide floodplains, which fill with floodwaters which slowly recede. But until recently humans here ignored Nature's lessons. Engineers straightened and deepened creeks – which allows flood waters to pick up dangerous speed and erode creekbanks, further deepening the channel. Creeks were forced into pipes, distorting their natural flow.
Slack local regulations for decades allowed homes and businesses in floodplains and on steep creek banks. Builders still haul in dirt to raise lots and houses, which displaces floodwaters and causes deeper flooding on others' properties.
Although Mecklenburg County since 2000 has spent $40 million in local, state and federal money to buy floodprone houses and demolish them, as recently as five years ago developers were being allowed to build on lots that have flooded regularly for decades. Witness four lots on Eastover Woods, a new cul-de-sac off Twiford Place along Briar Creek in the affluent Eastover neighborhood.
Developers won permission to build million-dollar homes there despite ample evidence the lots for years had been under water during heavy rains. Wednesday, the two houses built so far were cut off by water that had closed both Twiford and Eastover Woods.
In recent years the city and county governments have tightened their rules and adopted more nature-friendly techniques. In theory, Eastover Woods wouldn't be allowed today. As part of the city's storm water management program, it is making once-straightened creeks crooked again and trying to enforce undeveloped buffers along creek banks.
But those restitution projects take time and money. Meanwhile, ever more private development covers ever more soil with rooftops and pavement, sending ever more stormwater coursing into creeks, instead of soaking into the ground.
And we all continue to pay – in disruption, damage and danger – for this community's legacy of reckless building in harm's way.