The land of two lakes and four rivers was overflowing with water last week as rain drenched Franklin County.
Some local areas received approximately 10 inches of rain thanks to an upper-level low that stalled to the west of the area last week. The days-long deluge caused flooding at Smith Mountain Lake and made history at Philpott Lake. For the first time in the dam’s 68-year history, Philpott Lake flowed over the spillway beginning around 3 a.m. Friday, May 22. It lasted until about 3 p.m. according to Christopher Powell, operations manager at the dam.
Brian Stewart, assistant manager at Philpott Lake, said the flood control dam that affects the Smith River downstream has come close to the spillway but “has never freely flown over the top” like it did last week.
“There are a lot of different factors that go into everything,” he said. “Philpott Lake has a large area that drains into it and where we get the rain is very influential on how much water we get, but there has just been a whole lot of rain this week.”
Stewart said the main tributary into the lake is the Smith River but Runnett Bag Creek, Otter Creek and Nicholas Creek also areas flow into Philpott Lake up to Ferrum and even Rock Castle Gorge off the Blue Ridge Parkway.
While he said the rainfall in and of itself was not the worst the area has seen, the persistent rainfall for days brought the lake level from its normal level 973.5 feet elevation to the spillway’s elevation of 985 feet. Stewart said the lake was flowing at approximately 985.2 feet.
Less than a mile downstream, homeowner Phyllis Keaton said she wasn’t concerned about flooding because it was out of her control.
“If it is gonna come, there’s nothing you can do,” Keaton said May 22. “Of course you worry about it because you got the dam right up the street and more rain coming.”
Residents in the surrounding area visited the dam as the sun began to shine to see history in the making. Gaye Woods of Bassett said her father was one of the original construction workers on the dam in the early 1950s. She said she wanted to see the water coming over the spillway for the first time. As water was trickling into the parking area from the hillside, Woods noted there is was a small hillside waterfall that had a strong flow that day after the rain.
The dam itself, was damaged Sunday, after a line of thunderstorms wreaked havoc on the area triggering a mudslide, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. No injuries were reported.
The landslide, which damaged the switch house and the transformers area, caused a temporary power outage at the dam when it damaged the backup generator. Powell said Tuesday morning portable generators were being used to keep the gates moving and the dam functioning.
There are no anticipated downstream impacts, according to reports.
Debris was a problem at Smith Mountain Lake, as well as Philpott Lake thanks to the rain washing it down the rivers into the lakes. Boat ramps were rendered useless all around Philpott Lake, Stewart said.
Meanwhile, a no-wake zone alert was issued by the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office.
"Always important to slowly navigate through No Wake Zones, but after all the rain we have experienced, causing wakes can be more dangerous and hazardous to property owners,” Sgt. Megan Patterson said. “Many docks are either under or almost under water this morning. Please be courteous and proceed very slowly inside No Wake Zones."
Smith Mountain Lake reached just under 798 feet or nearly 3 feet above full pond on the afternoon of May 22 and slowly began to recede.
Roadways across the area experienced flooding or mudslide damage.
According to the Virginia Department of Transportation, Five Mile Mountain Road is closed until further notice due to a slide. The slide is located 2.1 miles south of Cypress Road at the Floyd County line, and 1.2 miles north of Turners Creek Road. There is a detour in place, and VDOT said it is currently assessing for repairs and plan.
A section of Virginia 116 (Jubal Early Highway) in Franklin County in the Coopers Cove area is closed to through traffic. The road collapsed in the early morning hours of May 22 during prolonged rainfall, according to VDOT officials. The closure is located 1.5 miles east of Virgnia 1520 (Windridge Parkway) and 0.9 mile west of Virginia 681 (Coopers Cove Road).
VDOT estimated repairs will take approximately one to two months to before the road can reopen to traffic. Plans to stabilize the slope include using using soil nails. This process involves launching steel rods into the slope to secure it. Once the slope alongside Virginia 116 is stable, stone and fill material will be used to replace the roadbed. The section of Virginia 116 then will be repaved, and the pavement markings and guardrail replaced.
According to a May 22 press release from the National Park Service, part of the Blue Ridge Parkway that winds in and out of northern Franklin County is also closed. The closure extends from Virginia 24 south to Adney Gap just west of Callaway or milepost 112.4 south to milepost 135.9.
Within the larger closure, a full road closure to all uses — including motor traffic, bicycles and pedestrians — is in place from milepost 121.4 at U.S. 220 to milepost 135.9 at Adney Gap.
The largest hazard is a full road failure roughly 150 feet in length at milepost 128. In addition, parkway staff also discovered two smaller slope failures that resulted in debris on the road at both mileposts 119 and 124. The release cited additional concerns for the stability of the hill and trees above the road in that area.
The National Park Service and Federal Highway Administration will assess the issues and determine what repairs are needed. Geotechnical and roadway design experts will assess road failures and make recommendations for repairs and restoration of access. The schedule for these repairs is not currently known, but Tubby Kubik, executive director for the parkway, said he anticipates the process will take most of the summer season.