By Rachel Dove
WILLIAMSON - Thirty seven years ago today, the waters rose quickly as the heavy rains fell from the skies.
No one was truly prepared, nor did they imagine in their wildest dreams that the Tug River would reach levels that covered homes and businesses.
Williamson was devastated, and would never again be the thriving, growing, prosperous place that it once was. The Great Flood of ‘77 forever changed the Tug Valley area.
When the totals came in for the damage caused by the flood, it totaled more than $200 million. More than 2,000 people were left homeless. Following the harsh winter of 1976, the destruction of the flood of 1977 would nearly wipe out dozens of businesses and homes across the Tug Valley. Although a number of businesses reopened after the flood, this event was still considered to be an overpowering blow to some area businesses in the southern coalfields of West Virginia.
The results of a survey conducted by the Daily News in the weeks following the flood revealed that most of the businesses in the area were severely hit, and that very few had any type of insurance to cover their losses. Although several of the businesses in Williamson were considered a total loss, some owners weathered the storm and made the decision to reopen within a few weeks of the flood.
Businesses in the Matewan area appeared to have been hit the hardest, with only a handful of the establishments affected by the flood reopening for business.
First damage estimates for the flood totaled $200 million. More than half of this total was in Mingo County, where the Williamson and Matewan areas were devastated. In Mingo County, this two-day flood caused damage almost equal to the total personal income earned by Mingo County residents in the entire year of 1975. Portions of Pike and Martin counties in neighboring Kentucky also suffered extensive damage.
The Williamson Coca-Cola Bottling Plant, which was located West of Prichard Street, near the Armour Crossing, endured a loss estimated at about $250,000 with the uninsured loss of five trucks. Other stock and equipment were not insured. The plant was back in full operation by May 9, about five weeks after the flood waters swept through Williamson.
The damage to the Ball Funeral Home (now the Tug Valley Inn) on West 2nd Avenue, was estimated to be between $75,000 and $100,000, none of it protected by any form of insurance. The funeral home had been in operation for 47 years and had never encountered water in any of the preceding floods that hit the Tug Valley area.
The G.C. Murphy Murphy store, which was located on 2nd Avenue, which is now a parking garage for the Mountaineer Hotel, was considered a total loss. Hobart Hamilton, manager at that time, estimated that the store would reopen by the last of May or June, with a better store taking it’s place. To the dismay of loyal customers, the business permanently closed its doors in 1997.
Belle’s Sewing Center reportedly suffered nearly $28,000 in losses. With no insurance in place to get the business back up and running, the owner, along with his famil,y were forced to leave the area.
“I’m not going to stay here and let this happen again within 10 years from now,” owner A.J. Ball said.
A detailed investigation by the Army Corps of Engineers showed that more than 4,700 homes and 670 businesses were damaged by the ‘77 flood. More than 200 miles of highways and railroads were washed out. Numerous bridges were struck by houses, mobile homes, trees, automobiles and other debris that washed down the valley.
Other reports showed that more than 20 percent of the businesses suffered damage so severe that they did not expect to reopen after the flood. Business losses resulting from the temporary closing of the area coal mines affected by the flooding exceeded $30 million, and more than 500 coal miners were out of work for periods ranging from two weeks to eight months.
Although residential damage was the most immediately felt, commercial and industrial loss was greater. It was estimated that damage averaged about $9,000 per residential structure. Meanwhile, physical losses from direct damage to buildings and contents exceeded $55 million; businesses and financial losses due to flood-forced closures exceeded $41 million, and commercial enterprises incurred more than $900,000 in flood-related costs.