Black Mountain provides shelter for evacuees while preparing for Tropical Storm Florence

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News

The rain falls outside of the My Place Inn on Montreat Road in Black Mountain on the afternoon of Sept. 15, as the mountains brace for the arrival of Tropical Storm Florence.

However, the collective mind of a group of seven guests in the living room of the 110-year-old Victorian bed and breakfast, is with what remains in the wake of the storm’s path on the other side of the state.

“I guess we’re all kind of going through the same thing,” said Lasina Frink, who left her home in Whiteville earlier in the week to escape the path of what was then a Category 4 hurricane. “We don’t really know what we’re going back to.”

In the living room of the My Place Inn on Montreat Road, a group of people who fled Hurricane Florence on Sept. 13 and 14 anxiously await to find out when they can return home.

Frink, her niece Haley Price and Price’s children, 3-year-old Wyatt and 10-month-old Naomi, left their homes on Thursday. Columbus County, in which they all live, was directly in the path of the devastating storm.

They were heading for a town in the mountains they didn’t know anything about.

On Sept. 12, Amana Blamowski, the innkeeper at the My Place Inn, created a post on Facebook offering free rooms for anyone seeking the storm. The post was quickly shared over 5,500 times. It wound up appearing on a Facebook group that Price, who lives in Lake Waccamaw, was a member of. With nowhere else to go, they came to Black Mountain to escape the fury of Florence.

My Place Inn owner Frank Cappelli and innkeeper Amanda Blamowski sit on the front porch of the Black Mountain bed and breakfast that offered free rooms for people who were fleeing Hurricane Florence.

“We so appreciate what they’ve done for us here,” Frink said. “I think I would’ve had to try to ride it out at home if it hadn’t been for these people.”

Hurricanes are nothing new to Blamowski. She lost her home to Hurricane Andrew in 1992, when it became the costliest hurricane to hit the state. It was surpassed by Irma last year, and Blamowski was in Islamorada when that storm hit. As she followed the path of Florence, she approached Frank and Emily Cappelli, who own the inn, about offering rooms to people who need them.

“She texted me and asked if we could talk,” Cappelli said. “I already knew what she was thinking.”

Cappelli said he and his wife were happy to agree to Blamowski’s request.

“I know what they’re going through and it sucks,” Blamowski said motioning inside toward the guests who began arriving on Sept. 13.

One of those guests was Susan Jones, who lived in Swannanoa until recently when she moved into a condominium in Wilmington. She had no choice but to fell the coastal town. 

“I haven’t been able to reach anyone there since I left,” she said. “I started to feel the anxiety of really wanting to get back today. I’m anxious to see what we have left.”

Cole English and Lynsie Jones, who fled their home in Chinquapin, feel the same way.

“We’re like 25 minutes from Topsail Beach,” English said. “Obviously it’s really bad there, so we don’t even know what’s happening back home.”

The couple took some livestock that they had to a shelter on higher ground but have been unable to obtain any updates on the condition of the animals. Their dogs are missing as well.

“We’ve never been through anything like this,” English said. “You don’t really know what to do. It's tough.”

Jones was concerned about the potential for flooding along the Cape Fear River.

“That’s only a few miles from our house,” she said. “I don’t think there’s any way to know what will happen (to our home) if the Cape Fear floods.”

While all of them anticipate seeing devastation when they return home, none of the people in the group have any way of knowing just what that will look like.

“I’m just ready to see exactly what everything looks like,” Jones said. “And I’m ready to see what I can do to help clean up.”

But getting there won’t be easy, Frink said.

“I want to go home too,” she said. “But there is no way I can right now.”

The guests will stay at the My Place Inn until Sept. 18, when they’ll try to head back east.

“I just hope and pray we’re able to get home on Tuesday,” Frink said.

As rain from Florence began to fall outside, Cappelli and Blamowski walk down to Flat Creek, a few hundred feet behind the inn. Cappelli recalls where the water level was in May, when Subtropical Storm Alberto dumped heavy rains on the eastern side of Buncombe County the creek to flood.

Public works crews drained Lake Tomahawk throughout the week to prepare for the arrival of Tropical Storm Florence on Sept. 15.

The county declared a state of emergency on Sept. 13 in anticipation of Florence, and the Town of Black Mountain is one of the municipalities contained within the decree.

Even before that the town began preparing for the storm, which was expected to bring a deluge of rain to the Swannanoa Valley.

Black Mountain fire chief Steve Jones was appointed incident commander, as interim town manager Ron Moore went to his native town of Bath to prepare for the arrival of Florence.

Public works crews drained Lake Tomahawk to make room for heavy rain anticipated with the storm, which should begin to impact Black Mountain on the evening of Sept. 15. The City of Asheville released water from the Asheville Watershed throughout the week, Matthews said in an email, and the Mountain Retreat Association lowered the water in Lake Susan as well.

Montreat's Lake Susan sits nearly empty on Sept. 15 as Tropical Storm Florence approaches the Swannanoa Valley.

“Vehicles, equipment and staff are on standby,” Matthews said. “We’re preparing for the worst and praying for the best.”

The worst, according to Black Mountain police chief Shawn Freeman, would be severe flooding and fallen trees.

“We’re encouraging people who live in areas that are prone to flooding to leave those areas,” he said. “If it flooded near your house in May then it’s likely to flood this time as well.”

Swift water rescue units were staged in the Ingles parking lot as of Sept. 15, to respond to local calls.

Weather forecasts show the worst of the Tropical Storm Florence impacting the Swannanoa Valley on Sept. 16.

The town plans to activate an Emergency Operation Center in the training room of the police department if necessary. 

"If this storm progresses to the point where we are becoming overwhelmed as a town we'll open an Emergency Operations Center," Jones said in a statement earlier this week.