The Heat Is Online

West Virginia Hit with 4 Inches of Rain in 6 Hours

100-Year Flood, for the Second Straight Year

The New York Times, May 8, 2002

KIMBALL, W.Va., May 8 — The business of undertaking was never more vital along storm-racked Main Street in this old Appalachian mining town as Jim Widener mucked out the casket display room of his funeral home today.

"We're managing to handle the wake of Shirley Faye Mitchem," Mr. Widener said as this remote coal hollow reeled under the devastation of its second deadly flood in 10 months.

"Mrs. Mitchem was killed when the storm took down a tree on Route 52 that smashed into her car," said Mr. Widener, who had just finished restoring his funeral home from the effects of the flash flood last July when the second one swept through Main Street last Thursday and deluged his business once more.

"Her husband, Edgar, is still on the critical list," added the undertaker, doing his best to clean up the premises so victims could properly grieve over a storm that has swept lives and homes to oblivion in the funnel-like confines of the area's steep creek-side hollows.

Rainstorms continue to besiege mountainside dwellers left isolated by flood damage here in McDowell County, in the southernmost reaches of West Virginia. The storm of last week killed six people in the county while destroying close to 200 homes and flooding more than 2,000 others. Five other flood-related deaths have been reported in a multicounty swath of hamlets along the winding Virginia and Kentucky borderlands of Appalachia.

"Last July's storm was called the 100-year flood," noted Kimball's mayor, Jack Premo. "I guess this is a 101-year flood. We lost everything last time, including City Hall, and we've lost it all again with this one."

The town shuddered anew as Elkhorn Creek once again thickened with a flash storm and roared above its banks down Main Street, bursting the doors of restored businesses.

Residents here and in a half-dozen other coal hollows complain that the 100-year flood timetable of folkloric tradition has been dangerously accelerated by modern timber cutters and strip miners on the surrounding steep mountainsides. Industry maintains that its work here is accompanied by restoration efforts ensuring that no environmental damage is permanent. But stunned residents say natural runoffs, and trees that would otherwise help absorb the downpours, have been obliterated, so that flash rains roar down on towns like unimpeded avalanches.

"The logging has been going on indiscriminately, and no one will help us control it," said Jean Battlo, a writer whose Main Street home and elaborate flower garden were deluged once more by the latest torrent.

"Even Senator Rockefeller was asking about the timbering," Ms. Battlo said of Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, who toured the damage on Monday and asked repeated questions about the effects of timber clear-cutting on the land's ability to absorb and channel runoffs.

"I rebuilt after July's flood; how stupid was that?" Ms. Battlo said as the town spent another anxious day under flash-flood warnings. "I've been writing a play about the Hatfield shootouts in the mining days, but I can see the fresh tragedy to be written here is all about the flooding," she said, vowing to stay and capture the story.

As they shoveled, hosed and mopped, the few Main Street merchants left in this town of 500 residents were vowing to clean up and reopen, if only because they had no alternative way of surviving.

"Everybody down this part of the country is tough," said Jimmy Gianato, the hardware dealer descended from Italian immigrant coal miners who settled Kimball when King Coal boomed along the Elkhorn.

"Our parents were tough, our grandparents tougher, and toughest were the old-timers from the old country," said Mr. Gianato, a member of this town's stalwart mercantile clan.

The Gianato hardware and grocery stores were ruined in the flood last July. At the time, Mayor Premo openly raised the question of closing down the town. The Gianatos and other leaders stayed and reopened last summer, only to be at the mops and shovels this morning.

The McDowell County region, one of the poorest in Appalachia, has been in a downward spiral for 50 years, with young people emigrating and welfare replacing coal as an economic force. The county now has only about one-fourth the population of 100,000 it had in busier days, when, long before machine-intensive strip mining, manual labor was at a premium. But retired miners like Mayor Premo, who worked 40 years underground, remain addicted to the beauty of the mountain hollows.

So when the flooding returned last week, "the older people just sat in their houses and cried," said Fran Lambert, a resident who pitched in to rescue aged neighbors.

"We couldn't get them to stand up and go to the cars," Ms. Lambert said. "It was hard for all of us to believe that this was happening all over again a year later."

It may take a week or more to even reach the more remote hollow communities like Avondale and Barton No. 3, disaster officials said.

"It breaks your heart to see a third of the houses in Coalwood gone, destroyed," said Jay Wilson, director of McDowell Mission, a Methodist charity. He is hoping for the return of hundreds of volunteers from across Appalachia who helped rebuild impoverished McDowell County hamlets last summer.

"Recovery truly depends on people pulling together," said State Senator John R. Unger II, who is coordinating the state disaster-relief effort. "And I have to marvel how people are doing just that, rising above their homes' being destroyed."

Residents complain strongly about the effects of lumbering and strip mining, noting in particular the Bush administration's new decision to ease coal waste restrictions on mountaintop mining. This process involves the decapitation of mountaintops by giant machinery that now will have more leeway in pouring wastes into nearby streams that environmentalists say are vital for storm management. A state study on the effects of mining and lumbering on the Appalachian hollows is expected this summer.

The Bush administration contends that the new policy on coal waste will be tightly controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers. But Mr. Widener, the undertaker, firmly insisted: "Timbering and mining have raped and ruined us. A hundred families left after the July flood, and now here's the fresh storm, the ground bursting open with nowhere for the water to go. We're left all scared and hesitant."

Police, National Guard search for flood victims, May 4, 2002

WELCH, West Virginia (AP) -- State Police and National Guard officers went door to door in search of victims of devastating Appalachian floods that left at least four people dead and 11 others missing.

Torrents of water poured down mountainsides and overflowed streams and rivers in three states Friday, flooding towns in minutes and leaving mud, debris and destruction behind.

West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise, who toured the area Friday by helicopter and foot, said hundreds of people are homeless and at least 375 homes and 30 businesses were damaged.

"We're going to see a lot of digging out for a long time to come," Wise said.

One of the hardest hit areas was West Virginia's McDowell County, where three people were confirmed dead. In the town of Welch, State Police Capt. R.L. Hall dispatched National Guard and local conservation officers along with his own troopers to distribute drinking water.

Hall was in the area when it was devastated by floods last July.

"July was record flooding in McDowell County, and this is higher than that," Hall said Friday. "From one end of the county to another, it's all under water."

Deaths in West Virginia, Virginia

Along with the three deaths in McDowell County, one person was confirmed dead in Virginia and another is suspected dead in Kentucky.

The flooding was caused by five inches of rain that fell in six hours Thursday in the area where West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia meet.

In McDowell County, seven people were reported missing by 911 callers who said they had seen people in vehicles go into the water, Jimmy Gianato, director of the center in southeastern West Virginia, said Friday.

Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner's office said about 200 houses there were either damaged or destroyed. An undetermined number of structures were damaged in Kentucky.

In Virginia's Buchanan County, rescue crews were searching for three people along Knox Creek.

The possible flooding victim in Kentucky was a man who was swept away Thursday night after his vehicle stalled in high water.

"Search efforts have been hampered due to the fact that the water had been rising since he was reported missing," said Kentucky State Police Detective Mike Goble.

Skies were dry Friday but rain was forecast for the weekend. In most areas, waters began to recede Friday evening.

In Welch, businesses struggled to begin cleaning up from the deluge.

Frank Kennedy's floral and antique store filled with 4 feet of water, destroying many of his antiques. He said that on Friday morning, McDowell Street was a river carrying lawn chairs, toilet paper and other flotsam from the nearby Dollar General Store.

"I'm 45 years old, and I've never seen it worse than this," he said. "It came up so fast, it was just so frightening."

Betty Jones, owner of ChrisAnn Dress Shop, said she doubted any of the five businesses in downtown Welch could survive. She said she didn't know if she could start over, since her store carried no flood insurance.

"In a town where the economy is bad like this, you cut corners," Jones said. "I guess that was one of the corners we shouldn't have cut."

The Tug Fork River, which separates West Virginia from Kentucky for miles, rose steadily Friday. Officials in Williamson, West Virginia, closed the flood doors for the first time in their 18-year existence, but parts of the community of 3,400 people were already swamped.

American Electric Power Co. spokesman Todd Burns said about 17,250 of the utility's customers lost power in southwest Virginia. All but about 2,500 had regained power by Friday afternoon, he said.

Areas of West Virginia are posing more of a problem, Burns said.

"We have stations underwater that we can't get in to assess," he said. "We're going in by helicopter because the roads are all gone."

Burns said about 3,600 customers in West Virginia and 1,400 customers in Kentucky wouldn't have power until at least Saturday.

Copyright 2002 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Flash Flooding Leaves Three Dead

The Associated Press, May 3, 2002

KEYSTONE, W.Va. -- Heavy rain pounded a five-county area where West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky meet, sending normally quiet steams raging over their banks and into homes and streets. Authorities said at least three people were killed and 14 others were missing Friday.

The Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River and its tributaries began spilling their banks on Thursday as severe storms rolled through the region, with as much as 4 inches of rain falling in six hours.

West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise declared a state of emergency in McDowell County, and the National Guard sent two helicopters to remove stranded residents from their homes. At least two people died and eight others were missing there, said Mark Rigsby of the state Office of Emergency Services.

In Virginia, rescue crews searched along Knox Creek in Buchanan County for six people swept away in flooding there. One body was recovered, said sheriff's dispatcher Vicky Jones.