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By Jim Heavner

The Rains, The Floods, The Trees And Us

By Jim Heavner Posted July 1, 2013 at 9:10 am

In Chapel Hill, the rain’s a pain when it falls mainly all in one weekend.

Because our aptly named municipality is, sure enough, mostly on a hill, one might wonder why we have so many troubles with storms here. We do Pogo proud because we can find the culprit is in the mirror. Some of it we are changing; some, we would not have any other way.

All that water flows downhill where we once let folks pave and build. And on everywhere on the hill, we love our trees.

The intersection where Mallette meets Franklin Street, now the Chipotle intersection, but known to old timers as the Fowler’s Food Store intersection, was developed in the forties. We didn’t have many rules about storm water then.  That little swale always flooded.

When Bobby Fowler ran the family grocery, he discovered that kitty litter bags were the best flood “sand bags” that he would stack outside his doors! He was a big extrovert and everyone knew about Bobby and the kitty litter. The floods generally subsided pretty quickly and he would be open in a few hours. That was important because Fowler’s had a legendary walk-in beer cooler.

In the early sixties, the Karras brothers channeled Booker Creek into a culvert beneath what was to be their expanded Eastgate Shopping Center. Flood plains are great for AM radio towers, but not so good for that lovely strip that flooded again Sunday. The culvert overflowed , the water backed up to flood the bases of WCHL’s towers, the station’s signal got stronger but the building became a mess.

The times, they have been changing, but historically, the town allowed building in flood plains that, by last mid-century, enlightenment made controversial but not always prohibited. The Camelot Apartment project on Estes Drive across from University Mall was built in a flood plain and its building permit caused a stir from environmentalists at the time.

But, they went ahead.Camelot floods a lot.

The flooding in that area was exacerbated by the huge impervious surface of University Mall right across the road. The mall itself sits on a site that was once a hill. I lived near there at the time and watched them move that whole doggone hill that had been the site of a dairy.

We always wondered why they could not build a mall on a hill, but the North Hills company wanted it at street level. Bulldozers and backhoes moved that hill for about a year in daily convoys of dirt trucks filled to the brim. Many of us who were here remember its dust storms.

Things progressively changed, as the early lack of awareness and regulations gave way to an emerging realization that it’s not a good idea to build or pave things where it floods.  The rules are tougher and we hate it when they are tough on any of us who want to build something.

We have gotten better at it, but it’s part of the history we preserve.Have you noticed that everything in town is either paved or it’s a tree? Every impervious surface floods and soaks more of the soil that holds the trees.

And oh, my lord, what a love affair between the trees and us. In Chapel Hill’s old neighborhoods, they are called “leafy” for a reason.

We live in a town where tree hugging is a universally celebrated virtue. Of course, the older the tree, the bigger it is, the more we are reverentially, belligerently protective!

Alas, the older and bigger the tree, the more likely it is to fall when we have heavy rains. Trees fall, streets are blocked, power goes out and everyone is a grump except WCHL, which gets all those listeners who flock there in such emergencies.

There are remedies. This would be easy to fix. But, none of us wants to spend the money to put power lines underground. And we sure don’t want to cut those trees.  Unthinkable!

All of us watch the Duke Power tree trimmers with a guarded eye ready to argue with those good guys up in the bucket as the crews “butcher” our favorite trees. How insensitive!

Then, here comes the rains. When the ground is saturated, the trees fall and much of the town is out of power. Then, we call out the Duke Power crews for emergency repairs while we complain about how long it takes them. How slow!

That’s part of the life we live here. And as my departed old buddy Roland Giduz would opine when musing about our lovely local contradictions, “Ain’t it grand!”

Photo by @jdribo, Carrboro

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