Ruin and Rescue in Appalachia's Floods ; Ivan Brought Western North Carolina Worst Floods in 64 Years

Article excerpt

As the waters rose Friday morning, Dot Townsend knew she was in a heap of trouble.

Stuck in her little brick ranch house as the Linville River breached its banks under hurricane Ivan's deluge, she watched as doors and propane tanks sailed past her window, swept along by dark waters that sometimes funneled into huge waves. Sitting on the soaked sofa, comforted only by her poodle, Peaches, she whispered prayers.

As daylight came, volunteer fire crews tried to reach Ms. Townsend twice, using large trucks, but had to back out of the current. Finally her nephew, J.C. Hartley, could stand it no more: Against officials' protests he waded out, up to his chin in the raging waters, grabbed Ms. Townsend and the dog, and carried them back up to the road in his arms. "It was sheer willpower," Townsend says of her nephew's Herculean effort.

In a way, her rescue is an analogy for Appalachia's weekend struggle against the biggest floods in 64 years. With relief crews slow to arrive and proper flood planning long overdue, Mr. Hartley's actions speak of an independence hardened amid these granite peaks: Don't let a stranger do for you what you can do best for yourself. But with casualties and damages still mounting, the back-to-back Frances and Ivan floods have reminded inland residents in several states that hurricanes can spread their devastation far beyond the surf-wracked shoreline.

Here in Appalachia, rescue and recovery efforts often lack the manpower seen in coastal areas. And experts say flood planning hasn't kept pace with the dangers posed by strip mining, vacation- home development, farming, and rugged terrain.

"An average person building a house on a beach should know that he or she is taking a risk," says John Schorr, a sociologist and director of the Stetson Institute for Social Research in DeLand, Fla. "The situation is a little different in Appalachia, where it's not always quite so obvious that the little creek in the hollow can turn into a torrent."

Despite the region's independent streak, many here say this year's damage may be more than they can handle on their own. On Friday, Mary Isaacs woke at 5 a.m and shook her son Tyler awake. Their blue mobile home, which sits on the Watauga River in Foscoe, had already been nearly swept away by Frances. Now Ivan's torrents were filling the creek again.

They got out just in time. Minutes later, the creek overtook the mobile home and washed it off its foundation. "We just hope help will come soon," says Ms. Isaacs, salvaging sodden possessions.

The last time the waters came this high - 20 feet above flood stage at some levels - was in 1940, when a roaring flood washed houses down streams, killed dozens, and bankrupted the region's main railroad. Still, this year's floods were devastating enough, with dozens of bridges washed out and 140 roads closed in western North Carolina alone.

Near Franklin, a 100-foot-wide slash of Fishhawk Mountain came sliding down, destroying more than 20 homes and killing at least three people. Ten were still missing Sunday morning, and the floods went down as the worst disaster in Macon County history.

In the tiny riverside town of Foscoe N.C., where bearded mountain men gather at the gas station every morning under a sign reading "Real Mountain BBQ," there were few warnings. One father and his two kids tried to drive across a boulder as the Watauga River rose, and were temporarily stranded in their car. The smell of gas was pervasive as propane tanks tumbled downstream. A trout pond overflowed, spilling thousands of fish into the torrent, and residents tossed fish back into the stream. A concrete garage had a huge hole in the wall, as though a tractor trailer, not a creek, had crashed through.

"This shall pass," a sign on the Foscoe Christian Church promised.

In Valle Cruces, the historic Mast Store barely it. …