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In the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, it is worth remembering how dreadful other hurricanes have been.

On March 26, 2018, Philip Gerard, a creative writing instructor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, contributed an article to Our State about the Deluge of 1940, which brilliantly documents how that violent storm left a swathe of death and destruction in the mountains.

Reading the article will make you feel as if you were there.

Excerpts follow, emphases mine.

The southeast hurricane barrels into Beaufort, South Carolina, on August 11, 1940, as a Category 2 storm with sustained winds of 85 miles per hour. It moves inland into Georgia, then unpredictably hooks north along the Appalachians and churns into North Carolina from the west, bringing five days of unrelenting rainfall.

The hurricane is the latest in a series of storms that have already dumped more than 21 inches of rain on the mountain region during the month of August. Downtown Boone is submerged in muddy water after eight inches of rain fall in just 48 hours. Elsewhere, the water comes all at once in torrents.

Just east of Boone, and southeast of Deep Gap and the partially completed Blue Ridge Parkway, water is sluicing down steep mountainsides into the two prongs of Stony Fork Creek — toward the home of Zeb Greene, one of many Greenes living in the small, scattered community of Stony Fork. Here, houses perch on stone foundations, often with small gristmills along creeks in the low, flat ground between hills. Zeb’s two-story wooden house was built by his father, David, in the 1850s on a foundation of chestnut logs laid on creek and pasture rocks. Zeb’s brother Elster lives within hailing distance.

At home with Zeb are other relatives who are stranded there by the rising creek as night falls: Worth and Lucy Greene and their 1½-year-old daughter, Betty, and Lucy’s first cousin Nina Todd, 15. Just last night, Nina harmonized with her cousin Beulah Greene, singing the hymn “I Would Rather Have Jesus” at the Stony Fork revival, which was cut short because of the violent storms.

The howling early darkness is split by eerie flashes of lightning along the course of the flood and a weird, low, electric light. And over the slamming rush of the rain can be heard another sound: a rumble like thunder, first erupting in punctuated bursts, then sustained in a long, trembling roar. It is the sound of mountainsides falling — great landslides hundreds of feet wide, the overburden of soil saturated by continuous rain and loosened by the big timber outfits that have clear-cut the old-growth forest, whose roots once held soil to bedrock. Now the ridges break away in massive avalanches of earth, rock, and timber weighing thousands of tons and moving at speeds up to 40 miles per hour.

Because the slides erupt out of the darkness, their victims can’t see them coming; they can only hear the earth-shaking roar when it’s too late.

The ensuing destruction isolated many communities:

In southeastern Watauga County alone, more than 600 landslides sweep down into creeks and across roadways, burying houses and other buildings, destroying railroad tracks, cutting off entire communities from the outside world, and killing 12 people. As many as 200 more slides descend on southern and central Watauga.

The aforementioned Nina Todd died, along with Zeb Greene:

The onrushing wall of water catches the three by surprise, and carries away Zeb and Nina. From his front porch, Elster Greene can hear his brother’s panicked cries, but he is powerless to rescue him

the baby, Betty … is reminded of that calamitous night her whole life. She recalls, “Mama felt guilty the rest of her life that Nina, her first cousin, died, because she and Daddy had gone to get Nina to come sing at the revival at Stony Fork Baptist Church.”

Nina Todd’s body is found, half-buried in river mud and sand, more than 20 miles away, not far from Zeb’s body — both carried clear across the Yadkin River by the force of the flood. She is identified by the belt she was known to be wearing and her wristwatch.

Philip Gerard’s article documents other families’ death and suffering during the Deluge of 1940. It concludes:

The disaster goes down in history as the Great Flood of 1940, but it’s really many floods: of the Watauga, Yadkin, Little Tennessee, Tuckasegee, New, and French Broad rivers. Of Stony Fork Creek and Linville Creek and Swift Ford Branch and a hundred other creeks in Watauga, Ashe, Wilkes, Haywood, Caldwell, and other mountain counties.

It is a great deluge not just of water, but also of earth, as if the mountains themselves are dissolving into a cold lava clotted with boulders and stumps and green trees and the wooden bones of broken barns and houses — and too many bodies of innocents caught unawares in the dark of night, carried off from their homes by this rampaging creature of storms, this devastating legacy of clear-cut mountainsides, this nightmare come true.

Those of us who do not live in these storm-prone regions often do not realise how terrifyingly powerful and deadly these natural disasters are.


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