Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Running Blackburn Fork Two Years After The Flood

Blackburn Fork Road Two Years Ago

Zion Road Bridge, August, 2010
Zion Road Bridge Now, Two Years Later

When Josh Hite and I innocently turned down Blackburn Ford Road on our morning run of Friday, August 27, 2010, we didn’t know we were headed for the scene of water’s most forceful devastation we’d ever seen. That day we waded the river and scrambled through house-sized piles of tangled trees. Three of the four bridges crossing the river, along with their abutments and piers, had been scattered by the flood’s immense force. Judy Richardson, who lives in a house on ground barely high enough to survive the flood and overlooking one of the bridges swept away, said it looked like the Colorado River had coursed through that narrow valley.

Few people knew what had happened on lower Blackburn Fork nine days before. East Blackburn Fork and West Blackburn Fork converge in southern Jackson County to make the named river. A mile and a half downstream the river jumps over Cummins Falls, which this year was named as a State Park. The section of the river below the falls snakes through a gorge in sparsely-populated Jackson County. The stream’s remote location and the flood’s devastation made it difficult for anyone to venture in. Little news had come out.

I had grown up on the Cumberland River before the prevalence of flood-control dams, and on the free-flowing Salt Lick Creek in Jackson County. I was accustomed to dealing with floods that covered roads and cropland and disrupted life. This was different. This flood had roared with speed and force enough to uproot and break two-foot thick trees and sweep them away, whole groves sometimes.

What Josh and I saw that day astonished us. We rambled the length of the gorge in amazement. Several hours and twenty-two miles later we found ourselves in Gainesboro, hungry, dehydrated and exhausted from exploring and running through the August heat. His wife Martha drove from Cookeville to Gainesboro to pick us up. A year later my account of that run became Chapter 40 in the book Going Down Slow (2011).

Once back home, I sent an e-mail to Charles Denning, who a few years earlier had retired as Executive Editor of the 100-plus-year-old Herald-Citizen. “You must see what I have just seen,” I wrote, and then described the destruction. He though that I’d “been nibbling on wild mushrooms,” that it was a “hallucinatory picture” I’d painted. I don’t blame him; I laid it on. I knew if he saw the scene he’d be unable to resist writing about it. 

Three days later, on Monday, we drove to some of the worst destruction. We spent the afternoon touring, collecting information and making pictures. He interviewed Judy Richardson, who’d witnessed the flood. On the following Sunday his story appeared on the front page above the fold. It included a photograph of me running through a gouged-out wasteland where the road had once been. Finally, sixteen days after the flood, Charles’ story gave the world a glimpse of the devastation on Blackburn Fork—a stream designated by the state legislature as a State Scenic River.

After the story appeared, Tennessee Tech geology professor Evan Hart called me. He asked if I;d lead him and a team on a tour of the erosion. They were interested in the geology of the flood. I agreed.  A few days later he, another professor, two graduate students and I toured the damage. One student was planning to prepare a report on the flood, including drainage area, surveys of flood cross-sections and flow rates. I made all my pictures available. A few months later I saw Professor Hart. They’d estimated the flood size. Best they could determine, it had been between a 500-year and 1,000-year flood. By either number, Blackburn Fork experienced a flood never before seen by civilization.

Today, Josh and I made our second anniversary run down the river. The run has become an annual habit. Things have changed remarkably for the better there since last year, and certainly since two years ago. The road has been raised and rebuilt, the section at Judy Richardson’s house paved even. In places where the road comes close to the river, rip-rap has been placed on tall embankments which should resist future undercutting. The piles of trees have been mostly removed. The bridge at Zion Road has been replaced by a longer and higher bridge, remnants of the old collapsed bridge hauled away.

Josh and I met Judy Richardson’s husband, Jim, driving a black SUV. He stopped to talk and introduced himself. He told us how it had been the morning of the flood, how it came much too close to his house and how they’d been trapped there. The wild river was in front of them, and a flooded branch running beside and behind the house had cut them off. He watched as the flood snapped off two-foot-diameter walnut trees and carried them away. The wood in each was worth a few thousand.

He told us how many rocks had been deposited on the soybean field by the flood, said that after 200 tandem-axle-truck loads had been hauled away from a three-acre site, it barely made a dent. These rocks served as fill material to rebuild the road. Officials of a construction company told him that the flood’s force was so strong it moved all boulders less than 6,000 pounds in size.

Jim said that when State Senator Charlotte Burks had toured the flood area, she asked in astonishment, “How come people don’t know about this?” He’d told her it was because “people can’t get in here.”

People can get in now; they can drive the family car. To the unaware eye, little sign of the violence remains. They’ll likely find a peaceful scene, a picturesque stream meandering through a rustic valley. But it will yet take a long time before the stands of mature trees fully return to the banks of this Scenic River. I’ll go there, too, but I’ll never see it again the way I remember it once being.