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Killing waters

A cow carcass lodged under a bridge over the Cheat River in Tucker County. Photo from the WV Archives

Tropical Storm Juan idled over the Gulf of Mexico, soaking up moisture.  It was late in the year for a serious storm, and residents along the coast were relieved when Juan weakened as it made landfall and moved north.

Meanwhile, another storm took shape off shore from Georgia, sucking up the moisture Juan left behind as it dissipated. As the new storm moved north, rain began to fall over North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia.

By Monday evening, November 4, 1985—thirty years ago today—the storm, having gathered even more moisture from the Atlantic, had moved over the eastern mountains of West Virginia and began unleashing torrential downpours.

“Rainfall rates of three to six inches in 12 hours were observed over the headwaters of the Potomac, Greenbrier and Little Kanawha Rivers,” writes National Weather Service Forecaster Ken Batty in The West Virginia Encyclopedia.  “The same rainfall rates affected an even larger percentage of the Cheat, Tygart Valley and West Fork River basins.”

The great flood of 1985 was underway. Given the topography, West Virginians were used to flash flooding, but this was different.  This was a once in 100-year event.

The muddy, debris-filled rivers roared through Rowlesburg, Parsons, Marlinton, Philippi, Petersburg, Moorefield and many other smaller communities. The Cheat crested at ten feet above flood stage at Parsons. The Little Kanawha reached 13 feet above flood stage at Glenville.

The receding floodwaters left behind horrific damage and hundreds of tons of fetid mud and trash.  Even today, damage estimates vary, anywhere from $570 million to over $700 million.  The National Weather Service reports floodwaters destroyed 3,500 homes and 180 businesses. But the human toll was greatest.  Forty-seven people lost their lives in the flood.

Stunned residents did their best to clean up, wash out and push on, but the recovery effort was monumental. Miles of roads and several dozen bridges were washed out.  It took an epic effort just to supply people who had lost everything with the basics—clean water, food and medical supplies.

West Virginians pitched in to help.

Phil Nixon, who was 15 at the time, recalled how his family’s house in Hampshire County became a temporary home for two dozen relatives and friends.  “Most remained living in our house for months following the receding of the water,” Nixon told me.  “Every waking moment after school and weekends was dedicated to cleanup and rebuilding/remodeling the homes of both my grandparents.”

West Virginia broadcasters organized a fundraiser for flood victims.  Every TV station and 44 radio stations broadcast a special telethon Saturday night, December 7, featuring performers John Denver, Kathy Mattea and many others that raised over $1 million.

In their book “Killing Waters,” Bob Teets and Shelby Young wrote, “There can never be enough written, enough photos taken, enough said about what happened to the people of West Virginia on the night of November 4, 1985.”



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