West Virginia received one-quarter of its annual rainfall in a single day on Thursday, June 23, generating the worst flooding the area has ever seen. As the nation watched in horror, 44 of West Virginia’s 55 counties were pounded by storms and floods. Greenbrier, Kanawha and Nicholas counties took the brunt of the deluge and have been declared a federal disaster area by President Obama. Now, a week later, basic necessities are still unavailable in some areas. Damages were assessed in other counties, including Clay, Fayette, Monroe, Ritchie, Summers Nicholas, Roane and Webster, and as of press time, were officially declared disaster areas.
At the Tuesday evening Greenbrier County Commission meeting, a haggard Al Whitaker, Greenbrier County’s director of the 911 Emergency Center, offered thanks to the commissioners for their support before launching into a hoarse litany of disaster details gathered over the past several days, beginning with the overwhelming influx of rainfall Thursday night. On the job for 36 hours straight, punchy and exhausted, Whitaker said after the first 24 hours of overseeing first-hand the destruction, he has been at the 911 command post coordinating rescue crews, as well as dealing with 60 to 70 calls a day coming in from individuals from all over the country offering assistance. That, in itself, became a massive undertaking, he said.
“This is being called – not a 100 or 200-year flood, but a 1,000-year flood,” Whitaker said. The county was hit with 11 inches of rain in as many hours. With so much devastation throughout the county, the process of clearing and repairing roads, bridges and utilities is going to be slow.
The story, as Whitaker tells it, unfolded on two fronts. First came the flash flooding from the already over-saturated elevated terrain, affecting creeks and streams that engulfed the towns of Rainelle, Quinwood, Rupert and Crawley. Even with no surface streams, Lewisburg’s caverns soon filled up and overflowed into streets and basements. And then, Howard’s Creek swelled to an unprecedented level, swamping Hart’s Run, Caldwell and White Sulphur Springs.
The second front, Whitaker said, came when the outflow of water made its way to the Greenbrier River, overflowing into the low areas of Ronceverte and Alderson, cresting at 22.5 feet at Alderson’s bridge on Saturday. The roar of water could be heard a mile away.
“We need help! People are going to die here tonight,” was heard hours on end by 911 Center phone bank handlers who fielded the cries and screams of flood victims as rescuers’ efforts to reach them were thwarted by the high waters. The strain will be with them for a long time, Whitaker said.
And still the rain fell. On Sunday, another storm blew through requiring a rescue of at least 16 people in the Rainelle area and more evacuations in White Sulphur Springs.
Lives were lost in this flood. The body count is disputed, but the unofficial number is 23 state-wide. Sixteen of the casualties occurred in Greenbrier County, all from apparent drownings. Greenbrier County Sheriff Jan Cahill is reluctant to confirm that number, because three people are still considered missing. Rescue efforts found bodies in cars, attics, on golf courses and riverbeds. A burning home was caught on video as it floated in the swollen Howard’s Creek.
“Roads destroyed, bridges out, homes burned down, washed off foundations,”said Cahill. “Multiple sections of highway just missing. Pavement just peeled off like a banana. I’ve never seen anything like that.”
The Greenbrier resort closed their doors and canceled the PGA golf tournament event planned for July 4-10. The resort has offered a limited number of rooms and meals to those with no place to go. “We just hope that by providing a good meal and a comfortable and safe place to spend the night that we can help ease the pain just a little for those who are suffering so much from this unbelievable disaster,” said owner and CEO Jim Justice.
“There are so many stories to tell,” said Greenbrier County Commission President Michael McClung. “Community gatherings are needed to remember the families of the lost and all those hurting as a result of this tragedy.”
“The flood has affected everyone in this county in one way or another,” concurred county commissioner Woody Hanna.
Whitaker offered specific information details to the public. Those and other resources are listed below:
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has started assessing damage in the state, said Anthony Buller, a liaison person with FEMA working with Whitaker. He said it is key to impacted individuals to register for assistance with FEMA representatives in the area. Preliminary Damage Assessments (PDAs) will be in the area to inspect homes and assess damages. One thousand registrations have been counted as of Monday, June 27. Fourteen PDA teams have arrived to conduct PDAs for both Public Assistance and Individual Assistance.
Buller advised homeowners to beware of scammers who pose as official FEMA representatives and ask for money up front for applying for assistance. Always ask to see their documentation.
A related report from the Greenbrier County Sheriff’s Office offers an example of the crime opportunities such a disaster can produce. Two Greenbrier women were arrested for pretending to be victims of the flood and were caught taking supplies, food and water from various relief shelters. They were charged with conspiracy, obstruction, and obtaining under false pretenses.
Buller advised homeowners to go ahead and clean up their residences where they can. There is no need to allow the disarray to remain as proof to FEMA that assistance is needed. FEMA is encouraging all individuals, households, and businesses both inside and outside of the three most affected counties to document any damages they have. Individuals and business owners who sustained losses in the designated area can begin applying for assistance on June 28 by registering online at www.DisasterAssistance.gov or by calling 1-800-621-FEMA (3362).The first Disaster Recovery Center in White Sulphur Springs is located at 65 West Main Street.
The West Virginia Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (WV VOAD) is currently communicating with state/local emergency management and officials to coordinate resources through its network of disaster relief agencies. WV VOAD asks individuals seeking ways to help disaster survivors, to make a donation to the WV VOAD Disaster Relief Fund or register as a volunteer. Volunteers wishing to help with flood response and recovery can register online at www.volunteerwv.org. At this time, volunteers are asked not to self-deploy and to stay home for their own safety. Financial donations are the best way to support the effort at this time. West Virginia has a statewide disaster relief fund managed in cooperation with WV VOAD and the United Methodist Church. More information can be found at https://wvvoad.communityos.org.
• FLOOD CLEANUP:
In a press release from Volunteer West Virginia, a free flood home cleanup hotline is now available Monday, June 27 to July 15 through Information Technology Disaster Resource Center and VisionLink, who are staffing and supporting a free hotline for debris removal and home cleanup after the recent floods. Their websites are: www.ITDRC.org and www.VisionLink.org. This hotline will connect survivors with reputable and vetted relief agencies that will assist in mud-outs, debris removal, and cleaning up homes, as they are able. All services are free, but service is not guaranteed due to the overwhelming need. Survivors needing assistance with home cleanup may call 1-800-451-1954.
According to Mon Power’s website, Whitaker said, there are below 100 residents still without power in the county, however, that figure may not account for outages in the more isolated areas of the western end where crews are still working to restore power there.
All towns in Greenbrier County are on boil water advisory with the exception of Rupert, Alderson and Lewisburg, as of press time Thursday. Rainelle’s water plant – where 48 inches of floodwater got into the building – is up and running again, although the town will likely be under a boil water advisory to up to 10 days. The plant does need a generator, Mayor Andrea Pendleton said, and Governor Earl Ray Tomblin said that it will top the list of the state’s contributions to Rainelle’s recovery, where 90 percent of the city’s homes and businesses saw extensive damage.
Several road closures have been announced, all with no known anticipated opening date.
Rte. 60 Caldwell area – roadway washed out
Keiffer Road – bridge washed out
Anjean Road – roadway washed out mp 1 to mp 5
Pond Lick Road – road washed out from mm 0.00 to mm 1.07
Davis Stuart Road to Fort Spring – roadway washed out
Whitaker said other services will be needed for the long-term, such as mental health care support, which cannot be understated.
“There’s just no way I can name and thank all the first responders, members of my staff, service agencies, churches, businesses and individuals that have offered food, clothing, cleanup supplies, places to shower, wash and dry clothes, and places to sleep for those whose homes have been lost in the flood,” Whitaker said.
His sentiments were echoed by Maj. Gen. James A. Hoyer, West Virginia Adjutant General with the West Virginia National Guard, who stated, “The interagency collaboration with the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, West Virginia Department of Transportation, West Virginia State Police, local law enforcement and first responders and volunteer organizations to provide aid and comfort has been amazing. It is truly inspiring to see the dedication of the men and women of all the agencies working together to shoulder their share of the burden to provide help to their fellow West Virginians in need.”