Monday, May 11, 2009

Mother's Day Flood

“You need to move your car!” These were the words that awakened us at 3:30am. Shirley’s brother, Ricky, was frantically pounding on our bedroom window to let us know that the floodwaters were quickly rising. Almost at the very same time as Ricky pounding on the window, the electricity went off.

I hollered back, “Okay, I’m coming.” Shirley jumped out of bed and, still half asleep, tried to help me to the bedroom door, however, in her sleepy stupor, she started moving items from all around the room into the middle of the bedroom floor. Since the room was pitch-black now due to the electric going out, she was setting up an obstacle course for me. The first thing I ran into, fell over and survived was a vacuum cleaner. The vacuum cleaner is usually completely out of the way, but that’s to Shirley’s “helpfulness”, it was located directly between me and the bedroom door. After falling over the vacuum, then tripping over a suitcase, and then kicking another suitcase, I asked Shirley to please quit assisting me in getting out of the room. My lumbersome march across the bedroom had awakened Shirley’s mother, who hollered that there was a flashlight on the nightstand. I then made my way toward the nightstand, only to encounter the same vacuum cleaner (which Shirley had again moved to help me out). Eventually the flashlight was found and I managed to escape Shirley's obstacle course of horrors with only a fist sized bruise on my ribcage. I then proceeded on my way outside into the downpour to rescue our car.

It had started raining at just about dark on Friday evening. We had been sitting out on the porch when the storm blew in, and we rushed inside. It had been raining on and off all night, and it seems a torrential downpour blew in every half hour or so.

Luckily, Ricky is a night owl and had checked on the rain before going to bed, and had noticed that his front yard was under water. He ran out and moved his truck as far up in the yard as he could, there’s not much high ground in Coon Branch but the top of the yard is slightly higher than the bottom of the yard.

By the time I made my way out to move our car, Ricky was standing beside the car and was watching the floodwaters rise. They were right up to the rear end of our car by that time, and I pulled it up as far as I could. The water pouring off the bank behind the house made the driveway look like a creekbed. Ricky told me that his newly planted garden was already under water, and that Matheny Bottom road was under about a foot and a half of water. He said it was almost coming in his truck door as he was moving it to higher ground. I shined the flashlight out into the darkness and all I could see was raging floodwaters. We were flooded in.

The storms kept rolling in one right after the other, and while it was soemtimes hard rain, it had rained like that many times before without flooding like it was. Shirley commented that the people up the holler had recently logged off their property so there was nothing to hold back the water, and it was rushing off, bringing with it tree limbs, rocks and soil.

I came back inside and went back to bed, Ricky said he’d keep an eye on the floodwaters and if they got any worse, we’d have to evacuate and move up on the hill where Shirley’s mother had to wait out the Great Coalfields Flood of 2001. I figured there wasn’t anything that I could do about the flooding so I might as well get some sleep while I could. Shirley, of course, tossed and turned and worried about the stormy waters around us all night.

After a few more storms, which included thunder and lightning, dawn was soon breaking. I woke up and looked outside, it looks about the same, still raining though not as hard as it was. Floodwaters were again nearing the back end of our car, but it looked like it’d be okay. There wasn’t any higher ground to move it too anyway.

Morning found us surrounded by water, and with no electricity. Shirley’s mother was completely distraught over not having her morning coffee. I offered to go outside and built a campfire and heat some water for coffee, but she said the juice would be back on directly. I had my camera so I went out and took some photographs of the flooding, and noticed that now that the rain had stopped that the floodwaters were starting to recede. I could see the tops of the tomato stakes in Ricky’s garden. That made the garden under about 5 feet of water!

After a couple of hours, the waters had went down a little and word got to us that the problem was that the water from Coon Branch had got backed up when it tried to empty into Laurel Fork. Laurel Fork was running full and couldn’t handle any more water, so it was making Coon Branch back up all over Matheny. It was almost as if Laurel Fork was acting as a dam that was holding back Coon Branch. People were commenting that the reason Laurel Fork was so flooded was because of the Mountaintop Removal site located about a mile upstream from the mouth of Coon Branch. Stories were told about how the runoff coming from the mountaintop removal site was unbelievable. Even during the flood, people were blaming the mountaintop removal mining and the rampant logging on exacerbating the flooding. Even old timers there were saying that the water had come up faster than any of them could remember, even in times of harder rain. Without pointing fingers, it did seem like something was going on. It did rain pretty hard at times, but nothing that should have caused this amount of flooding.

After the rain completely stopped, it was only a few hours before all the floodwaters were gone and Coon Branch was left covered with a thick muddy muck that covered everything. The clean-up began, and damage was assessed. We also began to see sightseers coming and going, seemingly getting joy out of other folk’s misery of having lost everything they owned. Many of them would point and ogle at various sites that had been flooded out. I never could understand that. A real Appalachian would have asked if there was anything they could do to help, rather than just driving by to snap pictures and wave. There were even some of the younger people driving their jacked up trucks through the receding floodwaters and playing in the thick mud left behind. This was no time for play.

I was left pondering what is becoming of Appalachia? The land raped by rogue industries, the people ignored by politicians until something bad happens, increased flooding caused by poor stewardship of the land, then looky-loo’s who apparently get joy out of seeing others in misery. What is to become of us now that we are under attack economically, politically, socially, culturally and environmentally? There can be no Appalachia without the mountains that define us. There can be no Appalachia if the basic tenets of what makes us Appalachians are ignored and not passed on to the next generation. Are we to become a culture of victims?

While this was just a relatively small flood up a secluded holler in Wyoming County, West Virginia, it really opened up my eyes to the floodgates that are bulging with a change that will surely flood and forever alter the face of Appalachia if something is not done to curb the insanity.


BJ Gudmundsson said...


Your play-by-play of the flooding on your homestead sent chills up my spine. I have never lived in the coal fields, but memories of our house flooding on the Greenbrier haunt me every time the rains come. I watched as my father lost everything he had - twice! We finally laid him to rest within months of the second flood - his heart and his body broken.

People who have not lived with the constant threat of rising waters don't really understand what folks go through when you live with these threats.

The never-ending raping, pillaging and plundering of our mountainsides continues. The powerful men who own the big machines - and the fat bank accounts - continue to tear away the fiber of Appalachia. Their evil deeds know no end. God help us all.

My thoughts and prayers are with you all as you clean up and salvage belongings. If I could be there right now to help I would.

Love to you, Shirley and her mother. I know - believe me, I know.

tipper said...

When I saw the flooding on tv I was hoping it wasn't in your area. I'm thankful you guys made it-but so sorry about the destruction the water left in it's wake.

I liked your words on the future of Appalachia-and I'm just as troubled about it as you are.

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

That is just the way it happened. It is wearisome to go through such devastation on such a frequent basis as the people in the WV coalfields must go through.

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

Let me just say, too, this is so very well written and your contemplations at the end--as to what is to become of us--are on the money. It is a scary time for our beloved West Virginia and especially for my beloved coalfields.