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Storms, rain flood High Country

Ashe County

Torrential rainfall poured over the High Country June 7-9 weekend, flooding roadways and swelling waterways to near-record highs across Ashe County.

Official National Weather Service accumulation totals list about 7.5 inches of rainfall at weather observer locations two miles east of Jefferson and near Laurel Springs, but many locations received a foot or more of rainfall, according to reports from Ashe Post & Times readers and NCDOT.

The rain gauge at the U.S. 221 expansion project showed between 11 and 12 inches of accumulation from the rain Saturday and Sunday, June 8 and 9, According to NCDOT Division Construction Engineer Trent Beaver.

Beaver said the expanding section of U.S. 221 between South Fork New River and the junction of N.C. 194 experienced minor damage due to the heavy rainfall. The project contractors worked Saturday and Sunday keeping U.S. 221 and connected side roads clear of water and debris, and workers are in the process of repairing shoulders and maintaining erosion control measures that were damaged by the enormous volume of runoff, according to Beaver.

Exceptional rainfall caused the South Fork New River near Jefferson to swell to its seventh highest crest since water levels were first measured in 1925, according to NWS Meteorologist Mike Sporer.

Some 5,556 Blue Ridge Energy customers in four counties were affected by power outages brought on by the flooding, including 2,939 who were at one point without power due to 25 damaged locations in Ashe County, according to BRE Director of Public Relations Renee Whitener.

“Although line crews used ATVs to reach some areas of damage, washed out roads and flooding made some areas totally inaccessible and hampered restoration,” Whitener said in an email.

Watauga County

Watauga County experienced extensive rainfall during the weekend, with areas such as Todd and Valle Crucis experiencing the heaviest impacts.

According to the National Weather Service Blacksburg meteorologist Mike Sporer, reports from Watauga County generally measured 7 to 9 inches of rain, with localized reports of over a foot in some areas, especially eastern Watauga County. The official reporter from Boone, located at the Boone Water Treatment Plant, recorded 9.41 inches of rain for the duration of the storm.

The several-day weather event was caused by a stagnant weather pattern that was produced by a deep upper-level low-pressure system “squeezing” all the precipitation into the region, as Sporer described it.

The eastern part of Watauga County, with steep mountain inclines and some places reaching 3,500 feet above sea level, was hit the hardest. Sporer said the terrain of the area contributed to the high localized totals due to “upslope conditions,” a condition where rain is pushed by winds up against the mountain.

Watauga Fire Marshal Taylor Marsh said the county received calls for two water rescue situations in the areas of Clark’s Creek Road and Watauga River Road. People in both of these calls were able to self-rescue, Marsh said.

A section in the 7000 block of Elk Creek Road was proposed to be closed for around a week — or maybe longer — after what N.C. Department of Transportation’s Kevin Whittington classified as a “major” mudslide occurred on June 10.

Several Watauga County Schools facilities were affected by the weekend storms. Superintendent Scott Elliott said three schools experienced electrical issues that knocked out phone services on June 10. Parkway School also had lost power to the well house and outside mobile units; however, Elliott said the school had enough pressure in the well reservoir to keep the water pumping until Blue Ridge Energy could replace a broken underground power line.

The most significant flood-related problems took place at Valle Crucis School after Dutch Creek crested its banks and flowed onto the school property, Elliott said. The Valle Crucis School parking lots, playground and property behind the school were under water.

Despite the weather event, Sporer said the High Country region is currently in a normal weather phase, according to three-month outlooks.

“There are no large-scale signals for prolonged wetness,” Sporer said, saying the recent storm system was not indicative of long-term weather patterns.

The “fairly normal” conditions, as Sporer described the current state, are a recent change that occurred in the last few months. This means that citizens likely won’t see the same level of precipitation that resulted in 2018 becoming the wettest year in NWS recorded history with 93.42 inches of rain. This amount shattered the previous recorded record of 74.83 set in 2013.

Woods named Best of Preps Women's Athlete of the Year

Several student-athletes from Ashe, Avery and Watauga high schools were honored June 3 in the Best of Preps ceremony presented by Mountain Times Publications at Watauga High School’s auditorium.

Student-athletes representing 23 sports were judged on athletic and academic achievement, service to the community and overcoming adversity in their lives and athletic careers.

Extra awards were given to those who the three anonymous judges felt went above the rest of the crowd. Ashe County’s Samantha Woods was named the Women’s Athlete of the Year, while Watauga’s Ben Critcher was named the Men’s Athlete of the Year.

Avery’s Ellie Kitchin was given the Comeback Award and Avery’s Faith Daniels was given the Community Excellence Award.

Watauga’s football coach Ryan Habich was given the Extra Mile Coach of the Year Award.

The keynote speaker was former Ashe County High and Watauga High athletic director and boys’ basketball coach Marc Payne. Payne told the audience of student-athletes to let their actions speak louder than their words.

“Under-promise and over-deliver,” Payne said. “Don’t talk about what you’re going to do. Prove what you’re going to do in how you play.”

Woods is a four-year winner in girls’ basketball. She is a 1,000-point scorer, a four-year All-Mountain Valley Conference basketball player and a three-year all-conference soccer player.

Woods holds the Ashe girls’ basketball record for career 3-point baskets, most 3-point baskets in a game and most 3-point baskets in a season.

“It’s awesome,” Woods said. “It’s good to see the hard work pay off. You can see it in the season when you win games, but in a ceremony like this, it really sinks in.”

Woods also volunteers at the Ashe County Arts Springfest and was a member of the Ashe High student council for four years. She was also a member of the Beta Club.

“Sam exhibits all of the qualities that any coach wants in a student-athlete and leader,” Ashe girls’ basketball coach Brianna Ashley said on Woods’ nomination form. “She is not only hard-working and dedicated, she leads by example as the team captain and she has the drive and will to win that can’t be taught. Sam was guarded by every team’s best defender and still tied for our leading scorer.”

Critcher has done his share of delivering both in competition and in the classroom. He was the Best of Preps winner in men’s golf and in men’s wrestling. Critcher, who carried a 4.33 weighted grade point average, was an All-Northwestern Conference wrestler and an All-NWC football player.

Academically, Critcher is a nominee for the Roan Scholars Leadership Program. He also is a member of Athletes for Good Club and is part of the Howards Creek Church youth group.

“I really didn’t expect to win all of these awards,” Critcher said. “It’s great to know all the hard work and dedication I put into it paid off and it’s got benefits.”

Critcher’s golf coach, Brett Green, said Critcher has shown dedication to not just golf, but to his academics and his other sports.

Critcher said he will attend Appalachian State in the fall and has not decided a major yet.

Habich was named coach of the year after leading Watauga to a 13-1 overall record and the Pioneers’ first NWC championship since 2007, which it shared the title with A.C. Reynolds. Watauga also won its first outright NWC championship in 2018 for the first time since 1980.

“It was a great year,” Habich said. “We had a great senior class with a very talented junior class. It all came together. Five years prior, we’ve had some really good seasons and we built on every year. Last year, it all came together.”

Daniels, who played girls’ basketball, girls’ soccer and volleyball, carried a weighted 4.464 grade point average. She averaged 9.4 and 5.5 rebounds for Avery’s 21-7 girls’ basketball team that made it to the fourth round of the state 1-A playoffs.

Daniels was also the co-president of the Beta Club and the president of the Future Leaders of America. She was a junior marshal at the Avery graduation and has also trained in CPR and has served as a camp counselor at the Williams YMCA.

Kitchin earned the Comeback Award for helping keep her family going since her sophomore year when her mother was diagnosed with cancer. She is the eldest kid in her family and had to be strong for her sisters and father.

Kitchin was the captain of the Avery women’s tennis team her junior and senior seasons. She has also been on the Avery’s track and field team her sophomore year and on the Vikings’ girls’ soccer team her senior year.

Despite being busy, Kitchin carried a 4.6 weighted GPA. She is a member of the National Technical Honor Society and was a junior marshal for Avery’s graduation in 2019.

ACSO still looking to improve under new command

JEFFERSON — In the run-up to the 2018 elections, then-sheriff candidate B. Phil Howell frequently spoke about improving every aspect of the Ashe County Sheriff’s Office. Since Howell and Chief Deputy Danny Houck took office in December 2018, they’ve stressed changes big and small. They said they’ve frequently just asked officers and employees in every department what needed changes and what things could be done, taking them into account every step of the way.

“I think mine and (Houck’s) motivation is to try to take care of this office as quick as we can. Just today, we got our first evidence refrigerator. As simple and as cheap as it was, we’ve never had one,” Howell said. “Things like that have been sitting stagnate and should have been done years ago, but hadn’t.”

While many changes made seem can straightforward, Houck said anything they do can take months to get done due to their budget.

The Ashe County Detention Center

Ashe County’s jail was one of the first things under the microscope. Captain and Chief Jailer Linda Carrow said there’s been many good changes to the operations of the jail, saying it’s a step above what it’s been in the past.

The complex was not without its problems, with Howell pointing to space management and various other issues which plagued the jail for years. One of the rooms near the front of the jail had been used as nothing more than storage for years according to Carrow, but it has since been transformed into a chaplain’s office. The office was also installed with technology allowing prisoners to make appearances in court via live streaming, but it has not been utilized yet.

Something important to any jail had also gone years without maintenance, the locks. Years had gone by with the locks not getting any work done on them, leading to build-ups of debris, internal problems and some having issues with working at all. Howell said they brought in an expert to go through each one for service, leading to the belief the locks had never been looked at since the building’s finishing nearly a decade ago.

Constantly stressing the little things, Howell said things such as new uniforms, distinct badges and new equipment have lead to an increased moral. The officers in the jail now have their own uniforms signifying their department, and a pale, silver badge and emblem to go with it.

The sheriff’s office also recently raised the price for other counties to house inmates in Ashe. Out-of-county inmates in Ashe is a common occurrence, with Howell recently saying more than 50 were being housed there, nearly one-third of the maximum capacity of the jail.

The Ashe County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved the fee for other counties from $40 per day to $45, which Howell said would add some extra income to the Sheriff’s Office for future flexibility. At the same meeting, the board approved a new computer system for the jail, adding one more thing to the list of improvements.

Visible around the County

Howell and Houck have made it a point for them and their officers to be seen in the county, to let people know they’re there, be able to talk to and available for those who need them. Houck said they’ve adjusted rotations to have more officers consistently out and about, while not overworking them. They said that the two of them being out in the community and working community events have helped increase public visibility.

Something else they’ve done is increased the frequency of checking in on registered sex offenders in Ashe County. A recent example is May 31, when Houck led one of four teams who made stops around the county checking on the 38 offenders who aren’t in jail. Houck said the checks had become less frequent during the past few years, but the ACSO is working to get them back to a relatively regular schedule. While going through the checks, officers found drugs in some locations and the occasional offender who just wasn’t home. Houck said since they aren’t notified beforehand, it isn’t surprising for one to have something else going on.

Something that was brought up by officers at the ACSO was the purchase of new handguns. Howell said the process to get the guns were relatively easy, the planning and work to get to the point of purchase took about six months. The guns being used already were roughly a decade old, with Howell wanting to keep the lifespan of used firearms to between three and five years. The office will be transitioning from .45-caliber handguns to 9mm ones, which be just as effective while cutting down on the cost of ammunition. Houck said the added ability of attached lights will help officers do their jobs.

Day-to-day operations

One of Houck’s first things at the ACSO was straightening out the office’s patrol room. At the time, there was only one computer for the officers to file reports on at the end of their shift, which Houck found frustrating.

“We were having guys staying over their shift and building time up, just because they’re waiting to do their reports,” Houck said. “On the administrative end of it, you’re killing yourself.”

Houck made a few calls and was able to get three cubicles and new computers to go with them. Houck called the decision a “no-brainer” and said things like it help both efficiency and moral.

Houck said something else they’ve done is make changes in office locations to better organize the different departments. The detectives, sergeants and other positions are now closer together, making it easier to communicate and work.

Howell said much is still yet to be done with the ACSO, saying there are many plans still in the works and he doubts they’ll ever feel totally finished. He added that it’s imperative they keep up and raise the office to whatever standards are out at the time, while pushing to go above and beyond them.

Jeff Fissel announced as next Arts Council Director

WEST JEFFERSON — The Ashe County Arts Council has found the successor to current and retiring executive director Jane Lonon in Jeff Fissel, they announced Monday, June 10.

Lonon announced in February she will retire at the end of the month after 38 years with the Arts Council, spending 31 of them as the executive director.

“From what I understand, I’ve got some pretty big shoes to fill and a lot of tradition to carry on,” Fissel said.

The 36-year-old Appalachian State University alumnus has spent the past nine years as executive director of Historic Rural Hill in Huntersville, a historical site in the are he grew up. No stranger to Ashe County, Fissel said he has fond memories of visiting while in college, and looks forward to continuing to live in the mountains.

Fissel admits he leans more toward the business side of things versus the arts, but feels his work with nonprofits in the past will help him in his new position. He said he’s had a deep love of the arts throughout his life, particularly music.

“I spend as much time seeing live music and being a part of live music as much as I can, even though I have no actual talent myself,” Fissel said. “I’ve just found a way to support it. It’s the same way with literary and visual arts, painting and photography, I have an appreciation and a love for all of it. I’ll take any opportunity I can to see it and be a part of it.”

Lonon said she will continue to work alongside Fissel up to her retirement, with the plan to help him along to fill her position. She said that while she wasn’t involved in the hiring process, she is sure it was a good decision.

“I trust my transition team,” Lonon said. “I trust the process they went through in finding the best possible candidate to fill this position to move the arts council forward.”

Arts Council Board President Ed Perzel said in a statement that Fissel was the right person for the job, adding that his style, confidence and experience will help arts in Ashe County continue to thrive.