Perspectives Online

Frances and Ivan: The Unwelcome Couple. When winds howled and flood waters became raging torrents, Extension personnel took action. By Art Latham

Storm debris is piled alongside a home in Clyde, one of the communities hard-hit by September hurricanes.
(Photo by Art Latham)
As mighty hurricane-spawned winds and horizontal rains spread death and millions of dollars in destruction over North Carolina's mountains during September, North Carolina Cooperative Extension responded.

Ruined homes in Haywood County.
(Courtesy Tim Mathews)
Hurricane Frances on Sept. 7 and Hurricane Ivan on Sept. 17 battered most of Cooperative Extension's Southwest District and parts of its Northwest District - pouring tropical deluges into the Pigeon, French Broad and upper Catawba river basins that caused the most extensive flooding in centuries. The events promise to radically affect the region's floodplain mapping for years to come.

The disaster's magnitude seems overwhelming. State agriculture officials' September estimates put North Carolina's total agricultural losses from Hurricanes Frances, Ivan, Bonnie and Charley at more than $132 million.

Frances and Ivan, the worst of the lot, washed away more than $75 million in crops and critically important topsoil.

After Frances, the U.S. government declared North Carolina a disaster area, with 13 of the 15 eligible counties in the west.

Floods immersed fields of maple trees and Christmas trees.
(Caldwell County CES)
"It seems like in the higher elevations, the storms washed out roads, but in the lower elevations in the floodplains, it just spread out and wiped out everything," says Eric Caldwell, Cooperative Extension director for Transylvania County, near the French Broad River's headwaters.

Caldwell and others, including a National Guard swiftwater rescue team, relocated horses from raging torrents twice at one location when people who had decided to stay put at home changed their minds as the waters crested.

Working in the filthy flood waters, Caldwell also found some unwanted company. "Bugs, flies, all kinds of insects and snakes cling to you, just to keep from washing down," he says. "They covered the trees so it looked like the trees were alive."

The floods ruined buildings in riverside sections of Canton and Clyde in Haywood County, where many residents still have no permanent homes. Property owners there must submit to the state's bulldozers or apply for a federal loan to rebuild, both processes likely to take anywhere from six months to two years, local officials say.

Yet even as the winds howled and rivulets turned to creeks, creeks to rivers and rivers to raging debris- and soil-laden tides, Extension personnel acted.

In Haywood County, Marna Holland (left), family and consumer sciences agent, and Tim Mathews, agricultural program assistant, turned to Extension's Disaster Notebook for information they delivered to help local citizens recover from flood damage in their county, such as in Clyde (above right).
(Photo Left: Haywood County CES)
(Photo Right: Tim Matthews)
Marna Holland, Extension's Haywood County family and consumer science agent, downloaded Extension science-based disaster-related information developed during previous hurricanes by the College's Communication Services Department. She and Tim Mathews, Extension's agricultural program assistant, delivered invaluable science-based information to Haywood County flood victims.

"In my 11 years as an agent," Holland says, "this was the most appreciative and heartfelt response I have had from clientele, and for me, one of the most rewarding things I have done as an agent, although I hope we never have this opportunity again." 

These photos actually depict the same location: the fields of the Mountain Horticultural Research and Extension Center in Fletcher, flooded by the French Broad River after the hurricanes (left) and, later, when the waters receded (right).
(Photo Left: Anthony Cole)
(Photo Right: Art Latham)
When Frances flooded the area on Tuesday night, Sept.7, Holland compiled packets on disaster recovery and cleanup, which she delivered Wednesday afternoon to the Clyde and Canton disaster headquarters at their fire departments.

Thursday morning, Holland worried that people wouldn't get packets because they would be overwhelmed with cleaning and wouldn't stop by the fire departments. She made more packets that she delivered door-to-door in the Clyde neighborhoods that were flooded on Thursday afternoon. 

Nursery growers in several counties sustained significant short- and long-term impacts from the back-to-back storms. Ready-for-market trees (above left in Caldwell County and right in Avery County) and other plants were damaged or lost as were seedlings for future crops. Farming equipment was also destroyed.
(Photo Left: Craig Adkins)
(Photo Right: Avery County CES)
"I was not able to drive into the area, because law enforcement was keeping people out as much as possible to eliminate looters, gawkers and such," she says. "So I parked in the business section and walked into the residential sections. To give you an idea of how contaminated the area was, the soles of the shoes I wore that day have nearly disintegrated. 

"In most cases that day, I was the first person the flood victims had talked to and I got many, many questions," Holland says. 

Nursery growers in several counties sustained significant short- and long-term impacts from the back-to-back storms. Ready-for-market trees (above left in Caldwell County and right in Avery County) and other plants were damaged or lost as were seedlings for future crops. Farming equipment was also destroyed.
(Photos by Avery County)
On Friday, Mathews volunteered to help take information to homeowners, doubling Extension's street-to-street outreach efforts to more homes in Clyde and the Fiberville community in Canton.

"Again, we were the first people many of the homeowners had talked to," Holland says. "People were understandably very emotional, yet unfailingly polite and appreciative of the information we offered.

"The next Monday, just before Ivan," she says, "I returned to the Clyde neighborhoods and distributed what I called 'Phase 2' packets, with Cooperative Extension publications on insurance, going to the FEMA office, dealing with creditors and contractors and such. Altogether, we hand-delivered about 150 packets to individual homes."

Holland also took 500 copies of "Helping Children Cope with Disaster" to Clyde Elementary School. "I have friends who have children who go there and they came home with copies, so I know it made it to residents," she says. 

And she wrote four articles - on cleaning, dealing with fraud after a disaster, what to do about refrigerated and frozen food after a power outage and helping children cope with stress - and sent them to the county's newspaper, The Mountaineer. 

In addition, she gave WPTL-AM in Canton radio spots from the Cooperative Extension Web site on food safety after power outages and floods. 

Jo Ann Cope, Extension family and consumer education agent in Macon County, which suffered four storm-related deaths, prepared and faxed storm preparation information to the local newspapers and radio stations and took packets by the schools to be sent home with the kids.

After Ivan had devastated the area, she followed up with disaster cleanup information for radio and newspapers.

"The information was widely used, and I was interviewed by the local radio station," Cope reports. "Meanwhile, our office continued to field many disaster-related calls. During this week, we staffed a booth representing the state Agriculture Department and Extension at the community building where FEMA set up operations. We distributed more than 200 sets of publications from this site."

To the northeast, in Avery County, county commissioners in Newland, the county seat, estimated building damages at $1 million during Frances, with 31 condemned after Frances and up to 200 after Ivan. Every primary and secondary road in the county was damaged.

Tres Magner, Extension family and consumer science agent, also downloaded and distributed Extension press releases and public service announcements to Newland's two weekly newspapers - the Avery Post and the Avery Journal - which ran every piece of information Extension provided, Magner says.

"That included articles about what do after the water recedes, with an entire section devoted to Cooperative Extension articles: how to go about clean-up, how to purify water, how to get rid of mold, food safety after power outages, dealing with stress and other important topics," he says.

Newland's radio station, WECR-AM, "was the county's only link to information, because so many people were cut off because of water, mudslides and roads washed away," Magner says. "Jim Greene, our local radio man, said the public service announcements were vital. It really was bad up here. The information helped to put people back in control of a bad situation."

Magner also shared the information at a countywide law enforcement and rescue personnel meeting. "The disaster kit," he says, "was a wonderful tool that helped to take care of an important job: helping people get through two terrible floods." 

Jerry Moody, Cooperative Extension's agriculture agent for Avery County, fears for next spring's planting, when the flood's ultimate impact might be revealed as a seedling shortage.

Some growers lost ready-for-market trees, but most lost seedlings, he says. One of the county's largest seedling producers lost an estimated $1.8 million in plants and equipment, about a half-acre of topsoil and a quarter-acre of land that washed away.

"I worked with the farmers in documenting the damage sustained and directed them to the agencies that could help them," Moody says. "I was able to get a few of the growers connected with some potential grants that may allow them to restart their sites, but this will take time and we will not know if we are successful for at least a few years."

Many nursery growers in Caldwell, Burke and McDowell counties "sustained damage from the back-to-back hurricanes, including plants, equipment and land," says Craig Adkins, Extension area specialized agent in commercial horticulture. "Near Morganton, two sod growers lost their total $1.2 million crop on 220 acres. Some areas actually had new channels cut through.

"Estimated nursery losses could run to $20 million in a $40 million to $50 million industry, based on the number of plants completely submerged twice and in saturated ground for three weeks. But we may not know long-term impacts for two or three years with some plants," he says.

The same ferocious weather that cut new channels through Caldwell nurseries also stressed many Extension water-quality best management practice projects across the area.

"The hurricanes brought so much water into the watershed that they tested Watauga and Avery county water-quality projects to the max," says Wendy Patoprsty, Extension agent for natural resources and environmental educator for Avery County.

"In many areas," she says, "the rivers and streams changed course altogether and created a new channel. Many people lost their bridges and large chunks of land from the power of the water. But Extension's demonstration stream restoration projects held up well here because of the great riparian vegetation that has been planted and allowed to grow. Other areas where vegetation has been cut down had many problems with bank erosion.

"There are years of cleanup ahead," Patoprsty says, "and we're trying to locate money in many different places to help landowners slope back their banks and plant vegetation so we'll be prepared if floods come our way again."

Cliff Ruth, Hendersonville-based Extension area agriculture agent for commercial horticulture, agrees. "About all we can do at this point is to direct people to resources to pay for lost crops," he says. "Any kind of repair is not an option for us at this stage, since we can't afford to do anything until they get their grants."

But, Ruth says, Extension hopes to soon offer classes "on cover cropping or something similar so we can get their land back in shape to resume farming for next year."