Catawba River residents were told to expect rising water. But not a 56-year record.

Drone footage of flooding near Charlotte

Homes flooded along the Catawba river after massive rainfall. Catawba County declared a state of emergency on June 9, 2019.
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Homes flooded along the Catawba river after massive rainfall. Catawba County declared a state of emergency on June 9, 2019.

As pounding rain threatened to send the Catawba River spilling over its banks Sunday, Charlotte-Mecklenburg emergency workers warned residents along the river in northwest Charlotte that their homes would likely flood.

But they didn’t share one detail: Duke Energy had opened floodgates to the massive dam that impounds Lake Norman — releasing more water than had ever gushed through the gates in the dam’s 56-year history.

Water poured downstream toward the area that would later suffer the most severe damage from flooding in Mecklenburg County. Since the storms that ravaged up to 100 homes, many along Riverside Drive, some residents have questioned why the area was hit so hard and why they didn’t receive more warnings about the severity of the threat.

Sabrina Hilario said she, her husband and their dog were all on a paddleboard, escaping rising water that nearly crept into their living space, when her phone beeped at about 9 p.m. Sunday.

“I looked at the phone and it said there is a risk of flooding in my area,” she said Tuesday. “That is the only communication I got, a text, because I’m on the alert system.”

Heavy weekend rains have lead to flooding across North Carolina including along Riverside Drive on Mountain Island Lake. Docks broke free and became pinned against the Hwy 16 bridge that crosses the lake.

Emails obtained by the Observer show that Duke began releasing water from the Cowans Ford Dam on Lake Norman before waters started rising rapidly and people started evacuating their homes. Floodgates are opened to protect a dam’s structural integrity and control the flow of water downstream.

“The result of the release of water may cause flood-like conditions for the homes in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County along Riverside Drive area along the Catawba River. It is expected this could affect 40-50 homes,” said an email the city’s chief marketing officer, Brent Kelly, sent to Mayor Vi Lyles and City Council members at 8:23 p.m. Sunday.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg emergency response officials said initial alerts, which go out as texts, emails or phone calls to people who have signed up for them, to “expect flooding” were sent to Riverside Drive residents at 12:44 p.m. Sunday, followed about two hours later by National Weather Service alerts. Firefighters began going door-to-door in the Riverside area between 3 and 5 p.m., urging residents to evacuate. Charlotte-Mecklenburg sent urgent alerts to the area at 9:04 p.m., saying flooding was expected to worsen.

Hannah Sanborn, a planner for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Emergency Services, said Tuesday that officials followed their normal policy of warning residents about the threat of flooding, but did not tell them about Duke’s release of water from the dam.

“We are going to message about the threat. That’s our concern,” Sanborn said. “As for Duke Energy’s operations, we’re not going to message on their behalf. That’s private industry.”

Caldwell and Catawba counties were placed under a State of Emergency and a community on Mecklenburg County was evacuated as flooding threatened the areas Sunday.

Duke says the company notified local and state emergency officials of its operations and posted the floodgate information on its lake website, updating the information several times each day. The Catawba River basin, which extends to the North Carolina foothills, got 7 to 9 inches of rain over four days, but some places got more.

“We updated our web messages throughout the event as conditions changed,” Duke spokeswoman Kim Crawford said by email. “Our district managers communicated before and throughout the event with local emergency management officials, who initiated reverse 911 calls to affected residents and recommended evacuations at Mountain Island.

“Our role is to keep emergency management officials informed so they can make decisions on the timing and need for evacuations and electrical disconnects. Emergency management agencies use a variety of communications to reach residents.”

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Emergency Services’ deputy director, Robert Graham, said authorities tried to strike a balance between informing the public and not causing unnecessary panic. Graham said officials decided to send firefighters door-to-door to let residents know about a voluntary evacuation after learning of Duke’s plans.

“If you live in that neighborhood, you are aware of what goes on with Duke,” Graham said. While residents in the Mountain Island Lake area sometimes see flooding in their yards, he said, homes often escape damage. Officials said the area had not seen severe flooding since at least 2013.

County commissioner Pat Cotham said government officials and Duke Energy had a responsibility to share more information with residents.

“This is terrible,” Cotham said. “I would like to know who knew what and when did they know it. This had a major impact on people’s lives. We have to have a better plan.”

Residents blame Duke Energy

But some residents of the flooded areas also blame Duke for mismanaging the flow of water down its chain of 11 lakes on the Catawba River.

Hilario said she had tracked the rising water level in Mountain Island Lake throughout the day Sunday. By Monday, according to Duke’s online data, Mountain Island averaged nearly 5 feet over full pond and nearly 9 feet over Duke’s preferred level.

But the big lake upstream, Norman, is the real key because its 32,000 acres hold trillions of gallons of water and can store rainwater pouring down the Catawba River from upstream.

“Lake Norman for us is our savior — an inch (of higher lake level) on Lake Norman is a foot for us,” Hilario said. But Norman’s lake level was kept high during recent weeks of dry weather that preceded the weekend storm, she said, giving it less capacity to store rainwater. “That’s what really messed everything up,” she said.

Duke says it started moving water from the upper Catawba River basin last Wednesday, passing it through Lake Norman. The lake had about 1.5 feet of storage, which Duke said was enough based on the rain forecast.

Floodgates on the Cowans Ford Dam were opened when Lake Norman had no water storage left. On Sunday, Duke said, it moved the most water through the floodgates in the dam’s 56-year history.

Duke’s online data show that Norman’s water level averaged 1.6 feet below full pond, slightly higher than Duke’s target level, on Wednesday and Thursday, before four days of rain began Friday. On Tuesday, Norman was a few inches below full pond.

Tom Davis, whose five-acre property is a mile or two downstream of the Mountain Island Lake dam, said Duke keeps Lake Norman’s target lake level higher than lakes upstream and downstream of it to appease lakefront property owners. “A rain event of about 10 inches in Hickory should not fill up Lake Norman,” he said.

“They have a better staff of meteorologists than any TV station,” said Davis, who had two feet of water in his living room. “Does the middle class have to pay for the rich to play on Lake Norman?”