Abandoned Homestead along Basin Creek

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about downsizing and quality of life.

With yet another birthday coming up, perhaps it’s a good time to examine my environment and try to make some intelligent changes. Spend some time thinking about what’s important at this particular point in life. One of the advantages of being a curmudgeon is that key decisions about the direction of your life don’t have to be based on the whims of some Fortune 500 executive, or a job you can’t afford to leave. Huge plus right there.

I’m considering abandoning city life for something more rural, smaller and friendlier. Right now I live in a typical suburban house, in a typical middle tier city. While both Charlotte, and my particular abode are just fine, I’ve been here a long time. At 1780 sq ft, my home is way bigger than I need. I really use about half of that space for living. Like most people, I’ve fallen into the trap of believing all that space is necessary for, well, space. The reality is that it’s mostly used to store “stuff.” Over time, most homes become a museum of their owner’s life. Trinkets are accumulated from forgotten trips, stored in boxes or displayed on shelves. I have closets full of clothes I haven’t worn in years. I spend inordinate amounts of money to heat and air condition boxes of “stuff” I’ll most likely never open again. It doesn’t make sense.

Looks to me like a good excuse to make a move. There are a lot of factors to weigh, the nightmare of physically making a move, transporting and reassembling those boxes, the cost of it all, meeting new people, and adapting to a new environment.

Since I’m not writing a book, at least not in a single sitting, this post will be limited to one subtopic, the climate of my favorite potential relocation spot. The southern Appalachian Mountains.

Moving to a new town is a big deal. An optimal outcome requires serious planning. The problem is that humans like to make plans based on the idea that tomorrow’s world will be much like the world today. We don’t like to plan for exceptional events. It’s expensive, and if that tornado, hurricane or earthquake doesn’t happen, all the money goes to waste. But the world is changing, and exceptional events are happening more frequently. Drought in California, wildfires in the west, and floods, it seems like we get 100 year event every ten years.

So I think it’s wise to research the worst geophysical events that have happened in your chosen spot. Are you prepared to deal with something like that happening again? What can be done to reduce or reduce potential negative impacts.

The eastern side of the southern Appalachian mountains should be a great place to live so far as weather events are concerned. Tornadoes not a problem, and the mountains are far enough from the coast to miss the direct effects of hurricanes. But if you look a little closer, all may not be as benign as it seems. Along many of the hiking trails in the Carolina mountains, the ones that follow creeks, there are large pieces of granite, some as big as a house. Local mythology says that they were swept down the mountains during the floods of 1916. When you see a 900 ton chunk of granite resting in a creek bed 4 feet wide, pay attention, ask yourself how that happened. Think about what that stream must have been like when it was pushing that rock along.

The Southern Railway passenger station at Asheville

The Southern Railway passenger station at Asheville. The 1916 Flood

The 1916 Flood was caused by an unusual confluence of weather events. First, a Category 3 Hurricane made landfall along the gulf coast of Alabama. By the time it reached the southern Appalachian mountains, it was a tropical storm, one that dumped a massive amount of rain. That was bad. By the time the storm had exhausted its moisture, the rivers were at flood stage and the ground became completely saturated. That would have been manageable had it not been for a second hurricane, believed to be a large Category 2, that made landfall at Charleston, South Carolina just as the gulf storm was breaking up. When it reached the mountains a few days later, it added to the previous week’s rains. There was one 24 hour period when rainfall measured 22.22 inches. The French Broad river in Asheville crested 17 feet above flood levels. The Catawba river crested 23 feet above flood level. There are accounts of the Catawba being more than 40 feet above flood level, but let’s use the more conservative number. Either way, the end result was devastation. All bridges except a single rail bridge destroyed. Roads completely gone, telephone and telegraph cut off. No way in, no way out.

The Spring Street approach to Smith's Bridge

The Spring Street approach to Smith’s Bridge. The 1916 Floods.

Sounds like the Zombie Apocalypse. But if you are looking for a place to live, would the 20 foot storm surge and 200 mph winds of Miami or New Orleans be preferable? Other options include the tornadoes of the Midwest, or the wildfires and earthquakes of California. The southwest has major issues with heat and water, too much of one, not enough of the other. New England has cold, and a few hurricanes of their own. They don’t have the storm frequency of the gulf states, but they’ve had multiple devastating storms in the last century. The northwest has a major subduction zone right off the coast, and a volcano just inland. Tsunami, here we come.

What are the chances of any of those events happening in your lifetime? Impossible to calculate, but if it’s easy to avoid the worst events, it seems prudent to do so. There may not be a perfect place, so it comes down to picking your poison.

My thought is that as potential disasters go, torrential rains and downriver floods are not the worst of all possible worlds. Knowing the local history, you can avoid buying property along the river. Higher ground is going to be advantageous. And, like southern California, don’t build your dream house on a dirt slope that’s going to move downhill a few hundred yards when it gets wet.

That’s enough about potential Zombie Apocalypse scenarios, next week I’ll look at some of the positives.

Quote of the Day
“Global warming is actually a misnomer. It should be global extremes and global swings, because you add – as you add more energy into the atmosphere, it sloshes around. Energy doesn’t simply uniformly warm up the planet. And that means droughts in one area, enormous snowstorms in another area, 100-year floods here, 100-year forest fires there.”

Michio Kaku


Why weather patterns persist – Blocking Patterns

UNC: Southeastern Floods of 1916

Digital Heritage: Appalachian Floods of 1916 – 1940