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WNC CONFIDENTIAL is a Carolina Public Press feature about official secrets and public disclosures — all from, about or relating to the mountain region. Every other Thursday, we’ll give you the key to recent revelations and put hard-to-find records at your fingertips.

Also: New gun laws take effect, photos show Black Mountain’s place in geodesic dome history

2011 brought more than the usual share of foul weather, but just how bad were the year’s climate catastrophes?

One authoritative answer comes from an Asheville-based federal clearinghouse, the National Climatic Data Center.

The NCDC, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, maintains the world’s largest archive of weather data. On Dec. 7, the agency announced sobering findings: 2011 was a year of record-breaking “weather/climate disasters” for the United States.

The country witnessed 12 disasters costing more than $1 billion in damages each, with total damages from those disasters estimated at $52 billion. The previous record, of nine $1 billion-plus disasters, was set in 2008.

The forces of nature — blizzards, floods, heat waves, hurricanes and tornados — took much more than a financial toll, the federal researchers noted. The 12 top disasters also caused the loss of 646 lives, they reported, out of a total of more than 1,000 weather-related deaths (to say nothing of weather-related damages and deaths in other countries).

Along with the announcement, the agencies offered new resources for sizing up extreme weather incidents.

Click here for a National Climatic Data Center graph [PDF] charting billion-dollar weather disasters from 1980 to the present; click here for a National Climatic Data Center map [PDF] showing which states suffered the most incidents in that timeframe (with North Carolina ranked high among them); and here for summaries of 2011’s dirty dozen catastrophes.

The NCDC was established in Asheville in 1951 as the National Weather Records Service. Learn more about its research and other services in the center’s 2010 annual report, available here. [PDF]

As North Carolina’s latest gun laws take effect, state attorney general issues new guide

North Carolina’s new gun laws are in the bull’s eye of public scrutiny, garnering national news and local challenges.

On Dec. 1, a law expanding the state’s “Castle Doctrine”  — which specifies the circumstances under which a person can legally shoot someone — took effect, as did a law making it easier to carry a concealed weapon in certain public spaces. Carolina Public Press reported on the measure when it was passed by the N.C. House of Representatives. The later provision is being challenged by municipalities across the state, including Asheville.

In the midst of the shifts, The New York Times published an investigation showing how some North Carolina felons continued to do harm with concealed weapons, which mentioned the incident where an Asheville man, who had a permit to carry a concealed handgun and was an Asheville firefighter, fired at a man who was riding a bike with his 4-year-old son.

Meanwhile, the office of N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper issued an updated report on many of the finer points in the state’s weapons laws [PDF].

“As there is an ever increasing awareness of firearms and their potential for misuse, all gun owners are urged to carefully evaluate their current methods of using and transporting firearms to ensure compliance,” the introduction to the 45-page document says.

The report explains who can legally purchase which sorts of guns, and who can carry and wield them where. There are different strictures for regular citizens, off-duty law officers and persons with some kinds of criminal history.

It’s the kind of document where legal speak like “going armed to the terror of the people” and bits of technical jargon like “Teflon-coated bullets” are precisely defined. There’s a section on frequently asked questions (“How old must I be to purchase a handgun, shotgun or rifle?” “Is it lawful to carry a weapon to a bar or similar establishment?” “When I redeem my pawned pistol, do I need to obtain a North Carolina state pistol permit before receiving my handgun?”).

Photos showcase the geodesic dome’s Black Mountain roots

Buckminster Fuller ponders the first geodesic dome, which he built with help from Black Mountain College students in 1949. The photo is one of dozens from the project that were recently posted online by the N.C. Office of Archives and History.

Despite its relatively short run (1933-1957), Black Mountain College left a lasting legacy of innovations.

The year was 1948. The inventor was designer and futurist Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller. The setting was Black Mountain College’s idyllic little campus, which today is home to both Camp Rockmont and the Lake Eden Arts Festival.

That summer and the following one, Fuller served on the college’s teaching staff and spent much of his days pursuing his latest obsession. The geodesic dome, he theorized, could provide an efficient, strong shelter for all manner of uses — if he could turn his theory into reality.

And so Fuller experimented, with help from the college’s students, until a primitive version of the dome took shape. Today the graceful, sci-fi-looking structure takes many forms and can be found the world over, so it can be easy to forget the dome’s humble origins.

The process, which took center stage for two summers, was extensively detailed in photos that have rarely been seen, until now. The North Carolina Office of Archives and History recently posted the pics online, in this collection.

The pictures show Fuller and crew engaged in painstaking (but fun-looking) trial and error. They show the finished product, in all its geodesic glory, perched on the banks of Lake Eden. And there’s even a shot of a celebratory dome-inspired cake, with the words “Bucky’s Sphere” etched in icing.

The 49 black-and-white photos were scanned and shared as part of a wider state archives project to digitize records about Black Mountain College. The collection can be viewed here.

After his two summer stints at the college, Fuller advanced his geodesic vision further, receiving the first of several patents for the dome in 1954. A few years later, he produced one of his lesser-known works: a musical adaptation called “Roam Home to a Dome.”

YouTube video

Clarification: Due to an editing error, the number of $1 billion-plus disasters was previously misstated.

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Jon Elliston is the lead contributing open government reporter at Carolina Public Press. Contact him at

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