The Flood of `16

Photo credit: Amanda Carper

It’s been a week.  I should have written something before now, but we’ve been a little busy.

As some of you may know, my wife and I live in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, which, along with many other counties in the state, was hit by severe flooding last Thursday. They’re calling it a 1000 year flood.  We were getting up to five inches of rain an hour at times, sending sheets of water down the hills, causing the creeks and rivers to flood, filling up the lowlands and washing away hundreds of homes. And some of those creeks and rivers ran through towns, which has been devastating. I’m able to report, though, that we, our home, and our animals are all safe and got through the flooding largely unscathed.

The wife called me on Wednesday of last week to let me know a derecho was predicted for the early hours of Thursday morning.  Derechos are fast moving lines of storms, often with tremendous winds.  We take predictions of them seriously, because pretty much our whole state was affected by one back in 2012, and were completely unprepared for it.  The result was over a week without power for our area, with few gas stations able to pump fuel, let alone sell us any, most stores only taking cash, people holding freezer parties to eat the food they had been saving before it all perished, a blistering accompanying heatwave, and my wife and I with long vehicle journeys to make with only the gas we could siphon from the lawn mower.  After that experience, we put preparations into place to prevent us going through the worst of what we did then–such as keeping multi-gallon water jugs at hand, a generator (purchased during the last derecho), fuel, a Berkey water filtration system, extra food, the whole works.  The wife basically became a prepper, though just what she was prepping for was indeterminate.

On hearing the news from her on Wednesday, I gassed up the cars, got a chunk of cash from the ATM and began battening down the hatches.  I even did all my prep for the writing class I was to teach on Thursday, at the Federal Prison in Beckley, just in case we lost power and I was unable to print handouts.  We would not be caught unaware.  This was so much worse, though.

We watched the news coverage on the Weather Channel.  They seemed to be burning a lot of calories in putting the fear of the storms and tornadoes into folks in the Chicago area.  Some twisters were sighted, but the big weather they were predicting didn’t seem like it was happening at quite the level they were trumpeting.  The graphic “60 Million in Danger Zone” was a constant presence on the screen, but the wife and I were starting to feel like this whole thing was going to amount to some thunderstorms and not much else.

Around 2 a.m. on Thursday, the lighting began.  No thunder yet, just lots of lighting.  I unplugged everything and went back to sleep.  The derecho was supposed to hit between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m.  Not much happened, though.  Some rain.  Some more lightning.  Some more rain.  No real wind to speak of.  I gave a sigh of relief.  The wife rose and went to work.

The rain continued to increase in intensity.  We had some pretty severe downpours before 1 p., to the point that I had to go check the basement to make sure we weren’t taking on water.  There was a little coming under the basement door, but it hadn’t even made it to the drain.  Our house is up on a hill and nowhere near a creek or river.  So I hadn’t expected much.  Every hour or two, though, another huge downpour would hit us, lasting 20 minutes at a stretch sometimes.  We began to get flash flood warnings, continually updated to increase the time we would be under them.  I wasn’t really concerned, though.  To me flash floods mean a little water might cross a road here or there.  The river might rise a little.  We get that sort of thing every year and usually just results in the Ronceverte Island Amphitheater being submerged for a couple of days.

My wife kept me updated with what she was hearing on the police scanner at her clinic.  Folks in lower lying areas, like White Sulphur Springs, Rainelle and Richwood were being hit the hardest.  A dam near Richwood had failed and there was flooding in town, but I didn’t know how bad yet.  I was supposed to leave for Beckley by 4.  At 3:30, the wife called and demanded I call ahead and make sure all the roads were clear, because she didn’t want me washing away like some of the people she was hearing about.  I called the prison and, in an unprecedented event, someone answered.  They said the community college teacher had cancelled his class because part of the interstate was under water.  He’s at least twice the man I am, so I said that was good enough for me and cancelled my class as well.

By late afternoon, images began to appear online of the flooding in White Sulphur Springs, a town not far away.  When I saw the video of a burning house floating along a road, then crashing into a bridge, I knew shit was officially bad.  It wasn’t the only image of houses washing away or cars being buffeted by currents.  White Sulphur itself basically only has three roads leading into it, all of which were now under deep water.  Emergency crews couldn’t get in or out.  My later wife told me heartbreaking stories of listening to the scanner and hearing the rescue workers who had made it in before the flood grew too high.  They could hear people screaming for help, but couldn’t get to them because the available boats were all busy rescuing others elsewhere.  They were begging for boats, or even just rope.  The high water rescue crew that had been brought in could only do so much.

After 5p, we got another torrential downpour.  I went to check the basement.  Water was pouring under the door and the small pond it was making had now passed the floor drain and was spreading toward the water heater as I watched.  I splashed in to see the drain was clogged with some leaves that had blown in the door last fall.  I flung them out and it started draining just fine.  I imagined the drain outside the basement’s exterior door was also full, so I opened it to check, only to find that around six inches of water had built up on the other side of the door, much of which spilled into the basement before I could get it shut again.  I had to go back upstairs, then outside in the downpour, and around to the door with a rake to get all the mulch and debris out of the drain and out of the sloped basement descent.  Water was still running down the yard and right down the slope, though, carrying more debris with it.  So I found a shovel and dug a trench in the ground to lead the water away from the basement.  I hoped it would work.  It seemed to do okay.

The rest of the evening was spent trying to follow the news online and via my wife, who kept me updated.  One friend had to brave waist deep water, carrying her children, to get out of her home before the flood waters reached it. Fortunately in that case, a man with a backhoe happened by shortly afterward and dug a trench to divert the water away from their house, and it was not damaged. But it was a very close thing by about two inches.  Her house survived.

I also texted our friends Rebecca and Chester to see how they were faring down their twisty windy road.  They said they were fine and invited us to come over for stew and Coronas to wait out the storm.  An hour later, Rebecca texted back: “Update… Ok, so we have NO road.”  Their driveway, the culvert beneath it, and much of the road they lived on were gone, washed away in what she described as a raging river.  “All is well, just won’t be leaving for a while,” she said.  Not long after that, a maple tree fell across both of their vehicles.  In a miracle, it didn’t crush their vehicles, but lodged against the hill beside their house in just such a way that it simply lay above them.  A week later, they’re still stranded there, though they’re able to climb out and catch rides with their kids, who came to help.

Reports are that there are only around 23 dead following the storms, but reports also say there are close to 200 still missing.  The death toll will rise, I’m sure.  My wife has already learned of three of her patients who were lost to the flooding.  A few people in the area who were feared dead, though, have turned up alive.

There are many nonprofit organizations on a state and national level who are doing a lot to help.  Churches have become shelters and base stations for disaster relief efforts of the Red Cross and the Southern Baptist Convention Disaster Relief.  The United Way has teamed with St. James Episcopal to help distribute food and supplies where needed.  Mud out crews from around the state are streaming in to help tear out drywall and carpeting from homes that were damaged by flooding so that they can possibly be repaired by contractors later.  My wife and I joined such a crew based out of our church and helped clear out the basement for an elderly couple in White Sulphur Springs, and removed soaked carpet from another house.  We were not, however, in the most damaged areas of the town, but in a place where the flooding did not reach, but which was flooded all the same by the failure of a storm drainage system.  We’ve been to Alderson to deliver food.  The damage there is not as visibly bad but there are lots of mud-filled homes along the river, whose residents are now displaced to the community center.  Whole families are there, sleeping on cots.  Donations of clothing from the area had been delivered before we arrived and the outpouring of support there was impressive.  Now that FEMA is involved, there’s a coordinating organization that’s designed to get help where it’s needed by working with all the other relief organizations already in the area.

The major damage to something that affects me personally, however, did not involve endangered lives, but the Greenbrier Valley Theatre, where I often act.  They took on nearly six feet of water in their basement, submerging the costume shop as well as their stock of costumes, props, furniture and set pieces.  It’s been pumped out now and a disaster cleanup team has been working diligently since Monday.  But I spent last Sunday down there, splashing through stagnant water, helping haul out 40 years worth of costumes, props, and furniture.  There were a lot of people helping including every member of GVT’s staff, equity actors and community actors alike, the GVTeens group, musicians, and community volunteers.  The GVT staff were the hardest workers of the lot.  I don’t know where they found the energy.  After four hours, my fat ass was about to drop.  But thanks to in-house cooks and massive food donations from restaurants like Del Sol Cafe, we were able to keep fueled and I was able to do seven hours.  Since then we’ve been helping to launder as many costumes as I could fit in my car, hoping to save it from mold, mildew and flood water riest.  So much of it will still be lost.

It’s been a strange and sad week.  And it’s going to be years before everything in the area can be restored to normalcy, if such a thing can be achieved for even half of the affected people.

It’s so very odd to feel guilty that we personally escaped harm, but I somehow do.

2 Comments

  1. Geoff Fuller

    Thank you, Eric, for your vivid dispatch.

    Reply
  2. Diane Tarantini

    Oh, Eric. This is a gripping and terrifying post. Thanks for your documentation of Thursday’s hell. I am so sorry for the loss sustained by your beloved GVT.

    Reply

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