Water marks on a building show how high flood waters reached at Houser Farms in Hiddenite, North Carolina on Friday, November 13, 2020. Heavy rains caused widespread flooding in Alexander County. Jacob Biba / Carolina Public Press

Truth delivered daily

Carolina Public Press is committed to ethical, nonpartisan reporting on the important issues facing our communities. Make us your source for trusted news in North Carolina.

When Tropical Storm Eta swept along the coast of North Carolina in November, it left a lopsided trail of economic damage in counties that will now receive federal disaster funds. 

Total estimated damage across 19 eligible counties totaled $20.4 million, according to Gov. Roy Cooper, who included the preliminary damage estimate in a pitch to the federal government to provide major disaster funding for public infrastructure and to recoup emergency response costs. 

Under a federal disaster declaration on March 4, a cost-sharing program will unlock funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay at least 75% of the total damage, which includes statewide mitigation measures. 

Twelve counties in the northwest area of the state, each now applying for federal assistance, accounted for 70% of the state’s total estimated costs eligible for federal reimbursement.

The storm caused more than 800 road closures, according to the N.C. Department of Transportation, when floods washed away sections of roads and bridges and flooded homes, public facilities and businesses across the state. 

The 12 northwestern counties incurred expected damage of $15.2 million, while seven counties across the Coastal Plain, forming a rough south-to-north line between the South Carolina and Virginia borders, incurred $5.2 million in damage. The average estimate for a northwestern county was $1.3 million, compared with an average of $742,000 for each eligible county in the eastern part of the state.

Assessing the impact

The majority of federal funds will go to the NCDOT to rebuild and repair hundreds of roads and bridges that experienced washouts, mudslides or other damage. The agency identified 320 impacted sections of state-maintained roads and bridges, totaling $30 million in estimated damage, NCDOT spokesperson Lauren Haviland said. 

A 20-mile section of Interstate 85 near Charlotte was temporarily closed as floodwaters crept onto the highway.

Haviland said the NCDOT will receive $19.7 million in federal cash to fund ongoing repairs — $16.5 million from FEMA’s Public Assistance Program and an additional $3.2 million from the Highway Trust Fund, which finances most federal government spending for highways and mass transit. Five state routes remain closed, she said. 

The extensive damage came after heavy moisture from Tropical Storm Eta collided with a cold front on Nov. 12, causing large areas of North Carolina to flood after receiving 4-9 inches of rain, aided by cresting rivers in the western and eastern parts of the state.

Western counties received significant damage from the offshore storm because as east-to-west winds carried moisture from the storm across the state, the air was forced to rise rapidly over the Blue Ridge escarpment, National Weather Service meteorologist Trisha Palmer said.

“When that happens, we will get rainfall totals piling up in the western Piedmont and along the mountains quite often actually,” Palmer said. “So, we will also have flash flooding from heavy rain even though the tropical system is further east, just because all that moisture is being forced to rise very rapidly because of the mountains.”

Three northwestern rivers flooded portions of the most economically impacted area in the state. The Catawba, Yadkin and Pee Dee rivers run through eight counties, which together accounted for $14.4 million (70.3%) of the state’s total preliminary damage estimate. 

Damage in Iredell County, bordered to the southwest by the Catawba River and bisected by the South Yadkin River, was estimated at $6.2 million, the highest figure in the state. 

Wilson County, located to the east of Raleigh, incurred the third-highest level of estimated damage in the state. Emergency Management Director Gordon Deno said the county itself incurred no damage and experienced no major power outages. The $2.8 million estimate for the county encompasses roads and bridges managed by the NCDOT.

Flooding causes damage

Although the eastern counties received more rainfall, Palmer said, the northwestern counties were more heavily impacted due to flash floods as a result of their mountainous terrain.

“Because the mountains and foothills are headwaters of the rivers, it generally doesn’t take nearly as much rain to cause flash flooding, and flooding in general, as it does out east,” Palmer said. 

Alexander County was hit particularly hard, she said, with reports of 8 to almost 10 inches in an area around the Hiddenite Family Campground, just north of Charlotte and Lake Norman. When the South Yadkin River flooded the low-lying campground with 11-14 feet of water, the torrent washed away camper trailers and recreational vehicles, killing five people, including a 1-year-old child.

With $4.75 million in damage, the county had the second-highest estimate of the 19 eligible counties in the state.

“It’s just devastation beyond anything I’ve ever seen,” former Alexander County Commission Chairman Ryan Mayberry said at a news conference later that day, after a visit to the site. 

Swiftwater teams rescued 31 people from the campground.

About 5 miles north of the campground, the body of a 64-year-old man was discovered in a vehicle hit by flash flooding when the driver was trying to pass a bridge on Hopewell Church Road. According to the county, the man had been submerged “for some time before the floodwaters receded enough to affect recovery efforts.” 

The man couldn’t see that the road had collapsed because it was early and dark, county spokesman Gary Herman said. The six deaths in the county accounted for half the total deaths caused by Eta across the state.

Herman said many driveways and culverts were washed out at homes, and at the peak of the flooding, 50 roads in the county were closed. Thirteen roads remain closed as the NCDOT sorts out emergency contracts, according to Herman.

The county was already reeling from Tropical Storm Zeta, which downed trees and power lines in October, causing nearly 11,000 power outages in the county. 

With estimated total damage of $687,947, Davie County is in the preliminary stages of submitting a public assistance request, County Manager David Bone said. 

The Yadkin River forms the eastern boundary of Davie County before entering High Rock Lake, and when the storm dumped roughly 7 inches of rain, the soils along the Yadkin River were already well saturated from previous rains, Bone said. 

“It caused the river to rise, and there was a tremendous amount of flooding. Flooding from the storm put our entire Davie County Wastewater Treatment Plant underwater,” he said.

The facility sat totally submerged in floodwaters for about 24 hours, according to Bone, damaging the water treatment basins and destroying two recently installed pumps and a new lift station. Total repair costs are expected to be “upwards of $3 (million) to $5 million or more,” he said.

Finding assistance

The federal disaster funds will go to state and county entities. Because the FEMA funds are not directly distributed to citizens, Alexander County officials urged residents affected by flooding to apply for assistance through the state’s Individual Assistance Program. 

Small businesses in the region can seek funds through another federal agency, the U.S. Small Business Administration. In December, the agency granted Gov. Cooper’s request for a disaster declaration for Alexander, Iredell, Caldwell, Catawba and Wilkes counties, making low-interest disaster loans available to homes and businesses affected by the storm.

“The tragic consequences of this storm left loved ones grieving, families without homes and damaged communities,” Cooper announced. “While the declaration can’t bring back those lives, it is a way to help those communities begin to recover and move forward.”

The agency expanded its loan program earlier this month to include food kitchens, homeless shelters, museums, libraries, community centers, schools and colleges affected by Eta in all 19 counties applying for FEMA funds.

Applications for federal public assistance funds must be filed by county officials by April 2.