This is the story of Toma and Clara Pop, who came together in Haywood County, nearly lost each other, and found extraordinary grace in their community afterwards.
When the Pop’s Mundy Field home was swept off its foundation in the catastrophic flood of August 17, Toma, 73, went with it. He swam free at the last second and lashed himself to a tree, where he was battered and scraped by floating debris until help came. Clara, 57, waited in a panic at a roadblock near Frank’s Grocery in Bethel, where she’d been stopped by emergency personnel.
Desperately trying phone calls, she finally reached her aunt, Ruby Lee Rhodes, whose house was up the hill behind theirs. Rhodes asked “Are you all ok? Where are you? Where’s Toma?”
“He’s at the house,” Clara said.
“Clara,” Rhodes said, “your house is gone! It’s all to pieces!”
Two months later it’s a beautiful October day on Cove Creek and the Pops are telling their story. They’re housed for the moment in a relative’s home not far from the Cataloochee Divide and a very long way from the nearest flood plain. They’ve lost nearly everything they owned.
Married for seven years, this is the second marriage for both of them. Clara’s family has been in Cruso for generations, while Toma, an immigrant who fled Ceaușescu’s Romania on foot 40 years ago, is a proud first-generation citizen, a mechanic who built an American life from scratch. Their lives converged when she worked in Haywood County’s medical community, and he was a patient.
When Clara left work at Haywood Surgical Associates on the day of this story, there was already talk about heavy rain and flood risk. A meeting had been cancelled. Still, she had no real reason to worry, and she checked in with Toma by phone and stopped for a loaf of bread. A half-hour later she crested the hill just past Bethel and pulled up short at the roadblock. She could go no further.
“Once you get to the packing house,” a fireman told her of a familiar Cruso landmark, “there’s nowhere else to go.”
She was stunned. The packing house was just before their house. Both are a pretty good way from the river, and the bottoms at Mundy Field, beneath Sugar Top mountain and Poison Cove Top mountain, are broader than upstream. Still, Clara’s family had always said that the river once ran on their side of the valley and that if enough rain came, it could do it again. She’d never been sure she believed it.
“I have to get to my house, my husband is in there. He isn’t well!” she said, and the fireman began working the radio in the chaos, learning what he could.
Frantically she called hospitals. No luck at Haywood. No luck at Mission. Then short messages began trickling in by radio. They thought he’d been rescued, one message said, another said he’s been rescued, but we don’t know where he is.
At last, hours after she arrived at the roadblock, a call got through from another neighbor, Denver Blalock. “We have Toma,” he said.
Toma Pop’s big dog Chase was strangely nervous that evening, barking to come inside. He wasn’t allowed in much, plus the weather was rainy and the house was clean. But Toma relented and brought him indoors, just before his brief check-in with Clara.
Not long after he hung up, there was a tremendous roar. The house shuddered and floor tiles popped into the air as the floor flexed.
Mystified, Toma opened the french doors that led to the couple’s mud room. The mud room was gone. And at that moment water rushed in, rising quickly to his chest. Afraid of being caught inside as water rose toward the ceiling and with thoughts he might crawl onto the roof, he plunged out the door into the torrent. He went under, saw light above, came up, and grabbed hold of something – the gutter at the eave of the house.
The house floated free from its foundation and twisted in the current as he held tight.
“Usually we don’t have trees around our house,” said Toma, “and I looked up and now our house was in the trees.”
He grabbed hold of one of those trees, and with his other hand he took off his belt, wrapped it around a branch, and lashed his wrist tight. There he hung, water to his neck, one arm raised over his head.
He doesn’t know how long he waited – he says it felt like an hour. Eventually he heard neighbors shouting for him as they searched, he called back, and before long members of a Jackson County rescue squad team arrived in a boat. They threw him a life jacket and eventually wrestled him on board.
He was safe.
Neighbors later described a 10-foot wall of water, tumbling down the valley.
It’s been a difficult couple of months for the Pops. A scattering of things were recovered: Toma’s mud-caked guns, some keys, and a few other odds and ends. But most of their belongings are gone and Chase the dog was never seen again. The couple contracted Covid in the aftermath, and while Clara recovered quickly, it’s been harder for Toma, who’s having trouble getting around.
Then there’s the trauma. “Every night when I go to bed, I hear the sounds in my head and taste the water in my mouth,” said Toma.
And Clara lost her family home.
“I’ve lived there all my life. I was raised there,” she said. “My mama worked hard to pay for that house. All those memories were there – it’s hard. I go up the river and all the people I grew up with, their houses are gone.”
“Here I am 57 years old and I’m going to have to start all over again,” Clara said. “I know there’s people more affected than I am, but it’s still really hard. At least I still have my husband.”
The Silver Lining
It’s hard to make sense of such sudden, catastrophic events. The silver lining for the Pops has been the enormous generosity of friends, neighbors, and many total strangers.
“From the moment of the flood on, the generosity of the American took over,” says Toma, lowering his forehead to his hands. “Even now, people ask me if we’re comfortable enough. We have clothes! We have a roof over our heads! What more could we want?”
The community gave them clothing, food, a place to stay – whatever they needed, and a constant stream of support. Riverside Baptist. Co-workers at Haywood Surgical Associates. Many, many more.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that Haywood County people are the most wonderful people in the world,” said Clara. “I’ve never felt as loved. You think no one loves you, and then something like this happens.”
“What affected us most wasn’t the event,” he said. “A flood is a flood. These things happen. What affected us was what came after.”
Holding both hands in front of his chest and pinching his thumbs to his fingers, Toma shook his head and the tears came.
“Many people who had very little to give, gave us whatever they had,” he said. “In a lifetime I couldn’t return this generosity.”
The Haywood County Rapid Re-Housing drive has raised money for more than 40 houses so far, with more in the pipeline. The original goal of 10 houses has been raised to 50 after a strong local response. The total number of houses in need isn’t yet known.
If you’d like to contribute to rapid-rehousing efforts in Haywood County, we urge you to make a donation to the United Way of Haywood County, 81 Elmwood Way, Suite 140 or PO Box 1139, Waynesville, NC 28786.
If you’d like to learn more about rapid rehousing, please call or email Mountain Projects Executive Director, Patsy Davis, at (828) 492-4124 or email@example.com. Mountain Projects is also accepting donations for a general flood recovery fund.
“We expect the recovery from this flood to take several years,” said Davis.