Last week brought Collettsville a lot of rain, but things have been worse

Jul. 21, 2013 @ 08:17 AM

Clarence Raby Sr. was 16 and living in Collettsville when the "great flood" of 1940, a byproduct of a major hurricane that struck the Eastern U.S., washed into the area and dropped 4 inches of rain in 90 minutes.

He also had a front-row seat from his Valley View Circle home to the storm on July 12 that dumped 5 1/2 inches of rain and hail in just one hour.

He thinks the 1940 flood was worse.

"We got more rain this time," he said.

On Aug. 13, 1940, floodwaters backed up behind the projecting land supporting the ends of a railroad trestle, and rain fell over three days. A river carved through town, washing away the Green Valley Baptist Church, another church to the other side of the Johns River, and cutting off the town from the rest of the county for two weeks.

"Then, there was no fire department, no emergency or medical people (except for one doctor in town)," said Raby, 89. "There was no Abington Road, and a bridge on Mulberry Creek Road was washed out. To get out, you had to go across Globe Mountain. It was two weeks before people could get to Collettsville."

Raby's childhood home stood near where Abington Road now meets N.C. 90. During the 1940 storm, he and a friend, armed with shovels, walked to town to see what they could do to help out. Wading in water that at times was waist-deep, they slowly moved from one end of the town to the other. There was Mrs. Moore's barn that needed cleaning. They stopped at Clyde Taylor's store, and McClain's filling station, with offers of free ice cream in return for scraping the mud from around the gas pumps. Then there was "Short" Gragg's house.

"His daughter and I were the same age; there was a little extra incentive to help him out," Raby said.

Last week's storm was much shorter in comparison, though it packed 60-mph winds from a microburst, a severe downdraft of air that can be as powerful as a tornado, and hail, which left a blanket of white ice on the landscape, damaged crops and leveled gardens. 

Raby watched it, more or less, from his hillside home overlooking Collettsville.

"My wife, Judy, and I, and our daughter, Emily  (Metzger), watched the storm from our glassed-in porch," he said. "You couldn't see a whole lot of anything, it was raining so hard. We had a terrible wind. Then the power went off. The girls went back inside."

A dogwood tree knocked down two power lines to Raby's house. After the storm's fury subsided, from his wicker chair on the porch Raby could see emergency crews on N.C. 90 off in the distance.

The county declared a state of emergency was declared, and most roads in the areas were closed to traffic except for emergency vehicles because of fallen trees and power lines or landslides. More than 1,500 customers in the area lost power due to the storm.

But within a few days, even isolated people could get in and out, and power crews had restored electricity.

No comparison, Raby said: 1940 was worse.

And the 1940 flood didn't come close to the damage of 1916 (Raby wasn't around for that), when rain fell for 36 hours straight. According to a story in the Lenoir News-Topic, the once-thriving community of Mortimer, with an economy dependent on the lumber trade, never recovered from the flood. Bridges all over the county were washed away, along with farmland, livestock and crops. 

It's hard to come up with photographic evidence to compare this summer's flood to the previous ones, though.

"Finding a camera back then was like hunting chicken teeth," Raby said.