Floods drench Watauga, damage roads
by Anna Oakes
Property owners and government officials spent much of Thursday assessing and repairing damage in the wake of Wednesday evening's floods in Watauga County.
Areas from N.C. 105 and N.C. 194 to the south and east -- including Valle Crucis, Boone, Blowing Rock, Deep Gap and Todd -- were the hardest hit by Wednesday's flooding, and a number of roads sustained significant damage, officials said.
"It just rained so much, so quick, nothing could carry it," said Kevin Whittington, Watauga County maintenance engineer for the N.C. Department of Transportation.
A cold front with a moist tropical connection moved into the area Wednesday, and by 6:55 p.m., 5.61 inches of rain had fallen at the Watauga Medical Center, according to the National Weather Service in Blacksburg, Va.
"It was very effective at squeezing some of that moisture out as it moved into some of the higher terrain areas," said Mike Sporer, NWS meteorologist.
Combined with area snow melt and already-wet conditions, the deluge soon overwhelmed streams and storm water facilities and spilled over into parking lots, roads, yards, basements and even the ground floors of some residences and businesses.
At the height of the flooding, the NWS issued a flash flood emergency alert, a rare message reserved for weather situations that present an immediate and very serious threat to life or property, Sporer said.
"That's a very serious situation," he said. "We wanted to give the highest alert."
Smartphone users in the area were alerted to the situation by a text message accompanied by a loud alarm -- a new system implemented by the wireless industry, the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Emergency Management Agency last year.
The wireless emergency alerts are broadcast from cell towers to mobile devices in a specific area.
NWS reported that Watauga County in North Carolina and Galax in Virginia were the worst hit by flash flooding in the region, but reports of flooding and infrastructure damage were extensive in Ashe County as well.
Flood waters washed away gravel, asphalt and shoulders, and a number of drainage systems failed throughout the county, with the worst damage on Roby Greene Road, Seven Oaks Road and Soc Houck, Whittington said.
Other roads damaged include Del Coffey, Wade Moretz, Greenbriar, Justus, Herb Thomas, Payne Branch, Fairway Drive, Lynn Hill, Brownwood Road, Castle Ford Road, New River Heights and U.S. 321. A portion of Watauga River Road was still under water early Thursday afternoon.
NCDOT officials' preliminary estimate of damage to Roby Greene and Seven Oaks roads was about $150,000, said Steve Sudderth, Watauga County emergency management coordinator.
Whittington said this is the worst flooding he has seen since 2004, when the remnants of Hurricane Ivan caused significant damage throughout the mountains. Motorists will likely notice cracks in roads and highways as shoulders settle, he said.
"This is not a good time to have flooding in the winter months, (with) freezing and thawing, snow and ice to deal with," he said.
Sudderth said his office will spend the next few days assessing damage and estimating their costs. Watauga County Board of Commissioners Chairman Nathan Miller declared a local state of emergency on Wednesday, but whether or not the area qualifies for state assistance will depend on the total damage amount, Sudderth said.
He encouraged anyone with damage from the storm to contact his office at (828) 264-4235 or by email at (firstname.lastname@example.org)