Today marks the one year anniversary of the Great Flood of 2016 in West Virginia. Up to ten inches of rain forced creeks and rivers in the central part of the state over their banks and surging into homes and businesses, washing out roads and bridges.
The turgid waters swept away 23 lives, 15 of them in hard-hit Greenbrier County. The body of Mykala Phillips, 14, wasn’t found until two months after the flood, six miles from where she went into the water.
Initially, shocked eyewitnesses struggled to describe the extent of the loss. One community after another in a ten county region suffered damage: White Sulphur Springs, Clendenin, Rainelle, Richwood, Clay, Rupert, Brownsville, Belva, Camden on Gauley, Jordan Creek, Wills Creek, Queen Shoals, Nallen, Russellville, Elkview, on and on.
During the worst night, first responders and volunteers risked their own lives to save others. State Police Superintendent Jan Cahill was Greenbrier County sheriff at the time. “A lot of people were pulled off of roofs, trees, the top of automobiles, off of platforms where billboards are,” Cahill said. “That could have easily been several dozen more fatalities if not for the efforts of all involved.”
State and county agencies, along with the National Guard, responded rapidly to the crisis. Where cracks in the relief effort appeared, local residents rolled up their sleeves and assumed command of the situation.
President Obama quickly issued a disaster declaration and Federal Emergency Management Agency officials moved in. As of today, FEMA has paid out $42 million in individual and housing assistance to 4,950 flood victims.
The tragedy ignited a remarkable spirit of altruism. Volunteers descended on the flood zone to muck out homes and businesses, serve meals and offer encouragement. In Clendenin, a stranger gave the shoes off of her feet and a 20-dollar bill to 89-year-old flood victim Ruby Hackney.
Remarkable progress has been made over the last year rebuilding homes and businesses and restoring lives. Yes, you still find frustration among some over the pace of recovery or the inevitable bureaucracy of government assistance, but there is also gratitude and hope.
The loss of life and the destruction were horrific. However, in the midst of the mud and the mayhem, we again witnessed the best of West Virginia, the indelible Mountaineer Spirit that has been strengthened through adversity and blessed with empathy.