Writing about the weather is usually about as exciting as a yawn. For 12 months, though, we in the mountains have been taking it on the chin time and again, and it’s got me wishing for a bit of a reprieve.
The mudslide that tore down Rich Cove in Maggie Valley Friday night is a solemn reminder of just how powerful the forces of nature can be — especially after we have come in and changed the original lay of the land. We’ll leave it to the attorneys to find out if any entity is liable for this slide and its damage, but I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by predicting that there are almost certainly more slides in our future over the next few months. When we have snow and rain like we have in the last 12 months, disturbed mountaintops with cuts and roads and houses won’t hold.
What makes this recent slide so disturbing, though, is the damage it could have caused. At least four or five houses are deemed too dangerous for residents to return to, and a couple of dozen others were very close. That no lives were lost is a minor miracle.
It also came on the heels of so many other large slides. One in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is being cleaned up now; another huge slide in October on Interstate 40 is stopping tourists from coming our way and it was followed by a smaller rockslide close to Harmon Den on the interstate; and several other smaller slides are disrupting lives throughout our region. Over the last few years, lives have been lost in Peeks Creek in Macon County and in Maggie Valley due to slides destroying homes.
I recall about 15 years ago when I was the editor of The Mountaineer and tourism officials started touting the fact that Haywood County was the most mountainous county east of the Rockies. Depending on who claims some of the mountains in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there are at least 14 peaks in Haywood over 6,000 feet. The mountainous slogan bodes well for attracting tourists, but we have to live with the destructive reality of the terrain in this place we call home. For many there’s probably a feeling of helplessness creeping in. Where, and how bad, will the next one be?
There’s little doubt that the rockslides are related to this wet, cold winter. I’ve lived in these mountains 17 consecutive winters, and prior to that spent another five winters in the Boone-Blowing Rock area. I’ve not seen the kind of snow we’ve had this year in all 23 of those winters. We’ve had bigger snowfalls in previous years, but at my house we’ve had snow on the ground since Dec. 18, barring two days when I could see all the grass in my yard. Even if you live on a north face at over 3,000 feet, this is just craziness for the southern mountains.
And they’re calling for more. I fondly remember the jokes about how many times Bob Caldwell, the former well-known weatherman for WLOS, said it was going to snow and it didn’t. So far this year, when they say snow, they mean it.
This crazy winter didn’t come out of nowhere. Since last winter, the rain has been coming down. All spring and summer, my son couldn’t stop equating the constant rains with the potential for a snowy winter and lots of great snowboarding and canceled school. Looks like he was right.
But the rains were welcome. We had been in a severe drought and aquifers were drying up. Just like the landslides, some said it wasn’t just the lack of rain contributing to the groundwater shortages in the mountains. Many said all the wells we were sinking into the mountainsides, coupled with the drought, were setting us up for a severe water shortage. And back during the 2004 floods, many said the prevalence of paved surfaces where the water could not drain multiplied the destructive power of the flood and rain waters.
The rains came so fast and so hard this year that we were out of the drought by summer. The wet weather has carried on, both rain and snow. And so we have the most recent disaster at Rich Cove, with many worried about more of the same. It’s not quite man vs. nature, but the two working out of sync with each other in these mountains make for a volatile, sometimes frightening, mix.