Last Friday was a beautiful day in White Sulphur Springs, sunny with a breeze, a slight chance of rain in the forecast.
As crowds gathered in Old Mill Park to honor those lost in the flood one year before, it was hard to not compare the pleasant weather to the straight-line storms that hammered the Spa City on June 23, 2016.
Old Mill Park overlooks Howards Creek, and on Friday, young men walked along the creek bed looking for minnows, while up above, nearly 300 people had gathered to remember the those who died.
The day of remembrance began with a dedication and ribbon cutting of a flood memorial at Old Mill Park.
The flood memorial was the brainchild of Greenbrier East High School student, Cameron Zobrist, who initiated the structure as a project for his Eagle Scout rank. An arched walkway of stones, designed by White Sulphur contractor Joshua Adamo, bore the names of the seven townspeople, and a Caldwell resident, who died in the flood.
At the service, Cathy Rennard, a White Sulphur resident and chair of West Virginia Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, and city council member Audrey Van Buren, read the names of each of the 23 flood victims in the state.
Following the remembrance, a ribbon across the memorial was cut by Van Buren and Zobrist, with Don Dransfield playing “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes to the emotional crowd.
Following the flood memorial dedication, officials led a recessional to Nicely Park, just down the street, the site of the former home of Hershel, Debra and Nataysha Nicely, and Dakota Stone. Hershel, Nataysha and Dakota lost their lives in the flood, and the home was destroyed, pulled downstream by the rushing waters of Howards Creek.
Debra Nicely was present for the ribbon cutting at the new park honoring her former home, husband, daughter and grandson, and cut the ribbon for the flower-lined memorial. Senator Joe Manchin read the dedication, keeping his arm around Nicely during the ribbon cutting and speeches, at times whispering in her ear as he provided comfort to the grieving wife, mother and grandmother.
The Greenbrier East High School choir sang “Give Me Music,” and then the crowd continued on to Brad Paisley Park, in the old Mill Hill neighborhood, known as “Little Mexico,” that was destroyed by the floods. A barn-like pavilion and playground now occupied the ground that, until last June, was a residential area, and then after the flood, was littered with debris and destroyed homes.
As officials spoke to the crowd before the third ribbon cutting of the day, Tom Crabtree, a White Sulphur resident and Greenbrier Sporting Club member who has been instrumental in White Sulphur’s recovery, asked the crowd to hush.
“Do you hear that?” he asked, looking toward the new playground, already filled with youngsters. “That’s children, laughing and playing.”
And so, a year later, the citizens of White Sulphur looked back at all they had lost, and also, ahead to the future, where memorial parks filled with flowers and benches, barns and jungle gyms replaced the homes, and the devastation, that occupied the banks of Howards Creek one year ago.