W.Va. Floods Offer Lessons for Katrina Victims A visit to communities in West Virginia that were devastated by flash floods in 2001 offers a glimpse into what Gulf Coast residents can expect as they struggle to recover from the destruction of Hurricane Katrina.
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W.Va. Floods Offer Lessons for Katrina Victims

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W.Va. Floods Offer Lessons for Katrina Victims

W.Va. Floods Offer Lessons for Katrina Victims

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

In New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast, many questions remain unanswered after Hurricane Katrina. Will business come back? How many people will leave for good? What will remain of those communities? Well, four years ago those same questions were being asked in another part of the country after another disaster, smaller scale, but still catastrophic.

BLOCK: Flash floods tore through the hollows of southern West Virginia, destroyed hundreds of businesses and homes and left communities wondering how they could ever recover. The floods came without warning. The forecast that day called for just a chance of showers. But early on a Sunday morning, July 8th, 2001, the rains came instead in a torrent.

Unidentified Man #1: The water literally was as if people were pouring it out of a boot.

BLOCK: Eleven inches of rain in four hours. Water poured down the mountains and quickly flooded the creeks and rivers that wind through the valleys. Houses and trailers were ripped from their foundations and swept away. They jammed up under bridges so the water had nowhere to go, and that made the flooding even worse.

Unidentified Man #2: Me and my children was on our way to church and I noticed on the way to church that the water seemed to be coming in the road, out of the mountains and everything. And I said, `This could be a bad day.'

Unidentified Man #3: I knowed there was something out of the ordinary because the way it was raining and carrying on.

Unidentified Woman #1: Rain and rain and rain and the next thing I know the house was gone.

Unidentified Woman #2: We had to hurry and get out just barely with what we had on our backs. It come up so quick.

Unidentified Man #4: We was lucky that it happened at 10:00 in the morning instead of 10:00 at night. I mean, if it'd been at night I'm sure we'd have lost some lives.

Unidentified Man #5: It receded just about as fast as it came up.

Unidentified Man #6: It sure did.

BLOCK: Some who lost their homes moved in for a while with family on higher ground. FEMA came in and set up trailer parks. There was one death that morning, and it was in Wyoming County.

(Soundbite of church bells)

BLOCK: The Guyandotte and Slab Fork Rivers meet in the town of Mullens, population about 1,700. Mullens, spelled with an E, was settled by A.P. Mullins, spelled with an I, in 1894. Signs around town explain simply change in spelling by failure to dot I. This is coal country. The first commercial coal mine opened in Wyoming County in 1908. In its heyday, six passenger trains would stop in Mullens every day; none now.

(Soundbite of train whistle)

BLOCK: You will see coal trains a hundred, 150 cars long, hauling coal steadily out of southern West Virginia. Production is booming but, with automation, coal jobs are disappearing. The county dropped from 8,000 coal jobs in the early '80s to just 3,000 jobs now. The county's lost about a third of its population in that time.

So for towns like Mullens that had taken a serious economic beating already, the violent flood of 2001 was a sucker punch. I wanted to know what does it take for a town to come back? What holds it together after a disaster and what's lost?

Mr. CHARLIE FELLER(ph) (Mullens Resident): That was the water level.

BLOCK: Yeah, and how tall are you?

Mr. FELLER: I'm about 6'2"

BLOCK: And how tall is that?

Mr. FELLER: So it's about six and a half feet.


Charlie Feller points to the high-water mark, a spot way up on the door of C.B. Feller Insurance, the business his grandfather started in downtown Mullens in 1925.

Mr. FELLER: Where we have such severe, steep mountains coming down into a narrow valley, when that amount of water, that 11 inches of rain in four hours, it just acts like a funnel and it just pours it right down into the valley, gathering speed and strength as it goes. Here in my--in the downtown section where my business is, it looked like a war zone, with just windows all broken out. It was just hard to believe. It's hard to describe to people the devastation. And I can sympathize with the people in the Gulf Coast now suffering what they did because we know that it just devastates everything.

BLOCK: When this flood happened back in 2001, what was your expectation of what would happen with this town?

Mr. FELLER: Right after the flood, I was extremely concerned because literally every business in town was shut down, was out of commission. Many of the business owners were trying to make a determination whether they were going to come back here in Mullens or come back at all anywhere, and a group of us businessmen got together and made a determination that we would make a go of it. This was our home. This is where we had made our living for so long and this is where our families were. So we just determined that we were going to come back and get back into business.

(Soundbite of door chime)

BLOCK: Downtown Mullens is partly back. Two flower stores are open again.

Unidentified Woman #3: Yeah, I'm looking for roses.

Unidentified Woman #4: All right. Dress it up a little bit since it is her birthday.

Unidentified Woman #3: Yeah.

BLOCK: Also two barbershops, a tavern, doctor's office, a couple of restaurants, a dollar store. The businesses that did come back got a lot of help from the state and federal government, microloans and forgivable loans, but much has been lost. I drive around Mullens with the mayor, Harold Worley, past boarded-up buildings and vacant lots.

Mayor HAROLD WORLEY (Mullens, West Virginia): Yeah, actually there was a theater building and things there. We tore all that down after the flood, and a pawnshop there. That Ford garage, it used to be right there. They didn't even try to come back after the flood.

BLOCK: That's a lot of buildings right there.

Mayor WORLEY: It is, absolutely.

BLOCK: Harold Worley and his wife Gloria live in a white single-story house that sits some 20 feet above the Guyandotte River.

Mayor WORLEY: Right down there where that red car is at back this side of that driveway just pull in there. Yup.

BLOCK: When we stand on their back deck, the Guyandotte is a gentle, bubbling creek just a few inches deep. But on that Sunday four years ago, the water rose fast, jumped that 20 feet up to the bank and then kept on rising.

Mayor WORLEY: When it come over the bank here, it wasn't 15 minutes till it was up in the house.

BLOCK: Another four feet or so?

Mayor WORLEY: Yeah, yeah.


Mayor WORLEY: When it come down right over on Mr. Weaver's porch over there, we was hanging on a boat with our arms around that post on his porch over there and that's where we hung on to right there.

Mrs. GLORIA WORLEY (Mayor's Wife): We was in his house.

Mayor WORLEY: Yeah.

Mrs. WORLEY: I was on the table with my feet in a chair and the water still come up to there on me.

BLOCK: Up to your chest?

Mrs. WORLEY: Yeah.

Mayor WORLEY: And it was so swift what we was doing was hanging on that post in case we had to get them out and put them on the roof of the house.

BLOCK: That sounds like just a really terrifying morning.

Mayor WORLEY: Oh, it was a terrifying morning. It--yeah, it...

Mrs. WORLEY: I don't think it sank in with me. We set over there and sung.

BLOCK: What were you singing?

Mrs. WORLEY: "Row, Row, Row Your Boat."

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: The Worleys had flood insurance. They got $60,000 from that, added in some 40,000 of their own and completely rebuilt their house. They figure the flooding was as bad as it was because of strip mining and timbering on these mountains, and you'll hear a lot of people complain about that. Several mass litigation lawsuits are heading to trial, people suing the mining and timbering companies for damages they sustained in the 2001 flood. The companies maintain the floods were simply a matter of too much rainfall in too short a time, that their operations didn't play a part. But the Worleys see environmental damage from industry all around them.

Mayor WORLEY: If you go back towards Beckley, you can see along the road where they've clear-cut it and what they call the clear-cut, they cut everything and they--you ain't got nothing but the mountain and you don't have nothing to hold that water. Of course, then when you get a heavy rain like the one I was talking about, that was out of the ordinary, and you get both of them together and you've got something.

BLOCK: And you think it made it worse?

Mayor WORLEY: Oh, it made it worse. There's no doubt about it.

Mrs. WORLEY: We never had floods like this before. Up on Mullens Hill there's no river, no nothing, and it just about washed that place some of it out. So what does that tell you? It's coming off these mountains. It really is and I think they need to do something. I don't know what. Going to wash us all away.

Mayor WORLEY: We tried to get the federal government men to come in here and dredge these creeks, but they don't want to talk about that anymore. You know, they just don't want to hear it.

BLOCK: They don't want to disrupt the river?

Mayor WORLEY: They don't want to interrupt the crawdads and all that in there.

BLOCK: Harold Worley is the official mayor of Mullens. You might call Butch McNeely the unofficial mayor or maybe goodwill ambassador.

Mr. BUTCH McNEELY (Mullens, West Virginia): Chester!

Unidentified Man #7: Hey, I'm doing good.

Mr. McNEELY: Doing good.

BLOCK: He knows everybody.

Mr. McNEELY: Hey, Bud, I was telling them about ya.

BLOCK: And a quick stroll through town is an endless opportunity for socializing.

Unidentified Man #8: Hello.

Unidentified Man #9: What's up, man?

Mr. McNEELY: You're all dressed up, aren't ya?

BLOCK: Butch McNeely is the State Farm Insurance agent in Mullens. When the floods came through, he was on the city council. Now he works with the Watershed Committee and the Rural Appalachian Improvement League, thinking about ways to help the rivers and help the town. Right after the flood, some people thought, `Why not a flood wall to run along the Slab Fork through Mullens?'

Mr. McNEELY: We would have liked to have had one. This city--if you look at this city, it starts right here, the main part of the city, and ends right over there. Most malls are twice as big as what our city is. You could put a roof and dome this place, you know. A little flood wall would have stopped everything, a five-foot flood wall.

BLOCK: And what happened with that?

Mr. McNEELY: We don't know. It just never happened.

BLOCK: Since the flood, they have opened up a community center in Mullens inside an abandoned grade school. The school was built in the '50s, abandoned in the '90s after it flooded too many times.

Unidentified Woman #5: What do--y'all remember the Boot Scootin' Boogie? Y'all remember it?

BLOCK: There's line dancing on Tuesday nights, seven people on this night in an old yellow brick classroom with a sink in the corner.

(Soundbite of line dancing)

Unidentified Woman #5: Tap, heel, toe, oh, toe. Tap heel, toe...

BLOCK: Down the hall from the line dancing, a small group is meeting to come up with a strategic plan for Mullens, how to revitalize downtown, fix up the parks and how to prepare for more floods.

(Soundbite of meeting)

Unidentified Man #9: Stream fill-up is part of our problem.

BLOCK: Many would like to see dredging of the Guyandotte River to make the channels wider and deeper so they can handle more water. Kelly Jo Drey, a VISTA volunteer in Mullens, has brought some bad news on that.

Ms. KELLY JO DREY (VISTA Volunteer): No dredging.

Unidentified Man #10: Well, even if it's just returning it to its preflood conditions?

Ms. DREY: Yeah, no, no dre...

Unidentified Man #10: There's been a lot of confusion about that.

Mr. FRANK BLACKWELL (Wyoming County Superintendent of Schools: Now dredging is done all the time in other rivers. Why can't it be done in the Guyandotte?

Ms. DREY: Oh...

Mr. BLACKWELL: The Mississippi...

Ms. DREY: Yeah.

Mr. BLACKWELL: ...the Ohio...

Ms. DREY: Yeah.

Mr. BLACKWELL: ...all of them. How they keep these barges going?

Ms. DREY: You're right.

Mr. BLACKWELL: I mean, you know, 'cause they dredge it.

BLOCK: That's Frank Blackwell. He's superintendent of schools for Wyoming County. Tonight he also has some bad news. The town has been asking the Army Corps of Engineers to carry out a reconnaissance study of the Guyandotte to figure out ways to prevent future floods. The study would cost about a hundred thousand dollars.

Mr. BLACKWELL: We did find out we did not get funded for our flood study.

Unidentified Man #11: When did they make the decision in that, pre- or post-Katrina? ...(Unintelligible).

Mr. BLACKWELL: Well, it was just recently, in the last few months, that they did not fund it, but I really think that we just did not have the right public servant working on it.

BLOCK: Frank Blackwell says this group has been meeting for about a year now, motivated by what happened in 2001.

Mr. BLACKWELL: I think what happened, the flood woke everybody up around here. I think we just got used to losing population and losing jobs, watching our area go down, losing coal mines. So I just think people just kind of got in a rut around here, and then when that flood hit, I think that was just the blow that woke everybody up and everybody says, `Hey, you know, we've got to do something.'

BLOCK: Is it a frustrating thing for you here thinking the river is much the same as it was four years ago and we get a really dramatic rainstorm again and this town could be flooded again, just like it was before?

Mr. BLACKWELL: That's my number-one worry, yeah, because all the good, great things that have happened here since the flood of 2001 can be destroyed almost in an instant. So much work and time has been put back into rebuilding this town, for example, and rebuilding other communities on the Upper Guyandotte, and, you know, I just hope to the good Lord above that, you know, we can get enough done before another 2001 reappears.

(Soundbite of river flowing)

BLOCK: When the rains come now in southern West Virginia, people get jittery. They're nervous as they watch the rivers, wondering how high they'll rise, how much time they'll have to get out if they have to.

(Soundbite of river flowing)

BLOCK: In a moment we'll hear stories from people who lost their homes or have had to move because of the floods of 2001. That's when we continue with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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