1916 flood - houses.jpg

Only roofs are visible in the rising water at Lookout Shoals in 1916.

The recent flooding of Mountain Island Lake after massive amounts of rain upstream was a reminder of just how vulnerable waterfront property – and the people who live there – can be to the forces of nature.

A foot of rain fell in some places in Catawba County, starting a liquid chain reaction as water made its way south through Duke Energy’s Catawba River collection of basins to Lake Norman, through Duke’s three working turbines and three of its 11 floodgates at the Cowan’s Ford Dam, to Mountain Island Lake and then on to Lake Wylie and South Carolina.

But the rain came and went relatively quickly. So while the surge swelled water levels suddenly in the Mountain Island Lake area, the flooding soon subsided.

That wasn’t the case more than a century ago when the Great Flood of 2016 claimed more than 80 lives and washed away homes, bridges, even farm animals along the Catawba River.

The torrent also took out much of Duke Energy predecessor Southern Power’s hydroelectric facilities on the Catawba. It was the damage from that storm that led Southern Power to plan and develop the sophisticated series of reservoirs – from Lake James, on the border of Burke and McDowell counties, to Lake Wateree, about 50 miles northeast of Columbia, S.C.

Duke’s turbines along the Catawba River chain remain the company’s primary source of water-generated electricity. And the lakes – including Norman and Mountain Island – have fueled development and population growth.

But in 1916, as World War I raged in Europe, it was nature that attacked in North Carolina 


Double blow

On July 10, after making landfall on the Gulf Coast with 107 mph winds, a hurricane made its way inland and ended up parking over the Blue Ridge Mountains.

It rained. And rained. And Rained.

For three days straight.

Just as the deluge was subsiding, another hurricane moved ashore at Charleston, S.C., blew into North Carolina and began dumping a second, even more devastating round of rain onto already-saturated areas.

More than 19 inches of rain fell over a 24-hour period. When the runoff poured down the mountains, it had one place to go: the Catawba River, which ultimately rose more than 50 feet above flood level.

In addition to the lives lost, entire farms, mills and communities were destroyed.

By the time the rain stopped on July 16, the torrent had laid waste to every dam in western North Carolina, and spared only a single bridge over the Catawba.

Southern Power’s hydroelectric stations along the Catawba also were severely damaged. It would take two months to get them all running again.

Southern Power co-founder James B. Duke, for whom the company would later be named, wanted to protect power stations and the communities along the Catawba from another catastrophe.

The result was a decades-long effort using dams to create 11 lakes on which Duke Energy now operates more than a dozen hydroelectric stations. With those dams and reservoirs, the company is able to manage the flow of water through its Catawba system, lessening the threat of catastrophic flooding.

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