Conditions are quickly deteriorating along the North Carolina coast as Hurricane Florence churns closer. USA TODAY



ASHEVILLE — Anthony Coggiola experienced his first hurricane, Camille, when he was 7 years old. It left the former military man with a sort of fascination with strong storms, and likely influenced his future as a first responder.

He's worked as an officer with the National Guard. He specializes in post-disaster agricultural recovery, and is still assisting with recovery from Hurricane Matthew.

He's also a co-owner of a California-Mexican restaurant, the Cantina at Historic Biltmore and one of the founders of Historic Biltmore Village merchants association.

Now, in advance of Hurricane Florence, which could send flooding to the area, he's busily making sure the cluster of merchants, hotels and restaurants around his business suffer little impact. 

"It's easier to save a village than a country, and I've tried them both," he said Thursday.

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Biltmore Village has learned from other floods

Biltmore Village has many times filled with floodwaters when heavy rainfall hits the city.

In 2004, the remnants of hurricanes Ivan and Frances walloped the region with rainfall totals that could be measured in feet, leading to catastrophic flooding in the area, and particularly overwhelming Biltmore Village. 

Over the past week, Asheville's Public Works Stormwater and Streets Division crews have worked to clear drains of debris throughout the city, and small bursts of water have been released from the North Fork Reservoir to mitigate downstream impacts in the event of flooding. 

And Biltmore Village merchants and stakeholders have taken action.

Coggiola said the Biltmore Village association has attended scores of city meetings and communicated with storm water crews and other city contacts to help convey merchant needs and coordinate pre-storm efforts.

"If you fail to plan, then you should plan to fail," Coggiola said. "And we're out of that mode."

Learning to live in a flood plain

Thursday, Robert Foster, director of hotel operations for Biltmore Farms and chairman of the Historic Biltmore Village Association, had employees at DoubleTree by Hilton Asheville-Biltmore filling sandbags to distribute to merchants. Some, like Coggiola, stopped by to fill their own.

The Leicester-based Total Lawn Care had donated a pile of sand, depositing it and enough bags to make 200, 40-pound sandbags, behind the hotel.

Foster said the Village has learned the value of preventative medicine. "And the city has been phenomenal in connecting with us, putting a plan together and communicating," he said. 

But some seemingly small details — like finding sandbags when area hardware stores seem to be in short supply — have eluded them during past flooding events.

The recovery time in the Village has grown substantially since the 2004 storms. "There's a huge difference. A lot of it is the city, what they've been doing with flood control. And the other parts is the merchants and the association putting a plan together with the city."

It's particularly important since so many are fleeing Florence and headed to Asheville.

Foster said his hotel lost nearly all of its tourist and World Equestrian Games traffic, but all rooms swiftly filled with evacuees from the coast as well as emergency services.

And if the storm gets out of hand, with mudslides and flooding likely throughout the region, local response teams will be spread thin.

On a particularly high piece of ground south of Biltmore Village, the DoubleTree has never been hit directly with flooding. Foster's efforts were purely for other merchants. 

"This is the way a community should function," he said. "We come together, take care of ourselves, communicate with the city, and NCDOT and do everything we can to protect property and lives. We also need to give these small businesses owners help. If they're down too long, there's a risk of losing their business."

"Lord willing and the creek don't rise"

Coggiola noted volunteer response teams like Louisiana's Cajun Navy, which assisted in swiftwater rescue operations during Katrina, Harvey and 2016 flooding. He said similar on-the-ground community efforts should be "more in vogue."   

"Rather than file a report and wait for a FEMA check, local coordination is a formula that's more likely to get better results sooner, and help us recover quicker." 

Coggiola helped found the merchants association with the goal to knit together Biltmore Village stakeholders as allies.

Working together during storms, he said, is crucial. "We need to stay open. These are people's jobs."

Coggiola planned to sleep in the apartments over the Cantina in the coming days. He'll be a point person, identifying critical low points on the banks of the Swannanoa River if it threatens to overflow. 

Ground crews will stage their gear on the patio of the Cantina and behind Lululemon. The DoubleTree will act as sort of a command center. 

"Then we wait and move in and respond as the situation (requires). We will collectively work problems out as they come up." 

And if the storm fizzles? "Lord willing and the creek don't rise," he laughed. 

"It's better to have thought about it and have it. Might there be maybe too much prep as far as staging gear? Sure. That'd be ideal. But you don't want to be in the middle of a storm and suddenly need those things."


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