‘We just held on’ : A year after historic flood, Cruso family is still rebuilding
Handing an old red bandana back and forth to wipe away the tears emerging from their eyes, Wendy and Chuck Rector sit in two plastic Adirondack chairs on what was once a pristine property — a dream home of sorts, truth be told.
“People say to us, ‘Why don’t you just sell the land and get out of there?’” Wendy said. “But, this is our home. Our kids grew up here. We have wonderful memories here. Anybody who knows me, knows that I love that river — I’m in it every single day.”
Consisting of three acres along the Pigeon River, the Rectors home is a stone’s throw from nearby U.S. 276, just over the bridge on Burnette Cove Road in the small, tightly-knit Haywood County mountain community of Cruso.
“Everything that we had on this property was something we worked for, for over the last 30 years we’ve been together — this was our little slice of paradise,” Wendy said, gazing over at Chuck.
The Rectors have lived on the property for the last 17 years. Wendy is a registered nurse at Haywood Regional Medical Center in Clyde. Chuck owns a welding business. The couple is well-known and regarded in the area, with Wendy calling Cruso home her whole life. Together, they’ve raised three children on Burnette Cove — Madalyn, Chase and Chance.
Before Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021, the Rectors would start and end their days with the soothing sounds of the Pigeon River. On the property was a picturesque home, a large garage full of welding gear and work vehicles, a gazebo, hammock, fire pit, and other signs of your atypical mountain abode.
There was also a kennel for the family’s four frolicking Labradors and two perfectly restored classic cars — a 1968 Plymouth GTX 400 and 1970 Chevrolet Nova Super Sport, the latter Chuck first acquired in high school.
But, on Aug. 17, 2021, the daily reality of the Rectors was forever shattered and permanently shifted, both physically and emotionally. As Tropical Storm Fred roared into Western North Carolina that afternoon, over 14 inches of rain fell upon the mountain ridges surrounding the communities of Cruso and Bethel, the incessant water rolling down into streams and creeks along U.S. 276, ultimately dumping into the Pigeon River.
“It was about three o’clock in the afternoon when the boys started calling me,” Wendy recalled with slight pause in her voice before continuing. “Chase was headed home from work and Chance was leaving [Pisgah High School]. They asked if we wanted them to check on everything. At that time, we weren’t super worried — the river has risen several times over the years.”
Wendy told her sons to grab the patio furniture near the river. But, a minute later, they called back to say the furniture and the gazebo were already swept into the river. By the time Wendy and Chuck arrived, the water had breached the riverbank and was spilling across U.S. 276.
“By 4:30 or 4:45 p.m. the water was cresting the [Burnette Cove] bridge. We have marks on this tree here 10 feet high from debris in the flood hitting it,” Chuck said, pointing to scars in the large tree providing shade over the Adirondack chairs. “At that point, we decided to see what we could get out of the house as quick as we could. Our neighbors were already running down to help us.”
Folks from Burnette Cove were backing up trucks to the house in an effort to save whatever they could of the Rectors possessions. For Wendy, it was a race against time to retrieve the most important of items — family records and cherished photographs.
“I mean, what do you even think to grab in a moment like that?” Wendy said. “Everything was just happening so fast, where you enter this fight-or-flight mode of survival. Seconds feel like minutes and everything is chaotic in that adrenaline rush of trying to do what you can to survive.”
As the Rectors took whatever they could before vacating the house, the river had come through the front door and was now in the living room. Heading for higher ground — with a trash bag of possessions in one hand, a dog collar and canine in the other — Wendy left the house and made her way to the road.
With the water now knee deep on the property, a piece of debris hit Wendy, knocking her down. She let go of the trash bag and the dog and was quickly pushed across the lawn in the swift current. In a scene of pure desperation, she reached for whatever she could to stop her from flying into the river, which just so happened to be a small branch on a Bradford pear tree.
“What’s really crazy? A few days before the flood, I was mowing the lawn and that branch hit me in the face. I told Wendy I was going to cut it down. But, for some reason, I forgot to do so,” Chuck said, shaking his head in awe of the ways and means of fate in this universe. “If she hadn’t grabbed that branch, she’d had been swept down the river and who knows what would have happened to her.”
But, Wendy did grab the branch, this slim piece of a tree not much wider than a billiard cue to play pool with. As she held on for dear life, Chuck dove in after her, grabbing onto the branch and helping push her up to the trunk of the tree. Immediately after, Chase jumped in, with the trio now anchored in the tree, simply waiting for the rising water to recede.
“Chase is tall enough to where he’s kind of leaning towards me into the current, and holding my legs, because I could not get my legs back on the ground,” Wendy reminisced. “And it was right then when this young lady — seemingly coming out of nowhere in the river — grabbed my arm.”
The anonymous woman was a friend of one of the Rectors neighbors on Burnette Cove. She was visiting the area, by chance, and had helped the Rectors in the scramble to grab anything worth saving in the floodwaters. Like Wendy, the woman got swept away by the river current and now found herself in a tree with the Rectors.
Soon, a friend of Chase’s tried to assist, only to also get stuck in the tree. Five human beings hanging on in a battle between life and death, the eternal struggle of man versus nature. A handful of neighbors, a fireman and a highway patrol officer were now trying to get a rope tossed towards the tree.
“You could see people talking to you and yelling at you from the riverbank. But, you can’t hear what they’re saying — the water was so loud and deafening,” Wendy said. “And, the water kept going over my head, where all I could hear was the rocks below me smashing into each other in the river — it was a horrible sound that I’ll never forget.”
“They kept throwing the retrieval rope at us. I’m thinking, ‘Well, I hope they got this rope tied off,’ because there’s over 700 pounds on this one line right now,” Chuck added. “And that’s when the big surge happened.”
The “big surge” of water, the result of an enormous mudslide way up stream near the Cruso Community Center. The slide crashed into the Pigeon, causing the river to explode, ultimately busting open all of the debris that had collected and caused a dam-like scenario by that time — an estimated wall of water some 20 feet high or more rocketing through Cruso and Bethel.
“It was very surreal. I did start feeling like we might die in this,” Wendy said. “And I looked over and saw Chance screaming for us [on the riverbank]. I just kept thinking, ‘Don’t let his family die in front of him. Lord, don’t let him see us die.’”
- The boulders and rocks pushed by the flood of 2021 into what was once the front lawn of the Rectors. (Garret K. Woodward photos)
With the retrieval rope now in Chuck’s hand, the quintet grabbed onto it tightly, slowly swinging themselves towards the riverbank. If any one of them let go, they’d be swept towards the bridge and shot downstream, most likely to their deaths with the suction of the water under the bridge and amount of large debris ricocheting from side to side in the violent waters.
“It all happened so abruptly, with the worst part that last surge of water,” Chuck said. “But, we somehow made it to the riverbank. By the time we got out and walked back up the road, you could see the water receding — it was like someone pulled the plug in a bathtub.”
Covered in bruises and shaking from the adrenaline rush — and also being in shock from the traumatic experience — the Rectors circled back to what was once their beloved home and extended property.
The landscape before them looked like a warzone. The dream house was decimated. The garage full of gear and work vehicles completely gone. The formerly lush, green lawn now covered in countless boulders and big rocks. The 1968 Plymouth GTX 400 was dented all to hell from the rocks and debris hitting it relentlessly, with the 1970 Chevrolet Nova Super Sport now wrapped around a tree (where it still resides to this day).
“But, we were alive. We survived. Our family and all four of our dogs made it out of the flood,” Wendy said. “We left and spent the night at [my father-in-law’s] house. Of course, we couldn’t sleep — how could you after something like that?”
Returning to Burnette Cove the next morning, the long, arduous road to not only rebuilding their lives, but also a return to some semblance of normalcy, was now facing the Rectors. Where do you even begin to the pick up the pieces? Who do you call? What do you do in a time like this? How could this have happened?
“What really stuck out to me that first day back was everyone in Cruso helping each other out,” Chuck said. “I remember we had neighbors showing up with no shoes and just their underwear on, just trying to help us. And our kids, they left to help other folks down the road who were as devastated as we were.”
Now that the total size and scope of the Pigeon River flood came into focus, so did the cleanup efforts and process to receive possible funding to start over again. Although the Rectors didn’t have flood insurance, they do think it may have been a blessing in disguise, seeing as, according to them, sometimes the insurance can negate any efforts to garner federal funding and assistance.
“It’s been a lot of red tape over the last year,” Wendy said. “A lot of phone calls and endless research, piles of paperwork and countless hours trying to get assistance and file claims — it’s been like a full-time job on top of my full-time job.”
And if things couldn’t possibly get any worse, Wendy’s father fell gravely ill with COVID in Georgia right after the flood. Wendy left for Georgia on Aug. 29 to be at his bedside in the hospital.
Before his untimely passing on Sept. 16, Wendy sat in the hospital, clicking the refresh button on the government websites, hoping for the day when her community would be declared a federal disaster area and she could proceed with filing her claims — that wait took 21 days.
“We didn’t have power and we didn’t have internet. We didn’t have any way to do things,” Wendy said. “But, we kept hoping for that federal declaration. We spent all this time trying to get our paperwork in order. And yet, I kept thinking about the older people around here going through the same thing — who was helping them?”
Since last October, the Rectors have been living in a camper RV a few yards away from the bombed-out rubble pit that used to be their brick-and-mortar house. It’s a cramped space for the family, with their “kitchen” being a folding table and grill underneath a tarp attached to a tree outside.
In terms of assistance, the Rectors received a less-than-desirable check from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), ultimately a drop in the bucket with what’s needed to properly rebuild. There was also a Small Business Administration (SBA) loan obtained, with several additional avenues being continually explored for funding.
- With the home destroyed by the flood, the Rectors have been living in a camper RV since last October.
But, all-in-all, the road to recovery remains ongoing, even with other donations from several community organizations and local churches. The Rectors are frustrated, even almost a year after the flood, and for good reason. With heads held high, the couple is steadfast in finding solid footing in this new, unknown chapter of their existence.
“We’re fighting battles all the time. Battles over housing permits, permits for the trailer behind us here,” Chuck said, gesturing to the new mobile home behind the camper. “We’re not giving up. This is our home and we’re going to keep fighting.”
In an extremely generous gift, the Biltmore Church donated the mobile home to the Rectors. As of press time, the family has yet to enter the trailer. Although the electric had been hooked up, a few final inspections needed before they can move in for the foreseeable future.
“I keep saying the trailer is a mirage,” Chuck said. “We see it every time we walk outside, but we can’t live in it yet.”
Walking the Rectors’ property, the couple points out the ruins of what once was. They wander over to the rubble pit and talk in a humbled tone about their former dream house. Kicking around some of the rubble, Chuck picks up a muddy souvenir cup from a long-forgotten craft beer festival years ago in Canton, then finds a DVD of one of their kids’ favorite films under more dirt. Plans are already in the works to rebuild their dream house, with the foundation of the structure being the rocks flung onto the front lawn from the Pigeon.
Making their way to the river, the Rectors carefully traverse the boulder field along the tranquil waters. The river is calm and consistent, at least for now, and in this moment — that mesmerizing sound of nature in motion in the mountains of Western North Carolina.
“You know, for a few months after the flood, the sound of the river, and whenever it would rain, would give me anxiety,” Wendy said. “But, this spring, I got into the river in April. It’s the earliest I’ve ever sat in the water. It was so cold, but I just had to get in the river as soon as I could. I had to put my ears under the water and listen — I had to make peace with what happened.”