FEMA denial of assistance leaves Black Mountain in holding pattern

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News

Saying weather that resulted in mudslides throughout Western North Carolina and flooding that forced Black Mountain residents to evacuate their homes in the final days of May came from “two separate and distinct events,” the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied a request for a major disaster declaration by the State of North Carolina in an Aug. 20 letter.

The decision, which Governor Roy Cooper announced the following day he would appeal, leaves the local community unsure of how to move forward.

The Asheville area was in the final two days of its wettest month since record-keeping began in 1851 when heavy rain forced the National Weather Service to issue a flash flood warning for the eastern part of Buncombe County on May 29. That warning stated that nearly three inches of rain fell between 7 a.m. - 3:15 p.m. and that flooding was imminent. 

That flooding came as relentless rain from subtropical storm Alberto caused the water levels in Flat Creek and the Swannanoa River to breach their banks. Many residents near Flat Creek suffered damage to their property as the normally gentle body of water raged, bringing with it debris that clogged its original path and caused it to divert its course entirely. 

As it did in 2004 when Hurricane Frances caused it to swell, Flat Creek left Black Mountain resident James Lytle's yard under water. His neighbor Rachel Halbert witnessed the damage firsthand. 

The diverted creek completely cut off access to the Lytle’s home and eroded by more than 10 feet the property of their neighbors’ creekside homes. Large rocks settled along the new creekbed, and the channel grew several feet deep in places, said Halbert.

Homeowners on the west side of the creek, where Dan and Carrie Maresh lost much of their backyard, were also severely impacted by the floods. 

Farther south along the creek, where Portman Villa residents were evacuated, the water diverted to engulf yards and claim a portion of the Flat Creek Greenway. 

Water from the Swannanoa River rushed over edge, submerging the baseball fields at Veterans Park under feet of standing water. 

After surveying the damage, town officials declared a state of emergency of May 31, which remained in effect until June 26. 

A response team consisting of N.C. Emergency Management, N.C. Department of Public Safety and FEMA personnel took two trips to the town in June to assess the damage to properties owned by private residents and the town. 

Town staff compiled a list of damaged property and reported 57 private properties having suffered varying degrees of damage from the floods. That list included 43 mobile homes, five businesses, four single family homes, three culverts and a driveway, town clerk Angela Reece said. 

Cooper's original request asked for federal assistance for individuals in 10 counties and public assistance for 13 counties in the region.  

U.S. Congressman Patrick McHenry wrote a letter to Jessica Nalepa, the director of congressional affairs for FEMA, on June 18 asking the organization to take the continuity of the heavy rainfall that occurred earlier in May into consideration when reviewing the governor's request for assistance. 

An email from McHenry's office to the town on Aug. 23, states that he reiterated his concerns to FEMA after learning of the organization's decision to classify the events as separate and distinct. 

"We have asked to be kept advised developments in the appeal preparation," the email said. "The Congressman will contact FEMA in support of the appeal when it is filed."

As the state prepares the evidence for its appeal, Black Mountain officials and local residents will have to wait for answers, Reece said. 

"The town would jeopardize potential funding if repairs begin before the matter is resolved," she said. "There are still a lot of unknowns at this point."

Among the things that town officials do not have answers for at this point is how long the appeal process will take. 

In response to the denial Black Mountain mayor Don Collins expressed gratitude for the efforts of McHenry. 

"The citizens of Black Mountain appreciate any efforts that Congressman McHenry can make on behalf of the Town of Black Mountain and the rest of Western North Carolina as a result of the damage suffered in May of this year from the two rain events that occurred within 10 days of each other."

Molly Horak contributed to this report.