When the news of devasting floods hit the airwaves this past Friday, I couldn’t help but think, “Flooding is nothing new for West Virginia.”
More than forty years ago, on February 26, 1972, one of the deadliest floods in U.S. history occurred in southern West Virginia's Buffalo Creek hollow. It was reported that negligent strip mining and heavy rain produced a raging flood. In a matter of minutes, 118 were dead and over 4,000 people were left homeless. Seven were never found.
The flooding that struck Charleston, West Virginia, and the surrounding Kanawha Valley on July 19-20,1961, was one of the worst natural disasters ever to hit the area. Five adults and four children died in what was then called Magazine Hollow, and 22 people overall died from the torrents of water.
The flood that came the closest to home for me was the Paint Creek Flood of 1932. Some of my earliest memories are stories my parents and grandparents told me about this one.
Late in the evening, on July10th, after a beautiful sunny day, the heavy rains commenced, accompanied by lightening and thunder and didn’t let up. People began to realize it was showing signs of flooding. They gathered their families and moved as quickly as possible to higher ground. Some to old chicken houses and other out buildings that had been built for their needs. Others relied on the kindness of relatives who lived a few miles away from the creek that was on the verge of overflowing its banks.
The flood caused widespread damage and at least 18 deaths.
Many years later, after my grandmother passed away, I had the opportunity to read the journal she kept as a young wife and mother. She wrote about her family’s experience with that killer flood. Here’s her account:
“One terrible night in July of 1932, disaster struck. With little warning, there came a heavy downpour. It rained and rained and rained. Thunder boomed and great bolts of lightening lit up the sky like daylight. Before long, a huge amount of water was rushing down Paint Creek. Faster and faster it went gaining speed until it was strong enough to destroy everything in its path!
Melvin was good at reading weather signs. We had survived severe storms in Alabama before moving to West Virginia. Early on, he realized we needed to move to higher ground. Gwen, then thirteen, was able to scale the steep mountain behind our house on her own, Melvin carried Ben, six-years-old and I toted four-year-old Jack on my hip.
We stopped behind a huge boulder and watched in amazement as the waters rushed past us down below. It was shocking to see large articles of furniture bobbing up and down in the angry waters as they raced by; animals trying desperately to swim to safety – in vain; whole houses and rooftops and all kinds of debris speeding by as if they had an important destination. We heard screams and people yelling their loved ones’ names. It was chilling!
We hovered there in the safety of the boulder until daylight – the children clinging to us – frozen in terror.
With the rising of the sun, the storm subsided and the waters slowed to a trickle. We made our way back home, wading through deep mud, not knowing what to expect.
Our house was still standing, but filled with sludge – no longer livable.
Standing ankle-deep in thick slimy mud – wet, cold, hungry and homeless – I lost control. With my three children clinging to my legs, I cried out, “Sometimes it seems that God Himself has turned away from us!”
We set out for Kingston, a few miles up the creek, and stayed with my sister, Ann, and her husband until Melvin got a job with the mines there and the company rented us a house of our own.”
I wonder how many victims of this latest West Virginia flood felt the way my grandmother felt as they watched their homes and all of their belongings snatched away in seconds. One man on TV said he had only the clothes on his back and didn’t even know where his house was!
The latest death toll is 26.
I was startled when I saw a comment on social media that read: ”Does anything good ever happen in West Virginia?”
Well, yes, it does. But before I answer, I need some time to reflect.