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1985 flood still haunts those who saw it

KINGWOOD, W.Va. — November 4, 1985 will forever be remembered as a dark day in West Virginia.

The remnants of Hurricane Juan passed through Louisiana and headed north toward the Canadian border. The strength of the storm spawned a separate rain system over the mid-Atlantic.The system parked over Virginia and West Virginia and dumped heavy rain in a brief span of time on much of the region causing widespread flooding. The entire mid-Atlantic region saw flooding, but Virginia and West Virginia endured the worst of the high water.

Waterways throughout the Potomac, Cheat, and Monongahela watersheds overflowed their banks. The high water marks were breached at every USGS gauge on every river. The region endured the 100-year flood in a matter of hours, and 38 people perished in West Virginia.

The flood washed away thousands of trees, rerouted river channels, destroyed or damaged 13,000 homes and businesses. The cost of the flood reached an estimated $700 million in the state.

Jim Fields, the chief Deputy of the Preston County Sheriff’s Department at the time, recalled being awakened early in the morning.

“About three or four o’clock in the morning and I heard the scanner. I decided to get up and see what all the racket was about,” said Fields, who is now retired. “I got up and listened for a few minutes and it sounded like it was getting to be a mess.”

He was quickly out the door and trying to get a handle on the situation. He knew communities along the Cheat River would be the first ones affected, but by then the water was over the roads and too high to get to any of those locations.   He contacted a friend who owned a helicopter and they were airborne by the first light of the morning.

“We flew from Cheat Lake to the end of Parsons just kind of surveying and trying to get a handle on what was going on,”  Fields recalled. “I talked to the sheriff and we both kind of figured we were going to be stuck with bodies everywhere.”

Fields saw hundreds of homes floating in the water and knew many of those who lived in the homes had probably been asleep as the water rose.

“This was at night and of course we didn’t have the National Weather Service doing the things back then they do now,” he said. “They weren’t capable of predicting like they can now and we didn’t have all of those early warnings.”

As it turned out, amazingly, only two residents of Preston County died in the flood.  Fields said both victims refused to leave their homes as the waters rose and the local fire departments tried to evacuate them.

“The gentleman in the country club area he was found in a couple of days, but the lady who lived in a trailer down in Albright, she was found a couple of weeks later down at the head of Cheat Lake,”  said Fields.

As news of the disaster spread it became evident the damage and the devastation was spread over a wide area.  George Manahan covered the statehouse for MetroNews at the time and was embedded with Gov. Arch Moore who headed toward the flood zone in a helicopter.

“Our first stop was Parsons and when you’re looking at it from the air it was as if it was a battleground,” he recalled. “The roadway, I think Route 72, looked like somebody had sliced it with a large knife.”

On the ground Manahan said it was even worse than how it appeared from the air.

“There was mud everywhere. Cars were upside down. Buildings were off their foundations. To me it looked like a war zone.”

From one town after another, Gov. Moore was comforting thousands and mustering aid in difficult circumstances.

“Moorefield, Petersburg, Philippi, Albright, Marlinton, Parsons, that’s a whole region,” he said.

Rowlesburg in Preston County was one of the hardest hit and was literally cut off from the outside world.  Fields recalled arriving there and seeing Mayor Margaret Scholar organizing relief efforts and neighbors pulling together.  It was the same in all communities.

“People did, they just teamed up and helped each other,” said Fields. “The National Guard came in. There was training going on at Camp Dawson and those people came out with their helicopters and rescued a couple of people off an island above Rowlesburg who had spent the night in a tree.”

“When I dropped in with the governor, you would see these dazed looks,” said Manahan. “The governor talked about it to, this dazed look in people’s eyes like they’d never experienced anything like it before.”

It would be months before things were back to semi-normal and years before the damage was fully cleaned up. Even today, if you know what to look for, there are signs of what happened on that night 30 years ago.

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