CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Three years ago Sunday what some described as a “tsunami wave” of water tore through communities in central and southeastern West Virginia killing 23 people and leaving entire cities and towns devastated.
The long road to recovery continues today for some West Virginians.
“It’s hard to imagine it’s already been three years,” said State Police Col. Jan Cahill.
“Even though that area’s really bounced back really nicely, you can still drive around certain places and you can see where something hit.”
On June 23, 2016, Cahill was the sheriff in Greenbrier County and watched as heavy rain kept falling.
“The water just didn’t stop,” he recalled in a recent interview with MetroNews.
“It was just like being in an automated car wash. I knew right then, I was like, ‘This is something we haven’t seen before.'”
In White Sulphur Springs, Bruce Bowling, now the city’s mayor, could only watch the rising Howard’s Creek.
“I saw a house hit a bridge. I’ll never forget that and there were people inside the house at the time. They all three perished,” Mayor Bowling remembered.
Sixteen of the 23 people who died in the West Virginia floodwaters were in Greenbrier County.
One of the victims was carried 33 miles in the raging water.
It was August, seven weeks after the storms, before the final victim was found, Mykala Phillips, age 14. She was the youngest of all of the flood victims.
“There were some times there I didn’t think there were a couple folks that were ever going to be recovered, I’ll just say that,” Cahill said.
Heavy rain on June 21, 2016 served as precursor for the heavier rain of June 23, 2016.
The rain started in the morning.
By the afternoon, storms were training through a region stretching roughly from Clendenin in northern Kanawha County to White Sulphur Springs in eastern Greenbrier County.
Between 6 a.m. on June 23, 2016 and 6 a.m. on June 24, 2016, 8.29 inches of rain fell on White Sulphur Springs, records showed. That was more than double the previous one-day rain record there. Most of that rain was within a twelve-hour period.
The other areas hit hard included Rupert, Rainelle, Richwood, Clendenin and Clay.
In all, more than 1,500 homes and businesses were destroyed.
“Unless you were there, you’re thinking people were exaggerating (about the damage),” Cahill said.
Some people are still not in permanent housing and construction has yet to begin on replacement schools for those flooded in both Nicholas County and Kanawha County.
“You don’t ever want to forget about it but, at the same time, we’re reminded of it every time it rains hard it seems like,” Bowling said.
Along parts of Central Avenue in White Sulphur Springs, storm damage was still evident on properties awaiting delayed federal hazard mitigation funding for rebuilds.
“On the one end of the street, you wouldn’t know it (the flood) happened. The other end of the street, it still looks the same,” he told MetroNews.
Overall, in the three years since the flood, he said White Sulphur Springs “has come a long way” and Bowling was optimistic about the future.
Downtown, investors have been involved in a number of developments.
“I’ve lived here all my life and this is probably as good a surge of business activity as we’ve had since I’m been alive,” Bowling said.
“We’ve got people who want the town to come back and it’s happening. It’s going to be better than it was.”