It started out like most normal March days, unpredictable as they may be, never knowing from one day to the next whether the day’s weather menu would include rain, sleet, snow, wind, or all of the above. Winter was not quiet completed and, with just five days to go before the advent of Spring, most everyone in Logan County was going about their business as usual on this grey, dismal March 15, 2012.
Driving to work that particular morning everything appeared normal — just another rainy day with the creek naturally rising as usual. Mud Fork, like most other parts of the region, has been subject to swollen streams and blocked roads over the years, something we’ve all had to adjust to. Until Route 73 was constructed connecting to the Logan Boulevard, residents were regularly unable to drive out of the area because of the flooding at the Mt. Gay underpass. Students missed school and working people had the choice of walking the railroad tracks to hopefully catch a ride from Logan, as Mt. Gay and Ellis Addition were usually victims of Mother Nature as well.
Recorded history reflects that Logan County has flooded for centuries, one of the worst being in the later part of the 1800s. There were times when the village of what is now known as Logan would be totally cut off from the outside world. Until the building of the Justice Dam near Gilbert, the town was always at the mercy of the Guyandotte River. The flood of 1963 left high water marks in town and was the straw that broke the camel’s back, politically speaking. The political will of some locals, I believe, brought the much needed dam. Politicos, including Robert C. Byrd, Jennings Randolph and Ken Heckler, were given due credit for their efforts.
While the Justice Dam may be looked at as somewhat of a “savior” for many, another dam was to alter many lives and all of the history of the state of West Virginia. It was, of course, that fateful Saturday morning February 26, 1972 when an estimated 132 million gallons of water and about as much sludge thundered from the head of Buffalo Creek destroying nearly everything in its path. Heavy rains caused the Pittston Coal property to break. It was reported afterwards the raging water destroyed 500 homes, damaged beyond repair at least 500 more and took the lives of 125 unsuspecting people. The misery and psychological damages cannot be counted. The sympathy of a nationwide audience could not alleviate the sorrow of Logan County.
I was a sophomore at Marshall University when my mother (Ethel Williamson) telephoned to give me the news. As I stood in the dormitory hallway listening on the pay phone which was the only communication on the floor of South Hall, even mom couldn’t have known of the full devastation. It was years later before I truly did.
There are many stories that could be shared. Even my assistant, Lisa Ellison (Dowden at the time), knows the ravages of a broken dam. It was in July 2002, a Massey property at the head of what most call Lyburn Hollow broke destroying many of the homes of the small community. Nine families were affected.
“My daughter Kelly and I were the only ones home that morning and it literally scared us to death,” Lisa explained. “We tried to get out the back door but the water wouldn’t let us. We got on top the washer and dryer and just prayed. I was in the shower when it first happened.”
Though not every home was destroyed, Massey handsomely compensated each property owner and there were never legal actions needed, according to my assistant.
Yesterday marked two years since an estimated five inches of rain fell in one hour at Mud Fork. Coal Branch also was devastated this same day. Luckily, most of the county barely got rain. A few years before, Holden and Whitman were hit hard by flooding and the Omar area was pounded before that. One person drowned as a result of the Holden-Whitman deluge.
No one living had ever known Mud Fork to flood like it did. People lost homes in areas where no one would expect to be flooded. Naturally, few had flood insurance.
My personal experience cannot compare to those of Buffalo Creek and many other places. But, when tragedy strikes home, one takes a different perspective.
I was in the middle of court when my wife (Janice) telephoned in a tearful stage. From the “dungeon” of the Logan County courthouse where no windows exist, I had no way of knowing what was transpiring outside and especially near my home.
Someone had notified her of the situation and she naturally was concerned for two brothers who lived nearby our residence. It turned out one (Dennis McCloud) was at work and the other (Denver) was trapped in a mobile home located right beside the creek. I telephoned only to find there was simply no escape for him. By this time, the mobile home was literally rocking. For those persons who have heard my brother-in-law play guitar, it should be pointed out that the mobile home was rocking “literally.”
Phone calls to the 911 center proved fruitless. Emergency crews were not able to get to anyone and there were many persons trapped in their homes, including my elderly neighbors. Sporadically, people were sharing pictures on the internet and the destruction became vividly evident — and, there was nothing my wife and I could do.
We left work early and by dusk were able to travel through Smokehouse of Harts and get home. We had already been told by others that we were flooded. When we approached the porch the thick mud appeared to verify this fact. Shockingly, we opened the door to find that we had been spared from the waters by no more than a quarter of an inch. After a quick inspection of the entire house we felt fortunate. However, the next morning’s light proved a different matter. Tons of sand formed what appeared to be a beach site. Although one vehicle was flooded, the disheartening part of the day was the discovery that our garage was wiped out. The back and one side of it were gone and everything in it, including antiques and relics like my 150 sports trophies; perhaps the only semi-proof that this writer was once considered a decent athlete.
In the following days after the water receded, we traveled down County Route 5 and saw how lucky we actually were. Each day thereafter it got worse as I saw friends piling up what looked like about everything they owned outside their ravished homes, soon to be hauled off by the National Guard. It appeared nearly everyone had their own private “hell” to deal with. Many lost everything, including their homes. Some never returned. Some have since died; and still others are even today not settled. The Verdunville Post Office was closed for months.
There is no way enough gratitude can be expressed to the many folks who came to the aid of the flooded residents. Churches, fire departments from around the county, the Red Cross, The Salvation Army, the National Guard, different police agencies and so many other volunteers, including friends and family, made life easier for several weeks.
I hired two friends who immediately went to work on our entire property. Work was slow as it took 45 minutes each way just to make the four mile trek to Lowes each day. Practically having re-built the garage, my “dynamic duo” completed their work May 10, even recovering six of my mud-covered trophies.
There will probably always be flooding and other disasters in our region of the mountain state. Some will be coal related like the early 1960s’ Holden 22 mine fire, the more recent Aracoma Coal disaster and of course, Buffalo Creek. Mother Nature, which likes to play the game of “give and take,” will account for the rest.
Most of us choose to live between these hills and most of us will choose to die between these hills. In the meantime, we will simply persevere.