Our life living off the land in our log cabin, breathing fresh mountain air, and getting back to basics.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The 2004 Peeks Creek Disaster

This post is dedicated to all the residents of Peaks Creek, permanent and part time, whose lives were forever changed 8 years ago today. 

On September 16, 2004, around 10:10 PM, the rain drenched earth slid down Fish Hawk mountain, collecting every tree, rock and boulder in its path, gaining mass and momentum every second.  The huge, 15 foot tall debris field plowed into Peek's Creek, demolishing everything in its way.  5 people lost their lives, 2 people suffered tragic injuries, and 15 homes were destroyed.  For everyone affected, life would never be the same.

This is what remains of my friend Bob's family home, as reported in the New York Times on September 20, 2004.  This is just one of the 15 homes torn from it's foundation, some being shredded to nothing but rubble.

You can click on this link for additional photos of the Peeks Creek disaster.

How Could This Happen

Fish Hawk mountain peaks at 4400 feet and has a smooth bedrock face.  Hurricane Francis dropped 11 inches of rain throughout western NC, and within 2 short weeks, Hurricane Ivan dropped yet another 11 inches onto an already rain soaked area.  The excessive rainfall soaked deeply into the soil, accumulating where the soil met the underlying bedrock.  This accumulation of water caused the earth to lift above the rock, decreasing it's ability to "hold on", which resulted in the down slope slipping of the earth along the rock.  (The space you see between the trees below is the path of the debris flow; this photo was taken 8/30/12, so much regrowth has occurred since the disaster, however you can clearly see the path.)

This slope failure began at the top of the mountain.  Evidence indicates that initially, the earth slid straight down the face of the mountain as a unified mass of trees (mostly oak, pine and poplar), soil and rock fragments, approximately the size of a football field.  Curved trees in the area adjacent to the initiation point indicate a creeping, slow down slope movement due to gravity.  The mountain's slope is very steep, 35 - 55 degrees, resulting in quickly increasing momentum as the mass progressed.  Further down the mountain, the earth material left erratic marks on the rock face, indicating the flow was turbulent.  As it sped further down the mountain, it collected more trees, boulders, rocks, gravel and dirt.  (Photos taken 8/30/12, notice the regrowth.  You can see the bedrock face in the first photo, this is the initiation point of the debris flow. The second is looking down from the bedrock face into the path the earth took down the mountain along the creek.)


As the giant mass entered the steep segment of the channel of N Peeks Creek, it's velocity and discharge rate continued to increase as it followed the ready made path of the creek.  Scientists were able to use the debris flow's banking on turns along it's path to estimate that the giant mass was moving at greater than 33 mph with a discharge rate of 45,000 cu ft.  This compares to 140 dump trucks pouring their loads all at one time onto your lawn, but while passing by @ 33 mph!  This debris flow took a total of about 6 minutes from the moment slope failure began to the time the debris flow crashed into Peeks Creek.  There was no warning of the nightmare about to befall the people of this gentle community.  When the sound of the freight train and the sight of things whirling were evident, the mountain was already upon them.

An analogy was given that this event was similar to standing at the top of a steep slide when you were a child; you sit to begin coasting downhill and quickly accelerate, banking around the curves until you abruptly hit the ground...except imagine having a thin layer of water beneath you, propelling your descent with astonishing speed, and the incline is so steep that when you hit the bottom, the force compacts your body into the ground.  Such was the Peeks Creek debris flow.

You can click on this link to the NC Geological Survey for further details about the geology of the disaster.

The Human Experience

It is impossible to convey exactly what the victims of this terrible night felt and experienced.  I can only share what I have learned from having read the different reports and articles thus far, as well as what I learned from my friends Bob and Art.  I am deeply grateful for the time they spent showing me Peeks Creek and taking me to the the beginning point of the debris flow on Fish Hawk Mountain.  And I am honored that Bob shared the details of his personal experience of loosing his family home with me, and all that that encompassed for him and his family.

Out of respect for the victim's privacy, I am not sharing names.  My hope is not to open any deep wounds or bring up difficult memories; only to help others understand what occurred and the enormity of the horror of that night. 

Several residents who eye witnessed the confusing events of the night said it sounded like a bunch freight trains;  it was the only analogy that came to mind in the darkness.  For those who heard it, the sound was frightening enough to cause them to move from where they were into a direction they could only assume was safe. For those who lost their lives, no one will ever know if they heard a thing. 

One gentleman noticed an abnormal rise in the creek on his way to work that evening and after some thought, turned back to go home to tell his wife.  As soon as he arrived at the house, they heard the horrifyingly unusual sound, raced out the back door and up the hill with just enough time to turn and watch their home get crushed and and pushed away by a swiftly moving mountain of earth filled with trees and boulders.

Another gentleman who suffered both serious injury to himself and lost his home, described seeing a tornado, watching as his roof was blown off then feeling himself spinning in the tornado while seeing his dog, his refrigerator, his wood stove and a maple tree spinning about with him, thinking to himself "my God, this is a chasm" and then blacking out. 

A young woman lost her mother in law, young son, unborn child and also suffered serious injury to herself. 

A young couple evacuated from their home in Florida to escape the danger of Hurricane Ivan.  Their destination...Peeks Creek, to the family's trailer situated near the bank of creek.  The young man was actually on the phone with family when the debris flow demolished the trailer and killed he and his wife.  Later, the family member shared that one moment he was chatting with him, the next, the phone went dead.

Generations of families enjoyed life in this peaceful holler; for all it would never be the same.

A Travesty Within a Tragedy

Residents were in shock and despair.  Their homes were destroyed, friends and neighbors were dead or missing, and recovery workers were finding body parts within the rubble.

Bob shared that his mother received a call from officials asking if anyone was in their residence on the evening of September 16th (they were calling all residents as part of the rescue and recovery efforts to ensure everyone was accounted for).  Once learning that no one was present in her home that evening, they then informed her that her home was destroyed by the debris flow.  Once Bob learned of this, he  immediately drove from Florida to their much loved mountain home of 50 years, but with no real concept of what he would find.  On his drive, he received a call telling him that a photo of the family home was on the cover of the New York Times (first photo at the beginning of the blog) and that half of their home was gone.  The concept of what that really meant was hard for Bob to grasp.  Only when he arrived at Peeks Creek and saw the massive destruction, the totally changed landscape, and the recovery efforts taking place did the reality and stinging blow of the nightmare hit.  He was not prepared for the scale of the disaster.

Later, after the recovery efforts were under way, Bob's second stinging blow was the demolition letter Macon County sent, stating that the house "was condemned" and it was "illegal to enter".  50 years of family life obliterated by a mountain of debris, leaving only fond memories.  The family was grateful however, to not have lost life or limb.

When the dust had settled and the residents of Peeks Creek were continuing to pick up the pieces, they learned that no insurance payment would be made because the policies had an "earth movement exclusion"..."damage due to debris flow from heavy rain, flooding and landslide"..."we can not extend converge for the damage to your property at Peeks Creek".  Despite the efforts made by the home owners to make their case, the insurance companies won the fight.

Fortunately, the State of North Carolina decided it was imperative to provide State Hazard Abatement funds to assist in the recovery to ensure that no further imminent hazards would exist when families rebuilt their homes. Total damages were $1.6 million.  Furthermore, as part of the hazard abatement, no further development would ever be allowed in the area.

Nature's Recovery & Peeks Creek Today

Peeks Creek will never be the same.  What was once a small stream is now gouged out as wide as 50 feet in some spots.  Nature has taken over and almost obliterated the stream from view in some spots.  But it will always be Peeks Creek.

The following pictures were taken on 8/30/12.  They show different areas of the path the debris flow; to see photos immediately following the disaster, click here Peeks Creek disaster, they are not necessarily of the same spots along the creek as the pictures I took, but will give you an idea of nature's regrowth over time.

This photo gives you a sense for how steep the descent is.

Here you can see the creeks flow and how the path of the debris flow did not actually get very wide toward the top of the mountain, rather followed the creek.

Notice the narrow creek now flowing, but all the rocks littering the path; this was not how the creek originally looked.

The creek used to be seen clearly from the road, and if you were standing at the creek, the road would have been about at the height of your knee.  As you may be able to tell here, now the road level is about 5 feet above the creek; the debris flow gouged out the earth and deepened the creek's path significantly.  It did not, however, increase the depth of the water.  You can also see how nature has filled the land with wildflowers and saplings, healing itself after having everything on it's surface violently scraped away.

Notice all the rock, dirt and silt piled up along both sides of the creek.

These photos are nearing the area where the homes that were destroyed once stood.  It is also beginning to approach the bottom of the creek where it eventually joins the Cullasaja River. Again notice all the large rocks and boulders; they were not always there.

Please note that I am not an expert on Peeks Creek.  I am a person who was deeply touched when in October 2005, I learned about this tragedy, and visited the site.  I was filled with tremendous sadness, even though I did not know anyone who had been personally affected at that time.  I was also astonished by devastation I saw.  And extremely curious about how this could happen.  I am no stranger to natural disasters.  In fact, I was directly involved with Florida's recovery efforts (through my work at the time) in all the 2004 hurricanes...Charlie, Francis, Ivan and Jean.  Honestly, I did not enjoy it.  Not because I didn't want to help, but because it is difficult to be focused on others when you yourself have been affected (I am extremely fortunate that I had only minor damage to my home from the hurricanes, I can not imagine the impact of sustaining major damage).  Perhaps this is one of the connections for me, being that the same storms created disasters 600+ miles away from me...what a small world we live in. 

Now, years later, when I visit Peeks Creek, I am once again astonished by nature.  But this time, because of it's ability to recover, renew & revitalize.  In many ways, nature is creating a new Peeks Creek.  My hope is that for all those affected by this nightmare, they may find peace in the resumption of their new lives.

New York Times, September 20, 2003
Franklin Press, September 21, 2004
Asheville Citizen Times, September 17, 18 & 22, 2004
"The Day the Earth Didn't Stand Still" DVD, HOPE Fund
NC Geological Survey
Much gratitude to the search and recovery teams and volunteers who assisted in the aftermath of this disaster.

And a very special thanks to my friend Bob for sharing your story with me!  (Art, next time we go for a Jeep tour, you can have the front seat, LOL!)

Thank you for reading my blog, you are the best f/f/r/s/f's, see you tomorrow,


Dad/Pepere said...

Thank you for a wonderful description of what happened during that disaster...I'm grateful to my friends, Bob and Art for their contributions to this effort. Peace to all those who were affected. Hugs!

mj said...

My wife's family has a cabin right where the creek meets the Cullasaga...lost a garage/shed and a small deck overlooking where the creek and river joined (so we were lucky). So sad knowing we had walked past those who lost their lives when we would venture up the road...but glad that nature is building a lasting monument to them by gradually restoring the beauty of new growth

Lise said...

Wow, mj, how difficult that must have been. It is really amazing how nature restores itself! Thanks for visiting my blog and commenting!