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One year after deadly flooding, Haywood County rebuilds with an eye on resiliency

The Town of Canton’s boardroom, host to thousands of government meetings, now sits in quiet disarray.
Cory Vaillancourt
The Town of Canton’s boardroom, host to thousands of government meetings, now sits in quiet disarray.

On Aug. 17, 2021, the remnants of Tropical Storm Fred swept through Haywood County, dropping more than a foot of rain and causing flooding that killed six people.

Now a year later, much has been done to repair the damage, but officials in Canton are focusing on resiliency as climate change suggests these disasters will become more common.

In Canton, life has always revolved around the century-old papermill, where the noon whistle still blows and nothing much out of the ordinary ever happens.

That all changed last August, when a wall of water came down the Pigeon River, decimating communities upriver and inundating downtown homes and businesses for the second time in less than 20 years.

“We immediately were on the phone with upper-level leaders in the county,” said Kristina Proctor, a town alderwoman. “And not just in the county, but in the county and the state and the federal government to start the healing process. And so that process will never fully be complete.”

Millions of dollars in state and federal aid have since flowed into Haywood County, helping homeowners repair or replace damaged structures, but town government is still trying to pick up the pieces.

In a temporary town hall just up the street from the washed-out William G. Stamey Municipal Building, Canton Town Manager Nick Scheuer and CFO Natalie Walker pour over a large spreadsheet.

This keeps track of all town-owned property damaged in the flood, and the reimbursements from insurance companies or FEMA. Right now, the damage totals more than $21 million including town hall, the fire and police departments, and a host of other town-owned properties and assets.

Town officials like Proctor have cash flow concerns.

“What worries me and what keeps me awake at night is how we're going to be able to rebuild sustainably and ethically and with our future in mind, with the very little money that we have,” she said.

During a town meeting on Aug. 11, Scheuer told town officials that Canton still has more than $9 million in unmet needs even with insurance settlements and another $7 million coming from FEMA.

That’s for a town with an $11 million annual budget overall.

Whereas before the flood Canton’s checking account had around $4 million in it, today, there’s about $600,000, although the town still maintains a fund balance for other emergencies.

Canton’s mayor, Zeb Smathers, shares Proctor’s concerns about building back smarter, so the next flood doesn’t impact as many people.

“What scares me is the realization that we know this is going to happen again,” Smathers said. “It's the fear of always, could we have done more? Can we do more right now? Because this is not something that we're going to get prep time for. I mean, looking back on last August, we didn't have two days. We had an hour and a half.”

Last week, Smathers and Haywood County Commissioner Brandon Rogers met with a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that’s trying to help communities like Canton prepare for future flooding that will only become more common as climate change continues.

“I'm the Carolinas director for the American Flood Coalition,” said Tony McEwen. “The American flood coalition is, in my mind, the preeminent national thank tank around flood resilience, sea level rise adaptation in advocating for resilience on both of those topics.”

Along with coalition members, McEwen advocates for smarter public policy for land use planning and increased resiliency funding on a state and federal level.

“Our interest is to make sure that local governments and communities have the resources they need to become more resilient,” he said.

This kind of planning will help the Town of Canton make some big decisions, so that next time the Pigeon River slips its banks, there’s less loss of property and less loss of life.