Floods commit unpredictable acts of violence and renewal
by Rob Neufeld
The local story of 18-year-old Kathleen Lipe’s survival of the 1916 flood, as her father and others had been swept away, speaks of the awful power of the French Broad River and its tributaries. In Biltmore, water had risen fifteen feet in one hour.
On May 28, 1973, David Wayne Woody stepped out of his home in Fowler’s Trailer Park in Skyland and saw Robertson Creek rising. As a precaution, he took his two-year old son, Christopher, by the hand; and his nine-month old daughter, Shannon, in his arms to seek refuge in Clay Ledford’s brick house.
On the way, Woody looked back and saw a four-foot high tidal wave heading toward him. Apparently, a dam constructed on the Brookwood Golf Course had given way. Woody hurried his family into Jason Roberts’ trailer, but there was no safety there. The water tumbled and shoved the trailer for a mile, splitting it in half; and killing the inhabitants. Woody’s own trailer remained unmoved.
Brief history of floods
The flood of 1916 is the worst on record in western North Carolina, but that is only for a specific area. The flood of August 30, 1940 was the worst one to ever pass through Canton and Enka, local residents recall.
A.J. L. Moritz, technical vice president of American Enka, stated, “in Hominy Valley the water came considerably higher than during any previously known flood in a history of over one hundred years.”
Moritz proudly reported in the October 1940 issue of “The Enka Voice” that after the flood inundated the rayon factory’s basements and ground floors, employees got the operation going full throttle in two weeks. “Close to a thousand machines had to be taken apart, cleaned, and again put in working order. All equipment, like spools, racks, etc., had to be individually cleaned.”
Tragic deaths and heroic rescues are only part of the story of floods. Damage to railroads, bridges, and industries; scattered lumber; broken water mains and threatened water supplies; displaced residents; mud slides; and ruined crops also figure in the periodical outbursts.
And then there are the freakish and comical outcomes.
Hankie Enkie Sr. penned a humorous reflection on the 1940 flood in “The Enka Voice” in which Moritz’s morale booster had appeared. He reported that employees played a game of “pinch-and-run” with items that had floated out of people’s offices. “Personally,” he noted, “I found me three pairs of good socks among Mr. (C. C.) Vanderhooven’s (the company president’s) collection of unmentionables with which he dazzles his monthly audiences in the gym.”
Societal reactions to floods vary. Before industrialization, floods did less damage and restored the soil for crops. In our urban world, insurance companies step in—as they did in January 1974 with the passage of a federal law requiring municipalities to enforce flood plain management if they wanted to receive other benefits, such as mortgages for public buildings.
Big floods in WNC history
Fourth week of August, 1796
The first decade of the 1800s—changing course of Swannanoa River in Beverly Hills
August 28, 1852
February 22, 1891
May 20, 1901—particularly the French Broad River in Madison and Buncombe counties
July 11, 1905—French Broad River and Hominy Creek
July 16, 1916—French Broad and Swannanoa Rivers
August 15, 1928—east Buncombe and McDowell County
August 30, 1940—Haywood County, west Buncombe, Marshall, and Tuckaseegee River
August 14, 1946—east Buncombe, McDowell County, and Canton
May 28, 1973—Haywood County, south Buncombe, and Hiwassee River
September 8 and 17, 2004—Haywood County
Three men stand in the doorway of Carolina Power & Light’s Avery Street station Company during the flood of August 15, 1928. Photo courtesy N.C. Collection, Pack Memorial Library