After Dozens Die in West Virginia Flooding, Obama Signs Disaster Declaration

by | June 27, 2016

By Daniel Tyson

Three West Virginia counties were declared national disaster areas Saturday, including Greenbrier and Nicholas, paving the way for federal assistance.

Meanwhile, residents across the region continued cleanup efforts even as they began to realize the full extent of the devastation the flooding left in its path.

Aboard Air Force One, President Obama spoke with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin about the devastation the flooding is causing the state. The declaration, signed a short time later by the president, provides individual assistance, including emergency medical support and housing, while also addressing a number of immediate needs to residents in Kanawha, Greenbrier and Nicholas counties.

Damage assessments continue in many areas, including Clay, Fayette, Monroe, Ritchie, Summers and Webster counties, and additional requests may be submitted to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Saturday afternoon, FEMA said that damage surveys are continuing and more counties and additional forms of assistance may be designated after the assessments are fully completed.

In a statement issued Saturday afternoon, Gov. Tomblin said aid is needed not only in the severely impacted areas. "As emergency response efforts continue, with members of the National Guard and local emergency responders hard at work helping our neighbors, we will continue pursuing additional assistance for all affected areas," he said.

The extreme flooding has devastated 44 out of West Virginia's 55 counties, has left thousands without power, destroyed numerous homes, businesses and infrastructure, and as of the latest count early Saturday evening, claimed 24 lives, 16 in Greenbrier County.

The National Weather Service in Blacksburg said its radar estimated rainfall for Rainelle and White Sulphur Springs Thursday and Friday was 12 inches and 10 inches over a 12-hour period, respectively.

NWS data suggests the storm is a one in a 1,000-year event -- meaning that much rainfall in a single event occurs only once in about 1,000 years.

In hard-hit White Sulphur Springs, it was a day of coming together -- breaking bread, both physically and spiritually.

The parking lot of Old White Motors on Main Street was filled with food and fellowship. The spur-of-the-moment food festival fed the multitude.

"We're going to have a heck of a feast here this afternoon," said Jim Humen, a former Spa City resident, as he pointed to a cooler filled with crab legs, pork chops and steaks.

Cary Ridgeway and Amanda Cleghon, mother and daughter, volunteered to help serve food to their neighbors who lost nearly everything.

"A lot of people are completely without anything," said Ridgeway. "These are people we see at the ball park. We know these people."

Alderson also suffered significant damage during the two days of flooding.

"We are a mess here, but we are also fortunate not to have loss of life or serious injury," said Mayor Travis Copenhaver.

It's estimated flood levels reached 22 feet in town last week, just short of the 24.33 feet record in 1996.

An emergency shelter was set up at the Alderson Community Center for the Arts and Humanities. Just last week, the town installed a generator at the center which allowed the facility to operate when the power failed.

Police Chief Jeremy Bennett picked up a Humvee Thursday, just hours before the storm hit the town. It was immediately put to use, he said. About 25 people were rescued using the Humvee and boats from the Alderson Volunteer Fire Department.

"Services for displaced people are available at the Community Center; the Alderson Volunteer Fire Department is pumping out basements and other safety services," Coperhaver said.

The town has implemented an 11 p.m. curfew until further notice.

Three deaths have been confirmed in Rainelle, but Police Officer Randy Evans warned "there could be more."

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Mayor Andi Pendleton nearly cried when she discussed the deaths. "We've got some fatalities," she said of the three dead. "I know we got more than that, we're still searching."

State officials estimate there there are 15 people dead in the Rainelle area.

Town officials estimate upwards of 100 people were rescued during the overnight Thursday into Friday. Many of the rescued were sent to churches in Ansted after floodwaters crept into their shelter in Rainelle.

Local churches were unable to house its residents. Trinity Covenant Church had eight feet of water in its basement. "It's devastating," said Pastor Jim Atkinson, "The water came through with such force. Every room has been destroyed ..."

It was unclear when electricity or municipal water service will resume. A plethora of elected and government officials flew over Rainelle Saturday morning.

An estimated 60 secondary roads were still unusable Saturday. Near Richwood, preliminary damage assessments showed Williams River Road (FR 86) washed out in several locations. Until further notice, Williams River Road is closed to all traffic from the Tea Creek Campground downstream to its junction with county road 46/2 near Dyer.

The Cranberry Mountain Nature Center did not sustain any damage from the storm, but is closed until power can be restored to the building.

In Richwood, residents continue to shovel tons of mud from the streets and assess their losses.

However, out-going Mayor Robert "Bob" Johnson said power was restored to the largest part of Richwood Saturday afternoon.

"By Monday, everyone should have their water back, though. Our electrical crews are working hard to help the people," he said. "The problem is that they're running into flooded or buried electrical systems and they can't get to them."

On Saturday, the Salvation Army was on the Moose Lodge parking lot, handing out cases of water to anyone needing assistance. Salvation Army Major Stephen Story said the Moose requested the charity's help with water distribution.

By Saturday afternoon, power was being restored slowly to areas without. Appalachian Power had more than 2,200 customers in Greenbrier County without electric at 8 p.m. Saturday. More than 800 Fayette County customers were in the dark as night fell. In Nicholas County, 2,000 customers were without power and in Raleigh it was 279, according to APCo's website.

MonPower had nearly 3,300 customers without power in Greenbrier County, more than 100 in Monroe and 230 in Nicholas, the company's website showed.

Organizations, corporations and individuals are offering assistance to areas affected by the flooding -- from as close as North Eisenhower Drive to as far away as Los Angeles.

Mountaineer Automotive on North Eisenhower Drive in Beckley is hosting a flood drive. Blankets, pillows, diapers are needed. Simply stop by the dealership to drop off donations.

Starting today, Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters of West Virginia will have damage assessments in affected areas. Cleanup crews are slated to begin working Monday.

VOAD is setting up volunteers centers in Greenbrier, Nicholas, Fayette, Kanawha and Webster counties.

The Council of Churches and The Salvation Army are sending in pastoral teams to affected areas.

Five tractor-trailers loaded with water left the Raleigh County Relief Deployment Center in Beaver Saturday headed to communities across the region, said Dan Lawther, with the West Virginia Conference of Methodist Churches.

Twitter was abuzz with news that a fundraiser is being hosted in Los Angeles to benefit the flood relief efforts in West Virginia.

In Fayette County, West Virginia American Water is distributing potable water at the Keeneys Creek Missionary Baptist Church in Winona.

(c)2016 The Register-Herald (Beckley, W.Va.)