WEST JEFFERSON-Hurricanes aren’t suppose to make it this far inland.
The mountains normally serve as a natural barrier against these titans of destruction.
That was, of course, before Hurricane Hugo.
Although the mountains have previously served as a final resting place for the remnants of tropical storms and depressions, the High Country had not experienced sheering winds and cataclysmic flooding of such magnitude in decades, if ever.
Then came Sept. 22, 1989.
Hurricane Hugo arrived in Ashe County at 9 a.m. with sustained well over 60 miles per hour.
The following excerpts are witness accounts and reflections from students in the Northwest Ashe High School newspaper – Mountaineer Heritage – along with accounts from the archives of the Jefferson Post.
Roof Moves From House to Car
Sept. 25, 1989 edition of the Post
Hilda Williams had no idea she would find herself in the middle of a hurricane when she came to visit her sister. After all, she had been in a typhoon and hurricane in Florida, and these storms aren’t suppose to hit the mountains of North Carolina.
But Williams survived the ordeal including the roof blowing off the house with good humor and praises for the county’s emergency personnel.
Williams, who lives in Ft. Myers, Fla, was visiting her sister and brother-in-law, Ann and Herbert Foltz, who have a summer home in Beaver Creek estates, off Mulatto Mountain Road.
Herbert was up at 3 a.m., she said, sweeping water out of the house, but she went back to sleep thinking she’d just be in the way if she got up and tried to help. She has an artificial leg, and getting up and down at night isn’t easy.
“I got up around 8:30 a.m. and after breakfast, and all the windows were leaking,” she said. “Around nine, one hard gust of wind took the roof off, toppled a utility pole and broke out one small window. The roof hit Herbert’s car and smashed it.
“It was just like opening a box.”
“Herbert said, ‘Hilda, you’d better get some clothes on,’ and called the Rescue Squad,” she said. “When they came they to had to carry me down a slippery grass bank because of my leg.”
“I can’t sing praises enough,” she said. “Everyone’s just been wonderful.”
The rescue squad took them to the Senior Center in the old hospital building where several others had gathered to ride out the storm.
“Herbert wanted to stay at the house, but we made him come,” Hilda said. “He has a heart problem and was under a good deal of stress, but the rescue people took good care of him.”
He was going from the garage into the house when the roof flew off, and was hit in the head by the debris, Hilda said, but only suffered a minor injury. “He was covered with insulation,” she said.
Jim Weaver, animal control officer on duty at his office below the Senior Center was recruited by Mannon Eldreth, executive director of the Council on Aging, to take the Feltzes back to their house to get another car, clothing and other items. They were headed back to Winston-Salem late Friday afternoon.
Hilda was excellent in spirits as she waited to go down the mountain.
“I’ll certainly have something to talk about in my neighborhood when I get home,” she said.
Businesses Suffer Losses
For the second time this year, local businesses are cleaning up flood damage.
Whereas Warrensville, Buffalo and Three Top communities suffered most from flash-flooding in July, Lansing and Smethport suffered the brunt of the damage last week.
Lansing’s main street was completely covered Friday afternoon as Big Horse Creek roared out of its banks and into town.
Dennis Trainor, owner of the Lansing Country Hardware, could be seen across the muddy lake, tying down two empty fuel oil barrels that insisted on floating away.
“The water got a little higher than we figured,” Trainor said Saturday. “It didn’t get into upper level of the store, but all of our supplies and things we had in the basement got wet,” he said. “I can’t come up with a dollar figure because we haven’t even been able to get down there and take a good look at the damage yet.”
Other businesses in town including Barr Upholstery, Lansing Tanning Salon, Lansing Restaurant, also received a great deal of water damage.
Gilbert Weant, Jr., who owns High Country Greenhouses at Smethport, said Saturday he has not begun to assess damages to the facility, but felt sure it is “almost a total loss.”
“We didn’t lose any plants, but I would say we had at least $30,000 – $40,000 in damages to the facility itself,” he said. “One of the house’s lost its cover, and another one caved in besides the water damage.”
Weant isn’t sure he will rebuild the green houses. “I knew it was going to happen,” he said.
“There’s a creek in front and creek in back and I knew there was nothing I could do. Trying to sandbag it would have been useless.”
Hurting from Hugo
From the Sept. 25, 1989 issue of the Post
Hurricane Hugo, that roared into Ashe County early Friday morning, caused at least $2.5 million in damage that will take months to repair, county officials say.
The county wide damage was caused by a combination of winds reaching as high as 60 m.p.h. and flooding that resulted from approximately 4.5 inches of rain in less than 23 hours.
Ashe County Emergency Management Coordinator Jerry Ashley said although Hugo’s presence was felt all over the county, Lansing, Warrensville, and Creston were the three areas hardest hit.
Ashley said the damage was estimate of $2.5 million does not include agricultural losses that will be totalled later, with the help of the county extension office.
Although as many as 90 homeowners reported minor damage to their homes, such as flooded basements and exterior damage, only eight houses were reported to be severely damaged and only three houses were completely destroyed, Ashley said.
Two of these houses were in River Estates, and were destroyed by the floodwaters of the New River. One house, owned by a couple from Concord, was picked up off of its foundation and deposited some 50 yards away.
Ashley said he thinks there is a good chance these homeowners will get help from the federal government in the recovering from the storm.
Representatives from the State Emergency Management team arrived in Ashe on Saturday, surveyed several communities and have been in touch with the governor’s office, he said.
Bill Cannell of the N.C. Department of Crime Control and Public Safety said his department has gone to the very top in asking for aid for all the state’s affected counties.
“We have asked President Bush to declare them a federal disaster area, and in doing so, asked for monetary aid for victims,” Cannell said. “An answer is expected by the end of the week.”
“I really feel we are going to get some kind of assistance,” Ashley said. “I’m not sure I know what kind it will be at this point, but I sure ope we are going to get some.”
He said as many as 40 people chose to ride out the storm in shelters throughout the county, although all the residents were either back in their homes or staying with friends or family by the end of the day. Both the National Guard and armory and the Senior Center in Jefferson operated shelters, along with many of the volunteer fire departments and various churches.
As much as 80 percent of the county was without electricity when Hugo first hit, and although most the county is now reconnected, certain communities will be without power at least until Wednesday night, said Jim Taylor, Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp. district manager, Monday morning.
Taylor said the major communities still without power are Rich Hill, Copeland, Gum Ridge, Grassy Creek, Chestnut Hill from Todd up to Three Top, Big Springs, Nella, Grayson, Little Laurel and North Fork.
In addition to 27 local employees, approximately 30 men from eastern North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Georgia and Alabama are working on reinstating power to BREMCO’s members and more help is expected to arrive soon.
Although Taylor said there was no danger in simply driving over power lines lying across many county roads, he warned that drivers should take extra care not to be tangled up in the wires, and that the wires should not be touched.
Damage to the county’s roads is going to run well over a million dollars, Highway Maintenance engineer Tuck Miller said Monday.
“The damage due to the falling trees is going to be costly, and it will take approximately 45 days to clear all the trees off of the right of way, but it is going to take months to repair the damage caused by the flooding,” Miler said.
He added that he expects ore mudslides and trees to fall with the additional rain expected next week.
Miller said he county’s worst damage to primary roads occurred on N.C. 88 where one lane collapsed due to flooding in a pipe underneath the road.
Unexpected Hugo-Crystal Farmer
My family and I awoke to the fury of high winds and driving rain on the morning of Sept. 22, 1989. Little did we know that before the day was over many hours of wonder and fear would pass.
During the early part of the day we hoped and prayed that the worst of the storm would not hit us, but it was not to be. We listened as the wind became more furious. Huge oak trees were splintered by the gales of the wind. Telephone and power lines were snapped, severing our communication and our electricity, making a bad situation even worse.
We watched as the river continued to rise at an alarming rate. Before the morning was over, the animals that sheltered on low ground had to be moved before the ever increasing current swept them away. The water was soon feet away from the bottom of our high-water bridge and we were forced to higher ground.
Our experiences were not quite as drastic as those close to the coasts of the Carolinas. We did not have the fatalities that others experienced, nor did we have as severe weather. Since Ashe County is in the heart of the Appalachians, we did not expect the weather we did have.
These kinds of experiences are not common to our little corner of the world, but when they do happen, it makes a very significant change. We will see the effects of this storm for years. Even though my life or those of my loved ones were not endangered, I will always remember and be affected by Hurricane Hugo.