At this very moment, there are nine active landslides in the mountains of western North Carolina. These are not rivers of mud surging down steep slopes, but a slow-motion disaster as the dirt loses its grip on its underpinnings.
Of the 350 landslides recorded in the western part of the state since 1990, 78 of them have occurred in the last two years. Climate change, in part, has created weather conditions that favor landslides: droughts followed by biblical amounts of rain.
However, a lack of state funding has hamstrung the NC Department of Environmental Quality from comprehensively mapping the 19-plus counties that are prone to landslides.
The Joint Appropriations on Agriculture, Natural and Economic Resources Committee today heard from state environmental officials who asked for funding to continue mapping landslide areas in western North Carolina.
The legislature appropriated $3.6 million for the project in 2018, but that funding is scheduled to expire this year. Brian Wrenn, director of the Division of Energy, Mining and Land Resources, did not specify a dollar figure, but much of the mapping work for such a vast region remains unfinished.
The mapping project began after a landslide disaster that killed four people occurred in Macon County on Sept. 16, 2004. That night, as remnants of Hurricane Ivan traveled up the Appalachians, “a layer of soil liquefied and began flowing down Peeks Creek,” at about 30 mph, according to the National Weather Service. The massive debris flow destroyed about 15 homes in a matter of seconds.
Nineteen counties were declared disaster areas and received state money from the Hurricane Recovery Act of 2005. However, money for the mapping project ended in 2011 and was not renewed until 2018.
Six of the 19 original counties have been mapped: Macon, Haywood, Buncombe, Henderson, Watauga, Polk and Jackson.
Mapping is in progress in Rutherford County and the northern part of Cleveland County. A master’s student from Kent State in Ohio is mapping McDowell County.
Wrenn of DEMLR told lawmakers that eight counties have been added to the mapping area since 2018. Steep slopes and other geological vulnerabilities prompted scientists to include these areas: Surry, Stokes, Wilkes, Yadkin, Alexander, Graham, Cherokee and Clay.
In addition, some existing maps need updated because advanced technology allows for more detailed analysis of vulnerable areas.
Meanwhile, within the past two years, a landslide disrupted the water supply for the city of Franklin; 13 landslides were reported in the area in April 2020, with a debris flow nearly a mile long.
A Bright’s Creek landslide damaged a natural gas pipeline, incurring $4.5 million in costs to Duke Energy. In Swain County alone, there have been 32 landslides since 2019.
The governor is expected to release his budget as early as this week, followed by the first draft of the legislature fiscal priorities this spring.