Unclogging the Pigeon: close call in January nearly upended progress on flood debris removal

Jan. 24—Floods in January? That was something unheard of in Haywood County — until now.

Nearly 5 inches of rain fell between Jan. 6 and Jan. 9, slightly shy of the 6.2 inches that caused catastrophic flooding in 2021 from a tropical storm. That inch or so made all the difference, however, as rising waters stopped just short of flooding.

Still, the overflowing streams in the usual low-lying areas and the memories of August 2021 were enough to put plenty of people on edge during the storm.

The rising water was particularly worrisome to those overseeing removal of debris clogging sections of the Pigeon River, increasing the likelihood of future flooding.

Tree limbs and root balls lodged in the river since the last flood came careening downstream as water levels rose on Jan. 9, raising questions about where the debris would ultimately end up.

Work had finally gotten underway to remove the debris logjams from the river bed. Getting to this point was a drawn-out process — from mapping to environmental surveys to logistics of getting to the debris mounds. Cleanup only started last fall and still had months to go when the early January rains hit.

There was good reason to be wary of the heavy rain. A storm in May 2022 was another "near miss" event, explained Mark Cathey, the point person with McGill Associates who is working with the county on debris removal to mitigate future flooding.

The river valley corridor had already been mapped by the Haywood County Soil and Water Conservation District to determine which areas were most in need of attention. But rising waters in May 2022 shifted the debris locations.

That meant resurveying before any contracts for debris removal were issued this fall, Cathey said.

Then there was the issue of securing landowner permission to cross private property to reach the debris mounds — something not all landowners have agreed to yet. If debris had shifted significantly, the process may have had to start anew.

Dodging the bullet

On Jan. 10, Cathey was anxious.

"Literally, we will have to drive to locations and figure out what this event did," he said. "We'll have to determine whether some of what we've done has to be redone. This was really bad timing right in the middle of debris clean up."

That survey, however, revealed that the county had dodged the bullet.

"Based on the amount of rain, we were pretty concerned," said Kris Boyd, assistant county manager. "With contracts in place, we were not sure how we would have tried to address it if the debris shifted. But it looks like we're probably OK. There was some shifting obviously, but it doesn't appear to be terrible."

The changes following the Jan. 9 flooding were "fairly minor" when it came to shifting debris on the sites under contract for removal so far, according to Duane Vanhook, director of the Haywood County Soil and Water Conservation District.

"Most of the sites are at the upper end of Cruso above the Chinquapin bridge," he said. "The flooding was worse as you came down the watershed, especially below Bethel where the east and west forks of the Pigeon come together."

The phase II sites that will require engineering are not yet under contract. Those can be resurveyed based on any debris movement that happened this month. Boyd anticipates bidding out more debris removal contracts in the next four to six weeks.

Changed rules

Initially, the county was told only vegetative debris could be removed per state and federal regulations. That's changed.

"We were able to get that clarified," Vanhook said. "So now we can take manmade debris, as well. That's one of the reasons it's taken awhile. There was a lot of back and forth with that."

Members of the public who've spoken at community meetings expressed frustration about the massive amounts of both natural and manmade debris still clogging the river, as well as the forever changed path of the river bed, which they fear pose increased threats to their homes and property during future heavy rain events.

The manmade debris has to be kept separate for disposal purposes and will be landfilled. This go around, however, woody vegetation will be incinerated in an air curtain burner.

Debris was similarly separated during the immediate post-Tropical Storm Fred cleanup, but the woody debris was only a small part of the makeup and was mulched.

Under the emergency watershed cleanup, the vast majority of what's being removed is vegetative debris, Van Hook said

"But I know for a fact there is an upside-down recreational vehicle stuck in the mud. You can see axles and wheels," he said.

For the vegetative debris, incineration is the preferred disposal method this go-around.

"The contractor built his own version with concrete block walls," Vanhook explained. "They load debris into a pit and a huge fan blows air through the pit. The circulated air keeps smoke down, keeps the fire hot and allows everything to burn."

Those observing contractors working in the stream bed get a good idea of what is still buried deep beneath the silt, from children's bikes to large swaths of metal railing.

"There's a lot of buried material and construction debris under the mud and cobble," Vanhook said. "We knew there would be some, but you just don't know until you start removing stuff on top. This is a reminder of how important it is to try and get this stuff out of there. Hopefully, folks will cooperate."

Close call in Canton

Farther downstream in Canton, town leaders were in constant contact with emergency services as they monitored stream levels and took precautions.

"We dodged the bullet," Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers told the town board at its regular meeting two days after the storm. "We were as prepared as we could be. This moment reminded us we don't get the ability to wait several years for another flood. This came close for a lot of people. We have to continually look at what we can do for resiliency and debris removal."

Town Manager Nick Scheuer noted the town staff wasn't consumed with removing items from municipal facilities as they were during Tropical Storm Fred. That's because several buildings such as the town hall and police department are currently unoccupied and will be demolished in the next couple months.

That meant when concerns about flooding arose Jan. 9, it allowed town workers more time to help out businesses and citizens in the community who were facing possible flood issues.

"We were interested to see if the known flood stages had been altered during Fred," Scheuer said, "but the information was still accurate and matched previous expectations, so that's one bit of good news."