No one saw it coming…
No one saw it coming, not even the newspaper.
One year ago, on Thursday, June 23, the Mountain Messenger staff was busy getting the paper ready to go to press. Rain fell throughout the day, and by afternoon, cell phones throughout the office were issuing emergency warnings of flash flooding in Greenbrier County. The warnings went, largely, unheeded, as staff continued to complete the weekend’s newspaper.
The paper was ready to go to press around 3:30 p.m., and staff members had a bit of down time to make phone calls and check out Facebook. One reporter was informed that it was flooding in Frankford, that a neighbor’s potato patch had washed away. Online, photos began popping up of the road collapsing near Battlefield Crossing shopping center in White Sulphur Springs, and the staff, at the last minute, placed a photo of the damaged road on the front page of the June 25 edition of the Mountain Messenger. “Rains flood Greenbrier County,” the headline read.
It turned out to be the understatement of the millennium.
That evening and through the night, 11 inches of rain fell in as many hours. Creeks surged from their banks, engulfing Rainelle, Quinwood, Rupert and Crawley. White Sulphur Springs’ Howards Creek inundated the city, along with Caldwell and Hart’s Run, and in Lewisburg, situated away from any surface streams, the caverns beneath the city filled to the surface, overflowing into streets and basements. Those initial floods were what Greenbrier County Director of Homeland Security Al Whitaker described as the “first front.”
The “second front,” he said, occurred when the streams reached the Greenbrier River, flooding the low areas of Ronceverte and Alderson. The river crested at Alderson, two days later, at 22.5 feet.
Then-Sheriff Jan Cahill described the aftermath around the county: “roads destroyed, bridges out, homes burned down, washed off foundations. Multiple sections of highway just missing. Pavement peeled off like a banana. I’ve never seen anything like that.”
Lives were lost – 23 people died in West Virginia; 16 of them in Greenbrier County. The youngest, Mykala Phillips, was 14 years old.
The harrowing tale of her disappearance became one of the most well known – a White Sulphur Springs resident, the teenager became separated from her father and brothers when she was swept away in Howards Creek as she and her family fled their Mill Hill neighborhood home to escape the rising waters. Her body was found seven weeks later, on Aug. 9, buried under debris near Howards Creek in Caldwell. Her Mill Hill neighborhood was all but destroyed, and many of her neighbors perished.
Meteorologists called it a 1,000-year flood. West Virginia was declared a federal disaster area, and within days of the flood, FEMA representatives blanketed the area to help flood victims, together with local and far-flung representatives from United Way of the Greenbrier Valley, Samaritan’s Purse, area churches and The Greenbrier (which closed the hotel, cancelled the annual Greenbrier Classic PGA golf tournament, and temporarily opened its doors to flood victims). Volunteers from all over the state and country began gathering supplies and cleaning up the wreckage.
A year later, things are looking better in some places, and a bit desolate in others. Passersby are often shocked to drive through Caldwell and see empty plots of land where homes and a church used to stand. In many areas, the landscape has simply changed.
Homes for White Sulphur Springs, a non-profit funded by the charity Neighbors Helping Neighbors launched by The Greenbrier, has built an entirely new neighborhood of low-cost housing for flood victims, appropriately called Hope Village. It is built outside of the flood plain. In Rainelle, a similar development is under construction. The Appalachian Service Project Long-Term Recovery Committee, partnered with Homes for West Virginia, plans to build 52 homes for Western End flood victims.
In Rainelle, life goes on. Last month, the town was able to host its annual LZ Rainelle rally which welcomes motorcyclists over the Memorial Day weekend during the bikers’ Run for the Wall.
In White Sulphur Springs, survivors look to the future as well, even as they search for new normalcy. Next week, the Greenbrier Classic golf tournament will return to White Sulphur Springs. The golf courses, destroyed by the flooding, have been immaculately restored. The Greenbrier is open, and, as ever, the majority of its personnel are White Sulphur Springs residents, many who lost homes and loved ones during last June’s flood.
But any time it rains – and in West Virginia, it rains a lot – fear creeps into the hearts of survivors, volunteers and observers alike.
Families, towns and businesses are ready to move forward, ready for the summer influx of tourists and their dollars, ready to fish and kayak the streams and river waters that devastated so many last year. But they’re skeptical, tentatively trusting the weathermen’s diagnoses that this was, indeed, a 1,000-year flood.