On the banks of Crabtree Creek, a striped pole stands more than 12 feet tall, poking up over Blue Ridge Road.
The black-and-yellow marker is a monument to the historic floodwaters that poured into Crabtree Valley Mall on September 5, 1996, when Hurricane Fran, one of the worst storms in North Carolina’s history, hit the Triangle.
“This was all a lake,” designer William Dodge tells the INDY, pointing up to Crabtree Valley Mall and the surrounding streets. “I remember all of Crabtree being underwater. I grew up in Five Points and we didn’t have any power for two weeks.”
Dodge is one of three artists and architects who first pitched the public art project on the Crabtree Creek greenway to Raleigh officials. The project officially opened last week on June 1, the first day of hurricane season.
Dodge, graphic designer Lincoln Hancock, and landscape architect Will Belcher make up “a gang of three,” a newfound partnership aimed at strengthening the connection between people and places through public art.
“The whole idea [is about] being able to connect people with a sense of place and ecology,” says Dodge. “Thinking about how we can understand and respond to wonders and fury of nature, but also to be responsible caretakers and be educated on it. Because if you’re not educated on it, you’re not going to appreciate it.”
The Crabtree Creek project is designed to help people understand how severe the flooding is around what is normally a small stream. The businesses and homes around Crabtree Creek, which are built on the floodplain, are in particular jeopardy. During heavy rainfall, the creek jumps its banks and spreads to surrounding areas, where it puts people and property at risk.
“People don’t really understand it,” Dodge says. “It’s hard to explain. Even friends of ours who have lived here their whole lives, they don’t really get it until they’re standing next to one of these poles and they realize how tall it is.”
The art installation includes 25 storm markers that show how high floodwaters have risen during hurricanes and other storms. The tallest, about the same height as the pole for Hurricane Fran, represents floodwaters during an unnamed storm in 1973, which ultimately reached nearly 28 feet above the creek bed.
There are also markers for Tropical Storm Alberto in 2006 (which resulted in about 24 feet of flooding), Hurricane Matthew in 2016 (23 feet), and Hurricane Floyd in 1999 (22 feet). Most recently, another unnamed storm in January dropped several inches of rain on the Triangle, causing the creek to rise to about 18 feet.
Under the Blue Ridge Road bridge, a mural displays the names of the storms in the language of maritime signal flags.
“The visual language is picking up on the colors and patterns of maritime signal flags. The letters are really abstracted,” Hancock says, adding that unnamed storms are represented by a checkerboard pattern. “Part of what we learned was many of the largest flooding events were not tropical storms or hurricanes that had names people remembered—they were just times it rained a lot.”
Flooding has increased in recent years as climate change strengthens storms, resulting in longer, heavier rainfall and more frequent hurricanes. In an effort to curb stormwater, last year the Raleigh City Council approved new regulations that restrict new construction in floodplains like the one around Crabtree Creek.
When the change goes into effect next month, developers will no longer be able to build on vacant properties in the floodplain larger than half an acre—a rule that affects about 400 properties and 1,545 acres of land citywide, according to Raleigh’s website.
The existing stormwater regulations have been on the books since the 1980s, says Wayne Miles, the city’s stormwater program manager. When he and his staff took a fresh look at them, they found some other cities and towns in the Triangle had more restrictive regulations, he says.
“As a community, we found a value in placing more restrictions to keep flooding from getting worse,” Miles says. “Climate change is one [consideration], and we’re seeing the effects of that. We’re seeing bigger rainfalls, more frequent rainfalls with higher intensity and more flooding. So we need to be prepared to become more resilient against that type of flooding in the future. This new regulation is one of the items that we’ve put in place to help with that.”
Meanwhile, Dodge and Hancock are hoping their art installation will help educate people about the urgency of preserving the environment, especially marshlands surrounding creeks and rivers that help filter stormwater into the ground after a big rainfall.
“Part of the project is awareness of these natural cycles but also what exacerbates them and what can help remediate them,” Hancock says. “We don’t know a lot about this site before the mall was put in, but we know it was more of a natural floodplain, it was muddy, marshlike. That soaks up water.”
Dodge and Hancock hope the project will reach not only the people using the Crabtree Creek greenway but also cars stopped in traffic on Blue Ridge Road. The colorful, tall storm markers are visible from the street, which may raise interest or questions from passersby.
“The majority of our audience is people sitting in stopped traffic,” Dodge says. “People look down here and then all of a sudden they realize that this greenway is down here and they would have never even known.”
Lines of sediment have already appeared on the mural since it was completed last year, a more informal marker of floodwaters that rise and recede over time. But the gang of three won’t be cleaning or repairing the mural anytime soon—they want it to weather, Dodge says.
“We knew [flooding] would happen at some point,” Hancock says.
“We knew it would happen a lot,” Dodge adds with a laugh.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that there are 25 storm markers along the path of the art installation.
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