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High Country in moderate drought

A year after Boone was in the midst of its wettest year on record, a lack of rain has led to drought conditions in the High Country that could get worse in the coming weeks.

“It’s not going to take long to be more severe,” said Eric Luebenhusen, meteorologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of the Chief Economist. “I would expect that we’ll continue to see the coverage and intensity of the drought expand across the state.”

The shift from record rain to no rain took place over the summer months. The Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network, or CoCoRaHS, a nonprofit, community-based network of volunteers, had no Watauga County-based volunteers outside of Beech Mountain record more than 0.2 inches of rain in a single day of September. Many reports note no rainfall for most of September.

According to the National Weather Service’s rainfall map, no location in Watauga County has received more than 2.0 inches of rain combined in the last 30 days. The Boone area had less than 0.25 combined inches of rain.

Luebehusen said that an observer a mile south of Boone is currently running a deficit of 5.87 inches of rain since August and that other regional totals are lower than normal.

Temperatures higher than normal, an average of 1-5 degrees higher, according to Luebenhusen, have contributed to the dry conditions, and that along with high pressure keeping out rainfall is leading to a drop in local stream levels and more stress on vegetation levels.

“The overall trend is not good,” Luebenhusen said.

According to the National Weather Service in Blacksburg, Va., there’s no drought-busting rain expected for the region in the next week. Luebenhusen said the best glimmer of hope for the region is localized heavy showers.

Luebehusen is the author of the U.S. Drought Monitor map, which is available through the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and is done in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The map, released weekly on Thursday, classified most of Western N.C., including most of Watauga County, as currently in a “D1 — Moderate Drought” level.

Drought intensity, according to the map, ranges from its lowest drought classification “D0 — Abnormally Dry,” to “D4 — Exceptional Drought,” its most severe level.

The “D1 — Moderate Drought” level includes stress on crops, higher wildfire danger, increased signs of wildlife, reduced streamflow and start of voluntary water conservation.

As of Sept. 26, no Watauga towns have started water restrictions. Blowing Rock Town Manager Shane Fox said on Sept. 26 that the town is 7-10 days of dry weather away from potentially enacting voluntary water restrictions and is still several weeks from any mandatory restrictions.

The last drought came in late 2016, which caused towns across the region to enact mandatory water restrictions.

In November and early December 2016, a fire started in the Sampson area of eastern Watauga County, burning nearly 1,500 acres, causing several evacuations but no deaths. At its height, around 150 firefighters from across the United States were combating the blaze.

The Sampson Fire was one of more than 30 wildfires that scorched thousands of acres across the Southeast region, most notably near Gaitlinburg, Tenn., where 14 people died.

Fall color effects

As the clear skies continue, people have been noticing a smattering of trees changing their color. The fall foliage makes the High Country a premier tourist destination during October, with restaurants and hoteliers expecting their best month of the year.

Howard Neufeld, a professor at Appalachian State University who is known as the “Fall Color Guy,” says that the fall foliage likely won’t suffer many adverse affects.

“The main effect right here in the Boone area is that the drought-sensitive trees are yellowing and dropping their leaves early,” Neufeld said. “Instead of having a nice yellow tinge, a lot of them are going to be partially and mostly leafless.”

However, trees that Neufeld said are drought-resistant, such as oaks, hickories and maples, will be OK for the foliage season, due to a recent string of cold mornings.

“What makes this year different are the low temperatures that have been lower than last year,” Neufeld said. “Last year, we had the second-warmest low temperatures in the 40 years of record-keeping in Boone.”

The warmer days are being offset by the cool mornings and nights, which will help the fall color show in the region.

“I’m still hopeful that we’re going to have a decent fall color season,” Neufeld said.

Neufeld said that a short drought won’t have too much of a long-term effect on the trees, noting that many have extensive root systems that tap into water sources deep below the surface.

The peak leaf season in the High Country is currently expected to be Oct. 12-20, Neufeld said, but if cloud cover persists, which keeps humidity levels high, then peak leaf season could be delayed by three to five days.

“I encourage people to come out and see the colors,” Neufeld said.

Watauga High School hosts inaugural Senior Mini-Conference

BOONE – As high school seniors prepare to graduate, they are asked to make a series of difficult decisions. Choices that will affect their post-secondary education or career training — choices that, in short, have the potential to alter the course of their entire lives. With these pivotal moments in mind, staff at Watauga High School set out to connect its senior class with the tools and skills it needs to tackle just those kinds of decisions with its inaugural Senior Mini-Conference on Sept. 18, going from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Laura Turner, WHS GEAR UP coordinator, who helped plan the event, said the goal was to host a session for seniors that looked and felt like a professional development conference their teachers might attend in the course of their ongoing career training.

“The idea behind the Senior Mini-Conference was to help these students prepare for what’s next,” Turner said. “It was really geared towards helping students have a good start on the experiences and challenges they will face as they prepare to graduate high school.”

Turner said the day was made up of several small conference sessions including, a panel discussion, a question-and-answer session with former WHS graduates and a life and career planning session presented by Laura Padgett, director of Graduate Student Life at Appalachian State University.

Students also attended a self-care session presented by the WHS Student Services Department. Students were given the opportunity to learn different strategies for self-care, beginning with short mindfulness exercises and moving to different stations throughout the session that hosted everything from yoga to time with therapy dogs.

Also included in the session was a post-secondary education and career expo hosted by dozens of local employers and colleges.

“We are really pleased with how everything went,” Turner said. “From the panel discussion with graduates, to the career and life planning session on how to initiate and follow up on job interviews, to meeting with employers and post-secondary ed institutions and a session on making sure you are taking care of your own needs on top of everything else.

“The whole purpose of the event was to make these seniors feel confident about where they go next — wherever that might be. We really want them to know that we are here for them as they navigate their senior year and the difficulties that can come with it.”

WHS Assistant Principal and Career and Technical Education Director Tierra Stark said there was particular value in giving students a training session on how to address prospective employers, then immediately giving them the chance to try their skills in the career expo representatives from those institutions in person.

“We wanted to give seniors an opportunity to talk face to face with prospective employers and post-secondary education institutions,” Stark said. “We wanted them to be able to learn about the processes involved, then immediately get to go try their hand at it and go home with real world experience.”

Stark said she wanted students to have the opportunity to self-advocate.

“Of course, we want to familiarize them with the normal tasks of the college and career application process, but we want them to be able to self-advocate and create opportunities for themselves in other ways, too.” Stark said. “It can be difficult for anyone to brag on themselves and to be forthcoming about all the great things they are capable of, but we know we have some truly special students here and we want them to be able to show it off.”

Stark said she hoped seniors were able to leave the mini-conference know they will be supported over the transition into their post-secondary lives.

“I hope they learned to believe in themselves and to believe in the process and although there is hard work ahead of them, they are able to do it,” Stark said. “I hope they realize there are people and systems in place that are dedicated to seeing them succeed. There are so many people in this building that are here to help them get where they are going,” Stark said.

Representatives from a number of local employers and colleges were on hand to visit with seniors during the expo, including N.C. Works, Skyline/Skybest, Sugar Mountain, Chick-Fil-A, the town of Boone, App Regional Healthcare System, the United States Army, The United States Marine Corps, Boone Fire Department, Charleston Forge, High Country Home Builders Association, Blue Ridge Electric, Watauga County Parks and Recreation, Watauga County Schools, Caldwell Community College, Wilkes Community College, East Tennessee State University, Appalachian State University, Lees-McRae College, Lenoir Rhyne University and UNC-Asheville.

Steve Behr / Photo by Steve Behr 

Ware returns to Boone

Lace Ware returns to Appalachian State as the Special Assistant to the Head Coach.

Arrest diversion program taking shape

BOONE — Roughly a year and a half since local agencies started talking about creating a program to help people find services before they wind up being arrested, the program is starting to come into fruition.

What started as a planning group has turned into a coalition of various stakeholders to get a pre-booking diversion pilot program off of the ground in Watauga County. This program is known as LEAD — Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion.

Watauga County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Casey Miller, Mediation and Restorative Justice Center Executive Director Marisa Cornell and AppHealthCare Peer Support Specialist Ashley Bare approached the Watauga County Board of Commissioners about the LEAD program on May 2. They explained that LEAD allows law enforcement officers to redirect low-level offenders engaged in drug or prostitution activity to local resources instead of arresting and incarcerating them.

To help make this happen, Cornell introduced the idea of Sequential Intercept Mapping to the LEAD coalition. The SIM process was created by Policy Research Associates Inc. in Delmar, NY, to help communities identify existing community resources, service gaps and opportunities for improved service coordination and communication among mental health, substance use and criminal justice professionals, according to PRA.

The map identifies six “intercept points” in which people with mental and substance use disorders flow through the criminal justice system. These intercept points in chronological order include: community services, law enforcement, initial detention and initial court hearings, jails and courts, reentry and community corrections.

“It’s a helpful tool in various stakeholders understanding how the process works and where their particular services intersect with this map,” Cornell said. “We can be more intentional on where we want to intersect and where there are gaps, where there are duplicate services and how we can work together better.”

To help create a local SIM, trained facilitators from Asheville and Raleigh traveled to Boone on Sept. 19-20 to assist with the mapping process — hosted locally by the Watauga County LEAD Coalition, the Mediation and Restorative Justice Center and AppHealthCare.

Agencies represented at the meeting were from the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office, Boone Police, Appalachian State University Police, Blowing Rock Police, Blowing Rock Fire, Watauga County Probation & Parole, AppHealthCare, Daymark Recovery Services, the Watauga Children’s Council, High Country Community Health, Hospitality House, Mediation and Restorative Justice Center, Stepping Stone of N.C., Vaya Health, Watauga Clerk of Superior Court, an assistant district attorney, a defense attorney, a 24th Judicial District Judge, Drug Treatment Court, Department of Social Services, Juvenile Justice, community/jail ministries, consumer advocates and family members of justice-involved individuals.

The first day of the process on Sept. 19 consisted of agencies talking through the map, identifying who offers what and where gaps are located. For example, Cornell said the Mediation and Restorative Justice Center could fall under mediation services at intercept two or could come in at intercept three with its drug court services.

“I think it’s helpful to have stakeholders in the same room to share information,” Cornwell said. “I learned a lot of things about what we do and don’t have in the community, and things I didn’t know about the processes.”

At the end of the day, the group identified five priorities for change in the local criminal justice system. These priorities include: supporting a trauma-informed criminal justice system; implementing cross-training for law enforcement and behavioral health providers; establishing a local re-entry council; exploring a mental health court or alternative sentencing program; and increased discharge planning for those leaving psychiatric and substance use treatment settings.

The creation of a re-entry council is a topic that Anna Dudley said she has been passionate about for years. The re-entry council would come in during intercepts four and five, and would assist those who are leaving incarceration and being released back into the community. Dudley said she had completed an internship with a local church that offers re-entry supports, and noticed that this stage is when many experience injustice.

“A lot of these individuals are already from marginalized communities; they’re already disenfranchised,” Dudley said. “When they come back out, they’re worse off than they originally were. The way our system is right now, it’s kind of setting up people to fail.”

Cornell said that re-entry is one of the most vulnerable times for a user to encounter overdose if not given the right resources. This is where she said LEAD could potentially have the greatest opportunity to help people.

The re-entry council would ideally have supports in place —such as a case manager — for those who are post-release from incarceration, and could help link them to resources for housing, employment or possibly food services. According to Dudley, the closest re-entry program to Watauga would be located in McDowell or Buncombe counties.

An action plan was devised around these five priorities and the group will begin implementing the plan in the coming months. The facilitators are in the process of creating a localized SIM map for the Watauga LEAD coalition, and Cornell said it is planned for this map to be shared with the community.

“It was very rewarding and satisfying to see so many community members sitting around the same table concerned about the same issues,” Dudley said. “To finally be sitting at that same table was overwhelming.”

Once the coalition can square away funding, it hopes to hire staff to operate the program. After the LEAD program is established, a policy oversight group and a case review team will help it operate.

LEAD requested $25,000 from Watauga County for fiscal year 2019-20, but this request was not included in the budget. However, the county did say it would put up some funding if the program could secure matching grant funds. Cornell said the coalition has been promised funding from the state (but hasn’t received an allocation letter), and hopes to hear back soon on a federal grant.

For more information about the LEAD coalition, contact Cornell at marisa.mrjc@gmail.com or Miller at casey.miller@watgov.org.