By Bob Keith
Mayor of Lake Lure, NC
Several weeks ago after many days of continuous rain, Hurricane Joaquin’s ugly face was fast approaching the Carolinas. Predictions of what was to occur were all over the map. Were we looking at a dead hit on our coast with all the heavy rains and wind or would the fury turn north toward Nova Scotia and out to sea? And even if it went out to sea, the weather service was calling for an unprecedented amount of rain in the Carolinas due to a combination of factors. The emergency management team began communicating and meeting early in the week as the pending situation unfolded. What followed was a frequent review and analysis of the weather conditions and forecasts and the range of possibilities, solutions and actions to take. Many recalled the flooding in the 1990’s, where structures on the Rocky Broad River in Chimney Rock were demolished, cars washed downstream into Lake Lure like sticks, roads flooded and were impassible below the dam and folks had to be evacuated to higher ground. As the lake rose, boats of all types were crushed against the roofs of boat houses and trees blew over snapping power lines resulting in several days of chaos throughout the Gorge.
Moving ahead in time, most of us were here in 2004 and recall Hurricanes Francis, Ivan and Jeanne, each arriving about a month apart, during which at one point, the lake rose 36 inches in two hours. We had to open wide the flood gates to minimize damage around the lake but forcing us to evacuate all the folks below the dam along the Rocky Broad. The questions now hung in the air; what lessons did we learn by these past experiences and how do we prepare to manage the conceivable impending natural disaster of Hurricane Joaquin?
Let’s reset. With any normal rain event and rising of the lake, our Dam Operator Donnie McCraw will use our generators to produce electricity while maintaining the lake level near full pond and to avoid releasing water through the flood gates. We earn revenue on water used to generate electricity, but earn nothing on water through the flood gates. The power generated is absorbed into the Duke Energy network and is a major source of revenue that funds ongoing maintenance of the dam and hydro plant. Donnie will only use the flood gates when the lake is coming up faster than can be taken in through the generators. When rain is forecast anywhere in our 90 square mile watershed, Donnie must estimate how much the lake will rise and prepare the lake level accordingly.
As you can see, the management of the lake level is a complex issue even under normal weather conditions. Fortunately, at the onset of Joaquin the weather came at us slowly at first but with ever increasing warnings of its rain and wind potential. Greenville forecasters were calling this a historic, life-threatening rain event. We did not want a repeat of ’93, ’96 or 2004!
The Emergency Management Team as I have informally dubbed them consisted of Chris Braund our Town Manager, Ron Morgan our Fire and Safety Coordinator, all the Fire Chiefs and numerous volunteers, Dean Givens our Lake Operations Director and our key “go to” guy, Dam Operator Donnie McCraw. This group met frequently, observed current weather conditions on almost an hourly basis and took action as determined and necessary. Three Code Red telephone/text/email alerts were issued on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, each announcing the status of flood gate openings and plans to increasingly draw down the lake to control flooding downstream of the dam and to position the lake to act as a buffer to handle the anticipated massive volume of rain water coming.
On Friday, after an extensive review of all aspects of the situation, it was decided to lower the lake to 5’ below full pond and manage it at that level until we saw what the actual rainfall would be. Saturday morning, with the lake down 5’ and flood gates opened 5’, the lake was still rising 1” per hour. Translated, that’s 2’ per day. Said differently, an immense amount of water coming out of the mountains. Sometime between Friday and Saturday, Joaquin moved away and was replaced by an independent storm system. As the hours elapsed, the rain effect shifted to the south and devastated portions of South Carolina. We were prepared but we were spared and the lake was back to full pond by Monday.
I cannot say enough good things about our Emergency Management Team and all the volunteers who were on duty around the clock throughout the event, especially Donnie. High-fives to all involved from our entire community.