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Story by Bob Loehne - "Photos by CSX", layout and graphics by Joey G. 

HURRICANE FLOYD September 15-17, 1999
 

Hurricane Floyd will be remembered as a storm of incredible proportion that in the end did comparatively little direct damage with its winds, but inundated Eastern North Carolina with the mythical 500-year flood. Floyd dropped a great big chunk of the Atlantic Ocean — principally in the form of ten to twenty inches of torrential rain in just 36 hours — east of Interstate-95 causing flooding beyond belief, monumental damage and widespread personal heart ache including death, injury and extensive loss. Little of the Old North State missed Floyd's rains, but it was eastern towns like Rocky Mount, Wilson, Parmele and Tarboro that took the brunt of the unimaginable flooding. Mythical? Thanks to Floyd, "mythical" is no longer associated with the concept of North Carolina's 500-year flood potential. Hopefully, Floyd is the benchmark for thousands of years to come.

 

Air-to-ground Communications Log
Sunday, September 18, 1999

7 AM Good morning down there. You read helicopter Charley Sierra Xray? ........... We're a thousand feet above the biggest lake you've ever seen. Our operations center wasn't kidding about this one. This is some mess ... water everywhere ... lots worse than yesterday ... lots. We're not covered up quite yet, but it's only a matter of time. Glad we got everything out of here when we did ... at least we won't lose any locomotives.

10 AM I can see it building each time we fly over where we've been before. We're going to lose the east main ... lots of places have some flow already. Water's rushing over our roadbed so fast that it's beginning to pick up chunks off the east embankment ..... Enfield is really bad ..... we've got some big work ahead of us.

11 AM Charley Sierra Xray's back with you and this is NOT good. There are several places where the water's eaten its way back to the ballast and now some of it and bits of the roadbed is gone. We're losing ground fast. In a bunch of places, we're going to have a current under the rails pretty soon ... in fact, oh yeah ... down here we already do. Number two's about to lose it big time.

Noon Track two's gone. I can tell there's nothing under number two right here. One's still OK, but two's really sagging. Totally washed out. Track two's a boat ... goodness ... it's under water ... the middle part of the sag's totally under water. ....... we're in the submarine business.

2 PM The water's getting so high that it's hard to see the rails ... in some places back there we couldn't see 'em at all ... just the tree path ... water keeps getting higher .......... Floyd's getting it all.

4 PM Charley Sierra Xray's up again. You're not going to believe this, but down here it's all gone. Actually ... I don't mean gone ... I just can't see it. We cannot see any rail at all right here. Our line is under water ... everywhere. Were it not for the truss bridge sticking up here north of Rocky Mount and the tree lines along our right of way, there'd be no way to tell what I'm looking at or where our lines are. That other bridge is about out of sight ... I couldn't swear that it's still there except the sides barely stick up.

7 PM I'm just north of Rocky Mount again and it just keeps getting worse. It's up several feet on the truss ... at least five feet ... maybe eight, ten or more. That old bridge has never seen anything like this before. And the next bridge is gone ... it just does not show up anymore ... AT ALL. This is unnnnn-believeable.

7:15 PM We're going to call it a night and see you in the morning. I know it's supposed to be even worse tomorrow, but this has been just amazing today ... watching Floyd climb right over our railroad ... totally covered us up ... I don't have words for it. Incredible ... puts us right out of business. We're heading in, now ... hope it gets better tomorrow. Charley Sierra Xray out.

     

THE "A" LINE

CSX's "A" Line is a fast and busy, high priority mainstay of CSX's rail transportation system. As it was years ago when it was part of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, the "A" Line today provides a critical commerce connection all along the east coast of the United States, including several important branch lines in eastern North Carolina. Hard hit by Hurricane's Floyd's flood waters, CSX's rapid and dynamic response had the "A" Line back in operation a full day ahead of original projections and, most importantly, held business interruptions to a minimum, well below estimates

 

While that is not the exact conversation observers on the CSX helicopter transmitted to CSX's disaster recovery team, it likely is close to reality for the spotters who spent a rare day watching the railroad slowly submerge. The wrath of hurricane Floyd was phenomenally excessive and even an industrial giant like CSX – at times a juggernaut in its own right – could at best simply prepare, stay safe, take note of the damage and then respond once the way was again safe.

Our simulated helicopter transcript is part of the "take note of the damage" portion of the company's response to Hurricane Floyd. As soon as flying conditions permitted, CSX was in the sky observing the damage and relaying the bad news to the recovery team and operations center. Every foot of track was examined from above and by boat, and, even before the right-of-way was totally under water, CSX was beginning to get a good idea where and what its problems would be.

Before long, the company was hearing about waters – some gentle, others raging – overflowing CSX's dykes. Normally thought of as high iron roadbed, in flood conditions these elevated rights-of-way become a dyke damming back the flood waters and forcing them to flow elsewhere for their eastbound escape to the Atlantic Ocean.

During and after the rains, but before entire areas were evenly flooded, the waters west of the railroad generally were higher than those on the east side. This uneven condition created huge water pressure differentials which neither CSX or the state of North Carolina could control. In effect these dykes played a part in two eventual and unavoidable problems for the railroad.

The bridges and culverts which normally carry river and creek water to the ocean were unable to handle Floyd's high volume water flows. Consequently, water levels rose and eventually reached the roadbed, ballast, ties, rails and, finally, the airspace immediately above. While the track itself slowed the perpendicular flow, once above the rail tops there was no impediment to the waters' innate wish to race downhill at the fastest possible speed gravity would allow.

As waters crossed the rails, small sections of east side embankment began to erode. These gaps then offered the heretofore smooth flood flow greater energy which rapidly developed into powerful sluice currents which ripped gouges out of the east side roadbed and embankment. In some places the eventual damage was simply misaligned rails while other spots, easily identified by unsupported sagging track and gaping erosion, had entire roadbeds and fill washed to the next town and beyond.

As traumatic as were the sluicing problems, even before the waters reached rail level they already were carving larger and larger openings around the railroad's bridges and culverts. In many cases they completely ate away the earthen foundations and in a few places swept away fixed assets, too. As a result, new bridges will replace the temporary fixes such as that at Halifax where about 150 feet of fill beneath the A Line over Quankey Creek was washed to sea. The old arch culvert down at normal river level proved a good match for Floyd, but unfortunately when the waters subsided there was 25 feet of vertical air space between it and the hanging mainline above.

 
 

By Monday, most flooded areas along the A Line were receding and the mainline itself reappeared. As access allowed, crews began initial track repairs and started the voluminous carriage of rip rap to the damaged right-of-way. Initial CSX projections called for the A Line to be back in service by Thursday, the 23rd, but the yeomen effort of planning, dumping and rebuilding actually allowed the A Line's first revenue train — southbound Q400 at Halifax — to run on Wednesday.

     
 

"Quankey Creek at Halifax"

To see four other stages of Halifax flood damage and track repair click the links: "Hanging Track", "Begin Repairs", "Heavy Equipment" and "High Fill Ready"

           
     


 

Contrary to popular rumor, CSX's Tar River bridges at Rocky Mount were not washed away. Once the flood waters rose over the tracks, aerial views showed only the thru truss bridge while the black deck girder bridge totally was submerged and perhaps presumed missing.

 
   
 

 

By Monday, most flooded areas along the A Line were receding and the mainline itself reappeared. As access allowed, crews began initial track repairs and started the voluminous carriage of rip rap to the damaged right-of-way. Initial CSX projections called for the A Line to be back in service by Thursday, the 23rd, but the yeomen effort of planning, dumping and rebuilding actually allowed the A Line's first revenue train — southbound Q400 at Halifax — to run on Wednesday.

 
 

"Two photos by Bob Youngblood shot on Monday & Tuesday, September 21 & 22, show the water level on each bridge had receded below the ties. Even though the waters still were only a step away from the track, crews would have the mainline back in service the next day."

 
 

Except for the Silver Star, which diverted over Norfolk Southern's route through Lynchburg to Charlotte and then to Columbia and Savannah, Amtrak canceled its entire Washington-Florida service. After a day for CSX to work out the kinks, Amtrak resumed its full Florida Silver service (three trains) on Thursday. Except for a few slow orders, CSX's A Line was back up to speed the next morning.

The double tracked A Line's east side track absorbed considerably more erosion damage than the west side track due to the water fall effect. Similar flooding and damage took place on nearby Interstate-95 which totally was shut down and which suffered far more problems on its east side lanes. In all, CSX had to repair over 15,000 feet of track to one degree or another.

As is typical of such disasters, the company and the community joined hands in many aspects of the recovery process. At Halifax, residents set up grills by the tracks and cooked hamburgers and hot dogs for CSX repair crews. At Wilson, CSX donated truck loads of ice and water. In Rocky Mount, CSX organized collections for both it's own employees and the community. Also, CSX paid in advance to all counties in the disaster area the year 2000 taxes that CSX would owe (generally not past due until 2001). As you can imagine, such stories of mutual support are numerous.

Of most importance, CSX employees suffered no injuries from either the storm itself or the recovery process. Also, there was no addition damage or loss from Hurricane Irene which followed Floyd by less than a month.

While downtown Rocky Mount and the surrounding areas were flooded, CSX's yard sits just high enough to avoid all but a little standing water between the tracks. Even though relatively dry, the yard, like the entire region, had no electricity ... that is, until an employee cranked up one of the locomotives and hot wired it to the yard circuit. One diesel easily powered the whole yard.

CSX's Tarboro Sub, which branches off the A Line at Rocky Mount, and the Parmele Sub were both out of service a few days longer that the A Line. The entire area around Tarboro itself took one of Floyd's worst hits with waters that rose more than 30 feet above flood stage and extensive damage to virtually everything around.

     
 
     

CSX officials had been watching Floyd and, as its path was projected, began implementing the emergency evacuation plan. Twelve hours prior to Floyd's predicted arrival, CSX discontinued Amtrak trains and four hours later all freight operations were likewise shut down. Employees and families were moved to safety and equipment was transported farther inland; however, no one — railroad, state or TV weather forecasters — projected Floyd's high and devastating flood waters.

Some locomotives and cars were moved to Hamlet, though at first no one was sure that Hamlet itself would evade most of the storm. By displacing equipment and shutting down operations, flooded and damaged rolling stock would not be part of the subsequent problems. Those cars and locos that were caught by the high waters — now needing FRA dictated wheel and brake repairs — were taken to Hamlet, Atlanta and Birmingham for repairs.

As Floyd passed northbound and as weather cleared, CSX helicopters followed for the soonest possible observations. To a great extent, spotters saw what they expected — rising waters that would eventually cover much of the A Line — and also saw the beginnings of flood damages that would exceed any ever seen in eastern North Carolina. While wind blown, fallen trees were not a problem this time, the height of the waters and extensive erosion was mind boggling.

Most of the A Line damage occurred between Wilson and the Virginia border, and several branch lines to the east were also hard hit. Parts of the Portsmouth Branch were also flooded, but Norfolk Southern was able to work CSX's automobile distribution plants with only marginal service interruption

         
           
     
           
     
           

The cost of Floyd to CSX was temporary loss of or delayed service, damaged bridges and rights of way, and tremendous amounts of rock. There have been several quotes on total tons of rock, but with various superintendents ordering and a variety of wags keeping count, the exact tonnage is not known. However, if you look at the Halifax photo titled "High Fill Ready" you'll get a sense of the rock fill required for just that one washout.

In the end, one of the amazing stories to come out of all this was CSX's rapid response capability. Many thought Floyd's wrath so exorbitant that the railroad along the A Line would be out of business for ten days to two weeks, considerably longer than CSX projected. However, with trains again moving on Wednesday, CSX had cut its downtime to just six days. Additionally, CSX was able to reroute virtually all of its north-south traffic, much of it on the old Clinchfield line in western North Carolina, and delays for those A Line customers generally were minimal at worst.

It must have been something riding in the CSX helicopter and watching your railroad slowly make like a submarine. Many railroaders will forever recall that for a for a day or more, the A Line simply disappeared. To CSX's and its employees' credit, the line was back up and running in short order ... a real tribute to the disaster recovery and repair crews.

I'm always amazed how quickly and decisively railroads can respond to extreme calamities. Of course, the nature of the railroad business demands that they do it and do it well, but still, this recovery was exceptional ... down right amazing! —Bob Loehne

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