Politics aside, we are divided by nature. We have seen this year the damages and disruptions wrought by the extremes of nature, both deluge and drought, from the flooding caused by Hurricane Matthew and the forest fires burning throughout the perilously dry Southern Appalachians. Such calamities divide us immediately into two groups: those in need and those willing to help.
One hundred years ago, in the summer of 1916, the need was as great as ever in our own backyard. Western North Carolina was devastated by colossal flooding created by the convergence of two tropical systems. On July 15 and 16, 1916, torrential rains poured down over five Southern states; but, none suffered more than North Carolina. Eighteen inches of rain fell in 12 hours in some spots.
“Rainfall so heavy one could see only a few yards,” one victim reported. The damage was the worst on the Catawba and the French Broad rivers, to our southwest, but the Yadkin River did not escape the impact. Near its headwaters in the Blue Ridge Mountains, 22 inches fell in 24 hours, the highest recorded rainfall in state history.
During the next week, an image of the destruction emerged on the pages of the Winston-Salem Journal as citizens cut off from communications made their way out of the devastation to tell their stories. The headlines alone painted a grim picture: “Three Bridges on Yadkin West Of City Destroyed”; “Ten of 14 Marooned Railroad Men Still Missing”; “All Electric Power Cut Off”; “Flood’s Toll Reaches 63: Grave Fears Felt for Others.”
Reports soon followed of destruction in Wilkes, Ashe, Caldwell and Watauga counties. “In all the valleys and coves the destruction is almost complete. In some sections, the people have been living on potatoes and branch water since Sunday.”
The railroad at Grandin was obliterated. “The two engines are standing in the Yadkin River and two coaches are lodged in a sea of mud.” “Horseback riders tell of homes washed out on Roaring River, a score on the Yadkin, 19 on Reddies River, 17 on Mulberry Creek …” One report astoundingly declared, “One man’s whole farm, which covered a beautiful mountain side became so completely saturated with water that it slid down the mountain and is now on another man’s premises. … Where the cattle used to craze, there is left nothing but bare stones.”
“Small creeks and branches became great, angry torrents in a few hours … and swept everything before them. Great boulders and masses of earth lost their grip on the mountain sides and crashed to the valleys below sometimes carrying residences and other buildings before them and sometimes completely burying a house, leaving no trace of the house behind.”
The crops which fed and sustained these farmers were destroyed.