Thursday, November 6, 2008


A few days after the rain stopped, the grown-up’s figured it would be safe to venture down into the valley to witness the damage first hand and to check on some of our friends and give them a hand if they needed it. Since we were on the mountain, we were relatively safe from the floodwaters, only Burns Holler road got washed out and the cow barn got destroyed, and from the reports we heard throughout the valley, we considered ourselves very lucky. It seemed that every community had at least one life lost, and some communities were completely washed away. In all, I believe Pendleton County had 16 people to lose their lives in the flood.

Riverton after the flood.

We heard over the radio that there was a State of Emergency called and that we were not supposed to be out on the roads, but we had no choice in the matter. All of our meat and refrigerated goods were lost and while we had home canned food, there was no electricity in which to run most of the stoves in the neighborhood, and we were out of bottle gas for the gas range, the gas was supposed to be delivered the day the flood hit! It seemed that the community of Monkeytown as a whole migrated to The Salvation Army stand in Riverton to eat. They informed us that we’d likely be without electricity for at least a month and told us under no circumstances to drink the water from our spring until it had time to settle because it was likely contaminated. We knew we could boil it on the wood cookstove and it would be fine, but the sheer amount of water that we would need for use would be a full time job with as many of us as there was. So this really limited our ability to fend for ourselves, no electricity, no water, and no meat. We could have made it if we had to, but there was an easier alternative, and that was The Salvation Army. Luckily, The Salvation Army served hot soups and plenty of coffee and hot chocolate, they really took care of everyone. I don’t know what we’d have done without the Salvation Army people coming in and helping us, and to this day I always give money to the Salvation Army during the holidays.

I don’t want to talk bad about any of the charitable organizations but I feel compelled to tell about one in particular that I still view as particularly repugnant, and that is the American Red Cross. They too were called in and made a big show of it, but didn’t help anyone that I know of. They gave moral support, but to the people who had just lost everything they owned, they needed more than talk. It seems the Red Cross said their resources would be better spent in the more populated area’s, which as we found out, were not in Pendleton County. Luckily, the good people at The Salvation Army pulled through for many people. They fed us, gave out blankets and water, and worked in conjunction with The National Guard to determine who needed help the worst. That is the way everyone thought it should be. We were lucky, we just only lost our road, we still had our homes, so we didn’t expect any help . It was nice that they were feeding us, and they always had plenty and were so nice about making everyone comfortable. Later, after the worst of the flood was mostly cleaned up, the National Guard came and rebuilt our holler road, and we were grateful for that.

Another view of post-flood Riverton.

While we were in Riverton, we (even us kids) pitched in and helped some of the people down there to clean out their homes. I vividly remember the home of our distant cousin Bill Bland, which was packed full of mud and debris. His home and all of his belongings were completely destroyed. He was left with the shell of the house. We all pitched in and helped carry buckets of mud and rocks out of the house and dump them over near the riverbank. The National Guardsmen didn’t help in this area, they were far too busy trying to get the roads open and the bridges secured so help could get in to Pendleton County. I remember the dismay of the Bland Family at finding family photos and such, they were usually just remnants but of course they were trying to salvage everything that they could. It took several days to clean out their home and they were grateful for the help we could give them. We also helped several other families down there, we had to stay in Riverton all day anyway because we had to conserve gasoline to get back and forth from home and there, and Riverton was the only place where food was served and besides, so many people were in need and we were in a position to help

Flood damaged Riverton.

I remember also picking Dad up from work, we’d meet him at the limeplant bridge, he could drive the three miles down the holler from the plant to the bridge, but the bridge had been so badly damaged that you had to cross it on foot and meet someone on the other side to take you on home. I remember seeing the legs of a sheep sticking out of the underside of the bridge, I know that sheep hung there for the better part of six months after the flood. There were dead livestock all along the riverbanks but seeing that sheep squished against that bridge really stuck with me.

The Destruction in Riverton. This is near Bill Bland's home.

After about a week, the road to Franklin was opened back up and we were told there was a huge relief shelter set up where you could get everything from food to couches to clothing to chainsaws. The shelter was a big inflated nylon bubble that was 500 feet long and 300 feet wide. Everyone referred to it as the “Bubble Tent”. We first went to the Bubble Tent when we took some of the people from Riverton over there. These people had lost everything and they were really in need. My family didn’t plan on getting anything from the Bubble Tent because we hadn’t lost like many people, but the folks who ran it told us to please take anything we wanted because there was so much stuff coming in from all over the country that they just didn’t have room for it all. We then didn’t feel at all bad about taking stuff from them. We did get a lot of food. The ladies who worked there told Mom to get us kids some clothes because they knew that she didn’t have any way to wash up our stuff we would at least have clean clothes to wear, so we got a lot of clothes.

The outside of the Bubble Tent.

My Uncle Shell who had lost his home and everything he had, volunteered at the Bubble Tent and he really helped people get the stuff they needed. He knew everyone in the county and gave a lot of stuff out to families who may not have lost stuff in the flood, but were really hard up none-the-less, and he made sure that everyone got all they could haul away. He confirmed that if stuff sat there for a few days, The Salvation Army would tell headquarters that such stuff was no longer needed, and he knew that there was still a great need in Pendleton County. He practically begged people to take anything that they could use, or to get stuff that they could take to a neighbor and such. Many people got new wood stoves, and kerosene heaters, and even furniture. Many people didn’t realize that these things would be needed in the winter months, because there wasn’t going to be any electricity and in many places, even roads to get in and out. I think Uncle Shell was excellent at determining which people needed what items, and he had a knack for looking at the months ahead instead of just looking at immediate needs of people. It was also good that Uncle Shell remembered the elderly and the sickly who weren’t able to get to the Bubble Tent and he would send items to them by way of a neighbor. I don’t think many people knew just how lucky there were to have Uncle Shell looking out for their interests.

The inside of the Bubble Tent.

I also remember the Presbyterian Church over in Franklin opened a donated goods shelter for people to get what they pleased. The Methodist Church did as well, and we went there too, they had lots of food which they insisted that we take because Mom was feeding such a large family, at that time there were 20 mouths to feed. We made many trips to the Bubble Tent, and since it was the only place in the county that was open to shop at, all you had to do was holler “Bubble Tent” and everyone packed into the car.

The Salvation Army, The National Guard and The Bubble Tent helped a lot of people get the household goods, food and clothing that got them back on their feet, and they really did a lot of good. There’s an old mountain saying “when you do a good deed for me and mine, I'll repay the kindness a thousand times”, and it is for this reason I will continue to donate to The Salvation Army every time that I am able. They really done right by Pendleton County in the months following The Great Flood of 1985.


Jason Burns said...

I remember the Red Cross was also trying to get people who had lost everything to actually pay for the stuff they were given! How ridiculous!

Shirley Stewart Burns, Ph.D. said...

How wonderful that you all were able to help others! And, how great that the Salvation Army and others came through. BTW, that bubble tent reminds me of the bubble dome in Sylvester, WV.

Granny Sue said...

I never heard about the bubble tent, Matthew. At the time of the flood I was just divorced and trying to survive. Also didn't have TV or electricity then so we missed a lot of what was going on. It's appalling to see the damage and to realize the impact of the flood on places already struggling.

tipper said...

The bubble tent-is amazing. Sounds like it was a true life line to those in need. I'm glad there were willing hands and hearts to pitch in.