It's been four days since the flood, but Bolin Creek lingers—brown, bloated and angry—in Chapel Hill's Camelot Village like a monster under the bed.
Piles of belongings—musty rugs, pictures, furniture—sit 5 feet high on soggy lawns. Hastily moved refrigerators crowd the parking lot like a white forest. Meanwhile, residents wait on lawn chairs while restoration crews work to salvage what they can in the waterlogged homes.
Across the street at University Mall, a stage is set up. It's the Fourth of July and beach music is on the schedule. But Marilyn Jacobs, a registered nurse from New York, has little to celebrate.
"This has become a nightmare," she says. Jacobs and her 16-year-old son climbed out a window to escape the surging, 4-foot floodwaters on June 30. "Everything is gone, everything," Jacobs says. "Furniture, clothing, pictures. There's so much water damage. It's not salvageable."
Officials estimate almost 5 inches of rain fell in the area over 24 hours, more than enough to turn Camelot Village, including Jacobs' condo, into a muddy, reeking bath. Damage was reported all over Chapel Hill and Carrboro during the June 30 floods, but Camelot might have caught the worst. Inspectors condemned 68 of the development's 116 units.
"I have never seen Camelot Village with high water lines that were sitting around 4 feet," says Robert Bosworth, deputy chief of the Chapel Hill Fire Department.
The disaster might have been predicted. Town Engineer Jay Gibson says the damaging flood was at least the fifth in the primarily low-income condo development off South Estes Drive since 1995.
Camelot Village was built in 1967, roughly a decade before town regulations banned construction in such low-lying, flood-prone areas. Its Bolin Creek location, neighboring a community park that sits about 5 feet higher in elevation, poses clear flooding risks, although the condo's website doesn't mention the danger.
Jacobs says she did not know the condos sat in a floodplain until months after signing a lease. "We're not going to move back here," she says today. "It's too unsafe."
Town documents show Chapel Hill leaders tried to head off this mess years ago. In February 2005, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) approved the town's application for $2.3 million in grant funding.
According to town memos, officials planned to use the money to purchase 36 condos in the three most flood-prone buildings for demolition. Those condos included 26 owners, of which just five lived in Camelot Village. The grant would have also required the town to buy the common area surrounding those buildings.
But years passed with no apparent resolution. A November 2008 memo from Chapel Hill stormwater engineer Sue Burke recommended canceling the project, noting at least eight condo owners did not respond to invitations from the town.
"I believe in the merits of this project, but I would recommend that the town not pursue a similar project for Camelot Village until the owners demonstrate a compelling interest in such an undertaking," Burke wrote.
Joel Duvall, a representative for the Camelot homeowners' association, says the project's failure was to be expected. "They couldn't make much progress because there are too many different owners with too many different needs," Duvall says. "It was a losing battle."
Property records show multiple out-of-town owners in Camelot Village—some as far away as New York state—although none returned INDY Week phone calls for comment on this story.
Duvall says the village should never have been built in the floodplain, but the association tries to verbally notify each new resident of the risk.
Chapel Hill Mayor Pro Tem Ed Harrison, a longtime Town Council member, points out FEMA's grant program is voluntary. Town leaders cannot take control of the buildings without the approval of the condo owners, he says.
"Our hands really were tied," Harrison says. "That was the real problem."
However, Julie McClintock, a former town council member who sits on the town's stormwater advisory board, says Chapel Hill failed the village's residents by dropping its bid to buy the imperiled condos.
"If you have money in hand to fix a problem, why would you not want to do incredible diligence to make it happen?" McClintock says. "I think the town hasn't done enough." McClintock says the continuing push for high-density development in Chapel Hill, coupled with inadequate stormwater controls, leads to nightmare scenarios like that at Camelot Village. Stringent regulations along the creeks, in both Chapel Hill and Carrboro, are the solution, she says.
"Everybody needs to do something," McClintock says. "If you're going to build and develop as a town, then you better try, to the greatest extent possible, to capture that rainwater on site and keep it there."
The options seem limited to prevent another Camelot catastrophe. Burke says FEMA regulations bar the town from elevating the development. Plus, the condos aren't required to comply with newer floodplain standards unless the cost of the damage exceeds 50 percent of the structures' replacement cost, she says. No damage estimates were available as of this week, Gibson said, although the cost was not expected to cross that threshold.
Burke adds that she is unaware of any attempts to revive Chapel Hill's buy-out bid. In the meantime, Chapel Hill's public works department is working to fix debris jams in the creek that would cause floods, Bosworth says, but some floods may be unavoidable.
"It's like being at the bottom of the tub," Bosworth says. "It fills up."
For Jacobs, what's next is unclear. Like many of her neighbors, she did not have flood insurance, and she is unlikely to recoup her losses. Her car, submerged in floodwaters, is totaled. And without the cash for a new home, Jacobs says she's all but homeless.
"It's like something out of a movie," she says. "It doesn't even seem real."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Hell in high water."