During a long-planned visit to Haywood County at the invitation of the tourism community, U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis swung by Canton Thursday to see how the flood recovery was coming along.
Staff members accompanying the senator cautioned the visit would be a short one, perhaps 30 minutes or so, but when Tillis was asked what he wanted to see, the senator suggested walking the same route as the one where he initially toured the damage. The visit lasted about an hour and a half.
"He sincerely wanted to know how we were doing and wanted to see it with his own eyes," said Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers. "I appreciated him following up with us, just like Gov. Cooper has. They've been there since day one for us and shown they aren’t disappearing a week later."
The tour included a peek inside the flooded town hall that was almost unrecognizable, with only studs visible where walls used to be. The walking tour passed by medical offices on Park Street, BearWaters Brewing, Riverview Farm and Garden, as well as the school facilities where ball fields and the football stadium were still in ruins.
Smathers told Tillis he was glad the state patiently worked through the disaster declaration process to ensure the maximum reimbursement possible through federal programs.
The focus now needs to shift to the execution phase, the senator said.
“People tell me FEMA has been wonderful to work with,” Tillis said, referring to an earlier meeting with county and business leaders, as well as regional tourism representatives.
He urged the county, town and school representatives who joined the walking tour to let him know if there were any problems or questions, praising his staff member Corey Weber, who was instrumental in getting the disaster declaration ready for approval at the federal level.
Smathers said meeting Weber was key as she is the staff member who is the direct liaison between the senator's office and FEMA and has broad experience with the disaster process.
"We spent a lot of time asking her questions and we asked her to give us ideas of what has worked elsewhere, especially on rivers," Smathers said.
During a stop at Riverview Farm and Garden, the group chatted with Ronnie Mills, who lived through similar flooding in 2004 when he owned the business before selling it to Chris Watkins.
“I remembered what it was like before when people came out by the hundreds to help us and wondered if they would do that again considering it is a new generation,” Mills said.
The question was answered the night of and in days immediately after flooding occurred. Again, hundreds of helpers gathered at the store to do whatever was needed.
Within 10 days, every single piece of merchandise had been removed from the store, sorted and cleaned up if it was salvageable, Watkins said, estimating only about 20% of inventory — items on which he had no insurance — could be saved.
While regional or national disaster relief agencies swoop in and provide help for homeowners to clean up flooded properties, such assistance is not available for private businesses. Loyal store owners and community residents saved the day once again, just as they did 17 years ago when not just one, but two tropical storms struck the business, Mills said.
Smathers said he continues to urge people to be patient.
"There are still a lot of answers we don’t have yet," he said. "Everybody needs to ask questions, and when issues pop out we'll reach out to Sen. Tillis' or Sen. Burr's office for help. The next major step will be to see what the state relief package looks like."