A new water view

Three years ago, floods caused by Hurricanes Ivan and Frances devastated western North Carolina, claiming a dozen lives and leaving behind millions of dollars in property damage in and around Asheville.

In the aftermath of the disaster, community groups, business leaders and county and local government leaders pulled together to address a problem of critical community importance:  how to manage floods in this growing, mountainous region in a way that protects people, property and the environment.

About a year ago, these community efforts received a boost when RENCI at UNC Asheville was established. One of the first RENCI engagement centers, RENCI at UNC Asheville leverages RENCI’s statewide technology resources and expertise as well as the expertise of UNC Asheville, NOAA’s National Climate Data Center (NCDC) in Asheville and a wide range of groups involved in education, economic development and disaster management in the Asheville area. The unique government-university-community partnerships forged by RENCI at UNC Asheville are put to use solving problems important to western North Carolina.

“The timing for developing a RENCI engagement center in our area couldn’t have been better,” said Jim Fox, director of RENCI at UNC Asheville and a member of the Asheville-Buncombe Flood Damage Reduction Task Force. “We were able to combine the visualization and technological expertise of RENCI with local efforts to understand flooding. Merging all our resources and talents has resulted in new tools and a new understanding of flood dynamics in western North Carolina.”

RENCI also arrived in Asheville when the HUB project was gathering steam. The project is a consortium of government, educational, business and cultural groups in the Asheville area working to develop strategies for sustainable development of the region’s business and cultural communities. RENCI, with its focus on collaborative problem solving using community know-how and advanced technology tools, was a natural fit for the HUB, according to Fox, and tools and technologies created through the RENCI engagement center will likely find new uses though HUB project initiatives.

One early achievement for the new RENCI engagement center and the Asheville community is new high-resolution computer models of the 2004 floods, developed by RENCI at UNC Asheville and the National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center at UNC Asheville. The models, part of an animated film called Water in Western North Carolina, were presented June 12 at the Asheville City Council meeting by the Flood Damage Reduction Task Force. They also were displayed on an immersive dome at the Asheville Visualization Lab on June 15.

In addition to visually depicting what happened in 2004 so that emergency responders can learn from that experience, the models will be important tools in responding to future floods and mudslides and in planning future developments in a quick-growing region that is sensitive to heavy rains. In 2004, for example, the rains brought by Ivan and Frances saturated the land so thoroughly that they caused landslides and forced managers of the Swannanoa Reservoir to open the floodgates. Better modeling programs could help storm water managers take actions before the waters reach dangerous levels. Developers and city planners could use the models as tools in choosing the best locations for new developments.

“”Most people don’t expect flooding in the mountains but heavy rains in the high coves for many days or even for hours can saturate the landscape,” said Mary Leonard White, a Black Mountain Alderwoman and Chair of the Flood Damage Reduction Task Force.  “The value of these new models is that we can examine in detail what happened in the past and learn what we did right and how we can improve. They should also give storm water managers better information for making on-the-job decisions and developers better tools to help them accommodate growth while staying out of the way of high waters and landslides.”

Water in Western North Carolina premiered at the International Symposium on Digital Earth, held in Berkeley, CA, June 5-9. The animated film is another example of the wide collaborations catalyzed through RENCI at UNC Asheville. Along with RENCI, Asheville companies The Elumenati and Klein Digital provided immersive viewing environments for the film and visual effects and animation support. The Media Arts Project, a grassroots initiative that cultivates the local multimedia arts community, and NCDC, home of the world’s largest collection of environmental data, also helped to develop the film.