Thursday, July 18, 2013

July 1916 -- Carolinas' monster flood

Round after round of heavy rain belted the western Carolinas from early June through the middle of this month, washing out roads and causing plenty of damage across the region.

Some of the flooding along Mountain Island Lake was the result of heavy rain falling in the mountains, then coming down the Catawba River and its chain of reservoirs.

But the real king of July floods came 97 years ago.

A reader in Catawba County reminded me of the July 1916 floods, which were responsible for some of the worst storm-related damage ever in the Carolinas.

And as I've written many times before, it all was the result of a dying tropical weather system -- not a full-fledged, land-falling hurricane, but what was left of one. Tropical systems that move inland are capable of producing gigantic rain totals, as we learned a couple times since Tropical Storms Jerry (1995) and Danny (1997) came through the Charlotte area.

The 1916 flood was caused by the remnants of a hurricane which made landfall early Friday, July 14, near Charleston. There was little damage in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, but as the hurricane moved inland and weakened, the heavy rains spread rapidly and intensified in the mountains.

Charlotte got only 5.15 inches of rain from the storm, although sustained winds of 40 to 50 mph caused plenty of problems with downed trees and structural damage.

In the mountains, the orographic effect of incredibly moist air rising in altitude triggered extremely heavy rains. There were measurements of 20 to 24 inches in some mountain areas from July 14-16.

A recording station at Alta Pass in the mountains logged 22.22 inches, a record for a 24-hour period in the United States.

Damage, in 1916 dollars, was estimated at more than $21 million. The death toll was a guesstimate, but the number of 80 fatalities was mentioned in several reports.

Extreme flooding was reported in places like Lenoir, Taylorsville, Statesville and in the mountain counties. Dozens died, roads were completely wiped away, and businesses were destroyed. I read one account of flooding washing away a cemetery, leaving nothing behind -- not even the graves.

Just as was the case this summer, the heavy mountain rain drained into the Catawba River's headwaters and rushed downstream.  In 1916, however, there was no chain of reservoirs.  Duke Energy this month was able to regulate the water flow through the various reservoirs and prevent a widespread outbreak of serious flooding. That wasn't possible in 1916.

So the Catawba River roared out of its banks, washing away bridges and roads.

Residents near Mount Holly stood a distance away from the raging river and watched debris float downstream. They say livestock, parts of houses, sections of bridges, trees.  All of that had been uprooted farther up the river and was headed toward South Carolina.

The Southern Railway bridge north of Mount Holly collapsed on the evening of Sunday, July 16, with 18 reported deaths.  As darkness fell, according to reports, some of the men grabbed on to trees in the river in an effort to survive. By the next morning, the trees were submerged.

By some estimates, the river rose 50 feet above its usual level.

Late on the 16th, the Southern Railway bridge in Rock Hill collapsed.  When that 500-foot span went down, rail traffic between Charlotte and Jacksonville was halted.

You can find a number of accounts of the flooding, but two that I found interesting were from UNC-Asheville and from a historical study in Catawba County.

If you're not a native of the Carolinas -- as many of us are not -- the July 1916 flood gives you a healthy respect for the incredible amounts of rain that can fall in a hurry around here, especially when the tropics are involved.


Anonymous said...

The 1916 flood was actually the result of 2 tropical systems-one from the gulf and one from the Atlantic:

"On July 5th and 6th a tropical cyclone swept over the Gulf Coast of Alabama, and [was] followed by torrential rains over a large part of the state and into Tennessee and the Carolinas. (1917, Southern Railway Company. The Floods of July 1916, p.7)

"A second tropical cyclone passed over Charleston, S.C. during the morning of July 14th causing some local damage and, moving northwestward, expended its full force on the watersheds in western North Carolina where the rain from the first storm had already saturated the soil and filled the streams bank-full. All previous 24-hour records of rainfall in the United States were exceeded. The run-off from the saturated soil was very rapid, streams rose high above all previous flood records; resulting in the death of about 80 persons and in property damage estimated by the United States Weather Bureau at about 22 million dollars. (1917, Southern Railway Company. The Floods of July 1916, p.7)

Anonymous said...

Someone left the faucet running.

blockhead said...


I enjoy your weather stories. Thanks. But I think you might be way, way off on one detail - that the North Carolina flooding was a record for the U.S.

The world - not just U.S. - record for rainfall was near my home in Virginia, Aug. 19-20, 1969, when the remains of Hurricane Camille got stuck in the mountains. I was in North Carolina, but my parents were at home and said all night, it was like blue daylight from constant lightning. I picked this up from Wikipedia, but it's available from dozens of other sources, including the National Weather Service, so I think it's correct: "The world record quantity of 27 inches (690 mm) of rain, fell mainly in a three-hour period. Over five hours, it yielded more than 37 inches (940 mm), while the previous day had seen a deluge of 5 inches in half an hour." Nobody ever determined the exact death toll, but it was in the hundreds. The reason for the uncertainty is that entire communities, including all members even of extended families, simply vanished in floors and mudslides. Nobody was left to recall how many people had lived there, or who they were. Here's a quote: "There were reports of animals drowning in trees and people who had had to cup their hands around their mouth and nose to breathe."

Anonymous said...

Blockhead you are incorrect.

1.) The writer meant the record at the time (1916)

2.) The world record for 24 hours is 71.9 inches from 1966

Anonymous said...

I've lived in Charlotte for 22 years and I never remember a summer as consistantly rainy as this one.

This summer blows weather-wise

Anonymous said...

Blockhead - pay attention to the story. Steve was writing about flooding and rainfall in the Carolinas, not Virginia or any other place. The record rainfall he told about was the record at that time. He didn't say it was still a current record. Again, pay attention to the story.

Anonymous said...

The important thing to learn:
Were the 1916 & 1960s weather records caused by global warming or climate change?

Anonymous said...

In 1916 and 1960 they were recognised as storms, much like the ones we receive every year called tropical storms or hurricanes; Marxist politics were yet to be intertwined into weather forecasting.