West Virginia is no stranger to tragedy, hardships, and loss. They sometimes visit the Mountain State at the hands of men and other times by the forces of nature. Disasters in coal mines, floods—these sad events color the pages of West Virginia’s history with a dark, dismal cast and are etched into the collective memory of residents. Now disaster has struck again, in the midst of warm summer days when farmers were putting up hay and a high school that had formed its first-ever boys’ soccer team was awaiting the coming school year and proud of a new soccer field. As often the case with tragedy, the precursors to it were unseen, unanticipated. As people say, it came like a thief in the night.
After bluebird days of sunny weather, rain came in with constant, powerful downpours. The deluge continued for a couple days, and by Friday the twenty-fourth of June, rivers and streams that were already healthy and not in want of water had flowed far out of their banks, into whatever sat near them. Suddenly, the state was facing the third-worst flood it had in its history. Third-worst, with a death toll of at least twenty-three who had perished by Monday the twenty-seventh and many more injured, and more still who lost their homes, cars, and businesses. Yet the floods of 1972 and 1985 were worse still, and the one in 1985 had affected much of the same Greenbrier River basin communities and even some of the very same families as the 2016 flood.
On the one hand, it was a natural disaster. They happen everywhere, from hurricanes striking Florida’s beaches to earthquakes in foreign lands. California currently faces horrible wildfires, as it often has in recent years, given its prolonged drought. On the other hand, however, there is a feeling and leitmotif to this flood all too common to West Virginia, a feeling of bad things visiting very good people, of too much hard luck falling in the same place, time and again.
Of course, political arguments will be made, especially given that it’s an election year. But no matter one’s political views, nearly everyone agrees that for generations West Virginia in its mountainous isolation has been between North and South and often a pawn in larger schemes and aspirations. It is rural and in some counties almost exclusively agricultural, yet it is also where much of the advent of American industrialization took place—which in turn made our nation the twentieth-century world leader in manufacturing. West Virginia is the heart of coal country of course, but it is also the locus of such corporate outfits as West Virginia Pulp and Paper which grew to be the paper-making giant Mead/Westvaco.
As historian Jerry Bruce Thomas notes in his academic yet thoroughly informative book An Appalachian Reawakening: West Virginia and the Perils of the New Machine Age, 1945-1972, the ignorant West Virginia hillbilly is actually a myth. For over a century everyone from captains of industry to unions to educators to the common worker have pushed for modern, advanced, innovations in West Virginia’s economy. The town of Bramwell, not far from Bluefield, was in the 1880’s one of the nation’s wealthiest cities, as it was populated by many coal operators who had made considerable fortunes in the coal fields. The Greenbrier Resort, which takes its name from the same river responsible for much of the awful flooding recently, has attracted presidents and luminaries for decades as one of the world’s premier golf resorts.
The communities hurt worst from the recent flooding have been White Sulphur Springs (the location of the Greenbrier Resort) plus Rainelle and Rupert, which are in the northern part of Greenbrier County. The Elk River has overflowed as well, devastating several communities on its banks. Alderson, a small community that spans both Monroe and Greenbrier counties, also was hard hit: the Greenbrier River literally runs right through the middle of the town. Clendenin and Richwood also were hard hit, along with many other small communities, saw damage and patiently awaited county and state authorities to send help. An aspect of such tragedies that some may fail to understand is the remoteness of some settlements: when a flood strikes, mountain roads that are borderline difficult even in good weather are impassible. A few communities with this flood were for a day or more only accessible via helicopter, a situation fully underscoring the challenges first responders have had in combating the flash floods. Distances also are an issue: Clendenin for example is near the state capital of Charleston but a good ways from Greenbrier County where White Sulphur and Alderson were badly hit. Unlike a fire or tornado, the vast distances that emergency responders have to cover and the topographies and situations they have to inform themselves of and coordinate around are immense.
Nonetheless, people pitch in and help—from locals helping neighbors to utility crews coming in from New Jersey and elsewhere to deal with the massive power outage problems the flood wrought. Covington, Virginia, a county over from Greenbrier County and hit by the flooding but not very badly (the Jackson River flows right through Covington, but thankfully the damage there was minimal) sent police and fire units to White Sulphur to help, and forces from Hinton came to Alderson to help local police of the small town.
In Covington on Sunday there was a benefit concert—one, I am sure, of many to come—for the victims of the flooding. It was a nice, sunny Sunday, and standing on the nearby soccer field it was hard to imagine that people a few miles away in White Sulphur had lost everything—had in some cases seen entire homes swept away by the angry water. The only traces of something being amiss was leaves and clay-like river silt deposited on the edges of the soccer field where the Jackson River—which runs right by the park—had seeped into the fields on Friday but had since returned to its proper place within its banks. Hog Wild Bar-B-Que, normally a fixture at fairs and festivals, opened their trailer and started selling sandwiches in Fairlea near Ronceverte when the whole area was without power and fresh water, making use of their portable resources where it counted. The Korner Kafe restaurant in Union, a town spared from the storm save a loss of power, made sandwiches to donate to the first responders in Alderson and took them over to these tireless heroes.
Yet this is not the face of West Virginia the state wants to show, understandably, and not the only one it has to share by far. Driving around Monroe and Greenbrier counties, one is immediately struck by the immense beauty of these places, the family farms with picturesque barns and old silos, the rolling hills flowing into grand mountains, cattle grazing contentedly in fields. Locals pride themselves on their heritage and their history—for that matter, on their own roles as stewards of a proud American agricultural tradition. A successful local lawyer who turned to farming in his retirement brought in White Park cattle—a breed from England that has a noble history yet has fallen into rarity in modern times, even in England. Young farmers look to retain the heritage of their forefathers more and more, seeking out crops and methods that have firm historical basis, and local restaurants in places like Lewisburg, the county seat of Greenbrier County, make ample use of this productivity, offering menus that are as innovative as those found in cities three times as large. People here have learned to be self-reliant and to look to their land and their heritage for a path of how to live their lives today.
Even coal towns like Princeton—once flush with money—have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of big industry and are now adjusting to an economy that honors its association with coal but is wise not to depend on coal alone. Walking around downtown Princeton, it’s easy to see this as new growth—an ambitious murals project, a new coffeehouse that quickly became a local favorite—stands next to a shuttered restaurant or apartments that could benefit from renovation. When I asked at the coffee shop about the murals—they are everywhere, of varying content but all of high quality—the owner said simply that the city was resolute not to allow a few empty buildings or old, worn signs to define its downtown. Instead, if people were looking to see what Princeton, West Virginia, is today, they would see these bright murals—and they would see progress defined by tenacity and innovation.
The same will be the case, I am sure, with those communities so stricken by this flood. Like communities hit by mining disasters and floods in the past, those that took on water in June of 2016 will not be washed away nor simply fade into history.
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