Gaston flood waters recede after community sandbagging

jdepriest@charlotteobserver.comJuly 29, 2013 

Flood waters slowly receded Monday afternoon along the South Fork Catawba River, after the highest river levels in more than 40 years caused widespread flooding in Gaston County.

Meanwhile, officials farther to the north and west in Catawba, Cleveland and Lincoln counties continued cleaning up and assessing the damage from torrential rainfall of more than 12 inches in some place Saturday.

The heavy rain and flooding led to the deaths of two Charlotte residents who drowned in the rapid current of a Caldwell County stream Saturday evening.

Officials in Cramerton, scene of the worst Gaston County flooding along the river, said a community-wide sandbagging effort by volunteers appeared to prevent serious damage. Water levels began dropping around sunrise, but authorities said it will be late Monday evening before the South Fork drops below flood stage.

“A little crisis brings people closer together,” Cramerton Mayor Ronnie Worley said Monday morning, after the river’s waters had reached the foundations of buildings in the downtown district.

Problems continue to develop, however. Late Monday morning, a boat house broke loose on the river and floated against the Lower Armstrong Bridge, on N.C. 73 (Armstrong Road) south of Belmont. Authorities at the scene, near Daniel Stowe Botanical Gardens, were trying to determine if the bridge had suffered any structural damage.

Up in Catawba County, officials continued surveying the flood impact and said the torrential rain had caused major damage to nearly 20 buildings and had left dozens of roads closed.

Landslides and washed-out roads also were caused in parts of Wilkes, Watauga, Alexander and Iredell counties by the heavy rain.

The good news is that meteorologists expect dry weather for the next two days, allowing crews to clean some of the mess left by rainfall that exceeded 12 inches in some places. Another round of showers and thunderstorms is forecast Wednesday and Thursday, however.

The National Weather Service office in Greenville-Spartanburg said the South Fork Catawba River crested at about 17.3 feet at 4:45 a.m. Monday near Lowell – more than 7 feet above flood stage. That is the third-highest crest in river history at that location, surpassed only by levels of 21.3 feet in August 1940 and 17.38 feet in August 1970.

By 10:15 a.m., the river had fallen to 15.8 feet, according to the Weather Service’s Pat Tanner. The South Fork is expected to drop below flood stage about 8 p.m. Monday.

The focus of attention Sunday night and Monday was on Gaston County, which felt the impact of high water which flowed down the South Fork Catawba River from its headwaters in western Catawba County.

A community effort

It appears as if several communities rallied to help towns along the river.

Worley, Cramerton’s mayor, said the community and neighboring towns like Belmont and Gastonia came together Sunday night to fill sandbags, in an effort to keep river water at bay.

The work began about 8 p.m. on Eighth Avenue, a main road through Cramerton’s business district, and focused on the fire department, Cramerton Drug, and Floyd & Blackie’s Coffee Shop.

At its peak, more than 100 people stood in rising water that eventually got waist-high, filling sandbags. Officials say they went through five dump truck loads of sand.

But the South Fork rose relentlessly, and the effort was called off about 1 a.m.

“I can’t say enough about the people – young and old alike – who came out to help,” said Worley, who was interviewed Monday morning on NBC’s “Today” and by the Weather Channel. “It makes you feel good to be in a small, close-knit town.”

While some water seeped into the fire department, sandbags “kept the majority of the water out,” he said. “We did what we had to do and hopefully in a few days we’ll be back to normal.”

Worley said there had been no mandatory evacuations, but the town had recommended some people to leave their residences based on estimated rise of the water. Water might have seeped into some crawlspaces or damaged outside air conditioning units, he said. No injuries were reported.

Greg Ramsey, owner of Floyd & Blackie’s Coffee Shop, said he joined the sandbagging effort Sunday.

“Man, we went at it,” he said. “I was really impressed by the community effort.”

As he assessed the business Monday morning, it appeared “that we made it.”

Ramsey said that while a tremendous amount of water caused the flooding, he thinks a study needs to be done about cleaning up sediment in the South Fork River.

Also assessing damages Monday was Preston Guy, an owner of Cramerton Drug. Some water got in, apparently through the foundation, but “it was not measurable,” Guy said.

He called the sandbags “a great community effort” that definitely helped protect his business.

Cramerton Town Manager Michael Peoples said the town was monitoring the Riverside community and assessing damage around town.

Sunday flooding

Flooding also was reported farther to the north, in McAdenville. Portions of Lakeview Drive were reported to be under water Monday morning.

The American Red Cross said it was able to close shelters it had opened Saturday in Catawba and Lincoln counties.

More than 12 inches of rain fell Saturday morning in the South Fork Catawba River’s headwaters, in the Mountain View area of Catawba County. That rainfall washed out dozens of roads and led to the deaths of two Charlotte residents who drowned while swimming in a Caldwell County creek Saturday evening.

As the high water moved down the South Fork on Sunday, it caused major flooding in Lincoln County.

Lincoln County authorities rescued two men late Sunday evening after their boat overturned in high water near Betty Ross Park in southwest Lincolnton. Flood waters covered much of the park Sunday.

The South Fork Catawba River was estimated to be about 12 feet above flood stage Sunday near Long Shoals in Lincoln County, as it flooded the area not far from Briar Creek Golf Course.

Lincolnton resident Tom Kulczyk was awakened just after midnight Sunday to his dogs barking at the rising waters of the South Fork River behind his house.

He went to sit outside in the darkness to observe the floods, which he said have been the worst he’s seen in years.

“It was pretty eerie sitting out in the dark near the river listening to all the cracking and crashing of the trees,” he said. “We lost eight trees at least. They’re gone. Swept right away.”

Kulczyk said that while his property did not sustain any damage, a service road behind his house flooded for the first time in the five years he’s lived there.

Catawba damage

Evidence of the flood could be seen in sand traps at Rock Barn Golf & Spa, a Conover golf course that hosts a number of tournaments each year. Golfers reported some sand traps contained dead fish that had been washed onto the course when nearby streams overflowed Saturday morning.

The Weather Service estimates between 8 and 13 inches of rain fell between 4 a.m. and noon Saturday, with most of that coming in a four-hour period.

Catawba County emergency management officials said Monday that 18 buildings had suffered major damage – 11 residential and seven business. They said 25 roads in the county, including nine inside the Hickory city limits, were closed by flood damage.

A sinkhole developed Monday in the Tarlton parking lot on the Catawba Valley Community College campus in Hickory. The lot was closed.

Road closures include N.C. 10 near Newton, where Clarks Creek washed out a section of road. The N.C. Department of Transportation is working to determine when that road will be reopened. Jacob Ford Park and Heritage Trail Greenway in Catawba County remained closed.

The county and the cities of Hickory and Newton – where dozens of streets were underwater Saturday afternoon – were among the communities that declared local emergencies as a precursor to seeking state and federal aid, assistant county emergency services director Mark Petit said.

Catawba County road closings:

(these are some of the closings, reported as of late Monday)

4th Street SW

46th Avenue Drive NE

Finger Bridge Road

Grace Church Road

Johnson Road

Lynn Mountain Road

Mull Road

Old Farm Drive SE

Pinecrest Drive NE

Rocky Ford Road

Sigmon Dairy Road

Snow Branch Road NE

Lyttle: 704-358-6107. Twitter: @slyttle

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