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Four months after Tropical Storm Fred, Canton is still recovering

Lilly Knoepp
Curator Caroline Ponton shares the damage in the Canton Area Historical Museum basement. Previously, there were exhibits in the basement but the dry wall had to be removed after the flooding.

It’s been four months since Tropical Storm Fred devastated Haywood County – leaving six dead and a long cleanup ahead.  BPR takes us to Canton, one of the hardest hit areas, for a look at how the town is doing as the year ends.

Caroline Ponton is the curator at the Canton Area Historical Museum in downtown Canton.  Five months after the storm the museum still doesn’t have power.

“This is the basement. The first time I came here everything was decimated,” said Ponton.  

Credit Caroline Ponton
Caroline Ponton shared this picture of what the museum looked like when she returned after the flooding.

Ponton shows around the bare basement where dry wall had to be torn out. She says 70 percent of the historical materials in the basement were lost but almost everything upstairs has been salvaged.  Some of the prize pieces in the museum are Champion Paper Mill memorabilia. The mill – now Evergreen Packaging – is the main industry in the town.

“After everything when I was allowed to come back the plastic tubs were floating in the water but everything on the inside was dry,” said Ponton. Ponton thanked the volunteers who were instrumental in bringing artifacts upstairs before the flooding hit and who cleaned afterwards. She says the Cultural Resources Emergency Support Team worked with the museum to salvage what they could and clean up safely.

A generator is powering a dehumidifier to keep away mold from photographs like Canton’s former Mayors and now ever rustier logging equipment form Sunburst Logging Camp.  

The most valuable item that needs to be repaired is an IBM clock that synchronized the Champion Paper Mill machines in the 1950s. It will have the biggest cost to repair said Ponton.

Some of the museum exhibits are at Canton businesses and library right now while the basement is being fixed.

Ponton says she doesn’t know when everything will be fixed.

Credit Lilly Knoepp
The piece in the museum that were saved are upstairs in the museum. There isn't a timeline for when the museum will reopen.

“It’s out of my hands,” said Ponton.

The museum sits next door to the Canton Town Hall. Town officials haven’t been in those offices since the flood. Many town services have also had to be moved to other buildings.  

Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers says rebuilding is ahead of schedule in some areas but still has a long way to go in others.

“We don’t know. Are we rebuilding? Are we moving? And I think so many citizens in Haywood County are probably in that. So we will make it through the winter but by spring we will definitely need some clarity on what those next steps are,” said Smathers.  

Over 450 structures were damaged as well as 91 private bridges were damaged according to Haywood County Emergency Management.  

Credit Lilly Knoepp
The museum sits next to Town Hall in downtown Canton.

Tropical Strom Fred mainly impacted Cruso, Lake Logan, Center Pigeon, Canton, and Clyde.

On the night of the flood, over 70 people were rescued from flood situations and floodwaters and six people died.  

Smathers says the families in Cruso and those who lost loved ones still need help.

“The red tape, the nuances and the unknowns. That’s what’s continually haunting us,” said Smathers. “And again the need for housing. We didn’t have enough affordable housing before the flood but especially after.”

As of December 14th, Haywood Emergency Management estimates the total government for cleanup to be over $40 million and over $3.3 million given to Haywood County residents in FEMA assistance.  

Additionally 65,000 cubic yards of debris have been collected in Haywood County. This does not  include any debris in the river.

For Smathers, there is still a lot to be thankful for. 

“In so many regards, here in Haywood County we are luck compared to what Kentucky experienced. This time of year, you take the blessing that you have and you find a way to push forward through the unknowns,” said Smathers.  

FEMA is still reviewing 291 projects in an 11 county region of Western North Carolina that could be approved for grant funding.   

Lilly Knoepp serves as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina. She is a native of Franklin, NC who returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.
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