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‘We’re standing strong, but we need your support’: Haywood rallies together after severe storm damage

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Update 11:45 a.m. August 23, 2021: According to recent news reports, five people have been found dead following the flood in Haywood County. One person remains missing. See the original article below.

Gov. Roy Cooper declared a state of emergency on Wednesday after Tropical Depression Fred dropped over a foot of rain in areas throughout Haywood County.

The areas hardest hit in the county include Cruso, Bethel, Center Pigeon, Lake Logan, and the towns of Canton and Clyde. 

Locals say the impact of this storm is worse than the damage caused by Hurricanes Frances and Ivan in 2004. 

Storm damage

In a press briefing Thursday, emergency services director Travis Donaldson confirmed there have been two fatalities as a result of the storm. 

According to recent news reports, around 20 people remain missing with search and rescue efforts still ongoing. 

Haywood County sheriff, Greg Christopher, said there are a number of cars still in or on the edges of the river that emergency crews have not been able to access. 

“As the river recedes, hopefully we are going to be able to get in there and open the doors and make sure there is nobody inside those vehicles,” Christopher said.

More than 50,000 people lost power due to the storm, and as of the press briefing Thursday, at least 500 families have been displaced.

“The destruction and damage that community members have seen is crippling,” Donaldson said. “We’re standing strong, but we need your support.”

As of Thursday, Canton’s town hall, fire department, police department, and emergency responses were completely offline. 

The damage extended to county school buildings as well.

Haywood County Schools held an emergency virtual Board of Education meeting Thursday evening to discuss damage to school properties and plans for reopening. 

Associate superintendent Trevor Putnam said Central Haywood High School had extensive damage. Initial assessments indicated that flooring, baseboards, and sheetrock will need to be removed from the lower floor of the school.

Several athletic fields across the county were also impacted. 

Putnam reported that 30+ secondary roads were either closed, impassable, or compromised, with Cold Creek Road completely washed out. 

When asked how many students were affected by closed roads, Putnam said there was no way to know right now because many students lost their homes or had to evacuate.

Bringing the community together

“As a paper town and a mill town, we know what it is to be down. We know how it is to fight back when the odds are against us. We have been here before. We will get through this. We will do it together.”

Zeb Smathers, mayor of Canton.

On Thursday, I joined several Haywood Community College (HCC) employees at a donation drop-off site a few miles from campus. The site is connected to the nonprofit organization Helping Haywood. 

Helping Haywood drop-off site. Emily Thomas/EducationNC

Helping Haywood grew out of a vision that Michael Coleman, vice president of student services at HCC, and Drake Fultz, owner of Haywood 209 Cafe, had months ago. 

Their goal was to help those in need in Haywood County, and while the Helping Haywood website had already been established, it was not fully operational earlier this week.

But when disaster struck in his county, Coleman said he knew they needed to flip the switch. 

They quickly mobilized, using Faith Community Church as a drop-off site and pushing out messages to the community via social media. 

Donations started rolling in, and in less than 48 hours, Coleman was already talking about the need for more space. 

In addition to supplies, Helping Haywood has raised over $58,000. The donations gathered will be distributed to hubs closer to the impacted areas. 

Senior pastor of Faith Community Church Matt Pruett said he is overwhelmed by the response of the community. 

“I was sitting in my office … and this car pulls up. It’s a mom with three little girls in the backseat. She gets out of the car and she is just weeping. And she said, ‘My husband and I are just broken over what’s happened. And we don’t know what to do.’ ”

Matt Pruett, senior pastor of Faith Community Church

She then handed Pruett $100 and told him to use it for the community.

Matt Pruett accepts a donation. Emily Thomas/EducationNC

According to Helping Haywood, immediate needs include: diapers, wipes, coolers, water, non-perishable food items, wheel barrows, shovels, work gloves, boots, and cleaning supplies. Donations are being accepted at the following sites:

  • Helping Haywood.
  • The Water’N Hole in Waynesville. 
  • Canton First Baptist.
  • Bethel Baptist.
  • Grace Church in Waynesville.
  • Shining Rock School.
  • New Covenant Church in Clyde.
  • Haywood County Animal Shelter.
  • Pisgah High School.

Anyone seeking assistance related to the storm should call the helpline at 828-356-2022. The hours of operation are 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. 

Types of assistance available:

  • Missing person information.
  • Food and housing assistance.
  • Special needs assistance.
  • Volunteer or donation opportunities.
  • Other storm-related needs.

Haywood Community College responds

Haywood Community College (HCC) started fall classes on Monday, Aug. 16, and had several activities planned for the week, including a vaccine clinic hosted by FEMA. 

But by the end of day Tuesday, employees realized it would be another fall semester where they would have to pivot quickly. 

Campus was closed Wednesday, but many employees were in constant contact, checking-in and planning for the days ahead.  

By 9 a.m. Thursday morning, the HCC response team met to discuss their next steps. 

“Because we’ve been in this ongoing crisis response mode … we were able to shift quickly,” said HCC president Shelley White. 

The college got to work, reigniting their HCC Cares campaign to connect students with emergency financial assistance. Their COVID-19 response page now includes information for students and employees seeking additional resources.

With growing concern about the immediate personal and safety needs of students, HCC plans to survey students early next week and ask them to identify their current needs. 

But the focus isn’t just on current needs. HCC is already thinking about getting students reengaged, knowing they will require ongoing support during this time.

“This has been a devastating event to parts of our county,” White said. “Some students may have an extra hardship right now … not being able to connect or even have power or access to technology.”

White told faculty to extend extra time on assignments to students if they need it.

In addition to supporting students and employees, HCC is also offering resources to the county. 

“We had a request from the county emergency response to use some of our search and rescue equipment that we use for training,” White said. “And we’ve been able to share that with them.”

The college has also used their industrial sized ice machine to fill coolers that will be distributed to those in need. 

HCC employee wheels in coolers filled with ice. Emily Thomas/EducationNC

But it’s not just HCC lending a hand. Peer institutions are also stepping up.

From offering maintenance crews to donating boxed lunches, White said messages of care, support, and resources have poured in from all over the state. 

“The community college system spanning across the state is a family,” said Blue Ridge Community College president Laura Leatherwood.

Through their small business center, HCC has connected with Blue Ridge Community College and Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College to discuss ways they can work together to provide additional resources to small businesses impacted by the storm.

One of the ways they hope to assist small businesses is by helping them fill out emergency assistance paperwork. 

“We want to make sure we have extra hands on deck,” White said. 

What’s next?

Haywood Community College will return to a regular schedule on Friday, Aug. 20.

Haywood County Schools Superintendent Bill Nolte made the recommendation during the emergency board meeting, and the board agreed, to reopen all locations except Central Haywood High School on Aug. 23. 

On Thursday, Cooper toured the damage in Canton. During the press conference, he said that state and local authorities are working together.

“We will rebuild in western North Carolina from these floods.”

Gov. Roy Cooper

The next step is getting help from the federal government.

Sen. Thom Tillis, who also toured Canton on Thursday, said, “Senator Burr and I will do everything we can to provide support and get it through the FEMA process.”

Storm impacts across North Carolina

Tropical Depression Fred wreaked havoc on multiple counties across western North Carolina.

In Transylvania County, flood waters rose rapidly and created treacherous conditions. EdNC’s Mebane Rash reported on the extreme weather conditions during students’ first week back to school there.

In an email statement, Leatherwood said, “Families and businesses in Transylvania County, particularly in the Rosman area, have experienced significant loss due to Tropical Storm Fred. We are heartbroken for those suffering due to the catastrophic damage to property and possible loss of life across the region, especially in Haywood County.”

Brian Merritt, president of McDowell Technical Community College, said the impact of Fred was minimal, though they experienced three tornado warnings as evening classes began. Administration and security quickly moved students to lower ground to shelter in place.

And while they did not experience the devastation Haywood and Transylvania counties did, McDowell Tech hosted a Duke Energy storm staging area on Thursday. Crews were bused in and sent out to restore power across the region.

Caldwell Community College & Technical Institute also experienced the impacts of Fred. After a minor earthquake and four tornado warnings, the Caldwell campus closed and canceled all evening classes on Tuesday, August 17.

Editor’s note: A previous edition of this post said the senior pastor of Faith Community Church’s name was Mark Pruett. It is Matt Pruett.

Emily Thomas

Emily Thomas is a policy analyst for EducationNC.