More than a dozen members from the Smith Mountain Lake Marine Volunteer Fire Department spent two days last week securing boats that had escaped from their slips as the lake’s level exceeded full pond after several inches of rain fell in a span of about 40 hours.
By Friday afternoon, fire chief Todd Ohlerich said his department had received more than 30 calls from boat owners, but discovered more missing boats while en route to those calls.
Posts to social media websites, including Facebook and Nextdoor, had residents searching for their boats and other lost items last week, while similar posts showed boats that had been found and towed to a secure location.
Bette Stubbs, who lives in the Waterpointe community near channel marker R25, put out a plea about her missing personal watercraft on Nextdoor.
“I lost my Seadoo in the storm,” she wrote. “Please call me if you see it floating anywhere. I’m in R25. Seadoo has yellowish cover. I also don’t know whom to call about this.”
When reached by phone last Friday, Stubbs said she called the Department of Wildlife Resources after she made the post. “They said to sit tight,” she said. “They’ve got a lot of lost boats and Sea Doos out there.”
Department of Wildlife Resources Conservation Officer Eric Dotterer said Friday the department had been fielding calls since early the day before, including one from as far away as Texas. “It has been crazy since last night,” he said. “I’ve gotten more calls than I can answer.”
Those calls were passed along to the marine fire department.
“We are pretty busy,” Neil Harrington, president of the fire department, said Friday afternoon. “We are literally just finding boats, tying them up, recording the location and moving on to the next one.”
Dotterer praised the fire department’s tireless efforts. “They’re the work horses of Smith Mountain Lake,” he said. “Every time we get a heavy rain, we deal with this.”
But Harrington said the flooding was worse than he’s ever seen it. “This went almost a foot higher than back where it was in May,” he said. A week’s worth of heavy rain dumped about 8 inches on the region then, creating havoc over the Memorial Day holiday, usually the official kickoff to summer at the lake.
Appalachian Power, which operates the Smith Mountain Project hydroelectric facility and controls water levels at both Smith Mountain and Leesville lakes, sent an advisory to media outlets and posted a notice on social media websites last Thursday at 6:15 a.m., warning that Smith Mountain Lake’s level would rise about 2 feet above full pond, which is 795 feet.
However, that prediction was amended about eight hours later. “Based on updated forecasts issued by the National Weather Service, Smith Mountain reservoir will reach an elevation of about 799 feet, or approximately 4 feet above full pond,” according to the news release issued by Appalachian spokesperson George Porter.
When asked about the process for lowering the lake’s level before a large rain event, Porter said Appalachian did just that.
“We lowered Leesville [Lake] to 601 feet,” Porter said. “We felt the levels we were at, we were fine.”
However, Porter added, it’s not feasible to lower the lake level needed to accommodate that much rain, which fell in a short amount of time. “It takes 30 hours to lower the lake 1 foot,” he said. “We didn’t wait until the last minute. We looked at the forecast just like everybody else.”
What was surprising was that there was more rain than originally predicted. “At that point, we can’t lower it,” Porter said of the lake’s level.
When asked about communicating in advance to lakefront property owners to secure their boats and personal property, Porter said the power company probably should have done that sooner.
“We need to communicate that a little bit better,” he said.
In the meantime, boat owners spent the weekend awaiting word on their missing boats.
Dotterer said anyone who finds a boat should get its registration number off the hull. “If they can get those, we can move mountains with that information,” he said. “It’s the simplest thing that nobody thinks about.”