Nestled into a narrow valley, most of Helen sits on a floodplain. That’s the flat, level ground between slopes, with the river flowing just a few feet below. The first part of the word “floodplain” spells a clear warning.
Another Southern town in a similar situation is Sylva, North Carolina. Less than 2 hours from Gainesville, Sylva has long been discovered by tourists as a friendly place with a pretty downtown, a unique microbrewery, a tea house and bistro, and the old Coffee Shop where I’ve enjoyed many meals. Franklin D. Roosevelt once visited the town in 1936.
Sylva’s physical location has the potential for severe flooding. The Sylva Herald shows archive pictures of the 1940 deluge, which pushed the nearby Tuckaseegee River to 21 feet above flood stage. Similar to Helen, Sylva’s downtown is located next to a normally quiet stream. Just like the Chattahoochee, Scott Creek can swell dangerously after heavy rain before it drains into the Tuckaseegee. Four valleys come together within Sylva’s city limits, all draining into Scott Creek. On Christmas Eve, 2015, the creek overflowed after severe rainfall.
First responders face a difficult situation there. The Sylva Police Department is located on the floodplain, just 400 feet from the stream and only a few feet above the normal water level. The same is true for the Sylva Fire Department, where the distance to the water is only 300 feet.
Harris Regional Hospital is in a better location, occupying a ridge about 100 feet above the Scott Creek floodplain.
Anybody who loves historical Southern towns like Sylva must be concerned about the pattern one encounters so often in the Appalachian Region. The older houses tend to be located a dozen or more feet above streams. But more recent development and government services often occupy the low-lying areas on floodplains.
Helen, Georgia, and Sylva, North Carolina, are just two of many towns where rising waters can quickly sweep away history and beauty.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.