HURLEY – On the morning of Aug. 30, Mark Coleman was watching the rain fall and the creek rise.
He wouldn’t need to leave for his job driving a coal truck until mid-afternoon, so he was still at home in the Guesses Fork section of Hurley, a community of several hundred homes that stretches into the northern part of Buchanan County.
Later, he would see a photo of the storm cloud that had parked over Hurley, shot from Mingo County, West Virginia, just across the state line.
“That big old cloud was sitting dead on top of this mountain, just dumping water,” Coleman said. “It was like it was pouring out of a bucket.
“It was wicked to see.”
That morning, though, thanks to a warning from his nephew, he just knew that water had started to run over the bridge that spanned Guesses Fork in front of his and his mother’s houses. Patty Coleman lived alone in the two-story blue house just up a slight rise from him, and she used a cane to get around.
“I told Mama, ‘You better get in the truck,’” he said. “I said, ‘We got to go.’”
He figures he drove her out of there with maybe five minutes to spare.
“After that, it was mayhem,” he said.
The same rain that was pushing Guesses Fork out of its banks was also pouring down the steep hillsides that hem in this part of Hurley. Within minutes, a wall of mud and rock had slammed into the back of Patty Coleman’s house, through the glass double doors off the kitchen, across the living room and out the front door.
Downhill and a little closer to Guesses Fork, water from the creek rushed under Mark Coleman’s mobile home, washing out some of the underpinnings.
Over the course of about four hours that morning, the storm ravaged the Guesses Fork community. One person died: Opal Rife, an 85-year-old woman who was found two days later in her house.
Dozens of homes were destroyed – some washed down the swollen Guesses Fork, some crushed by slides, some still standing but so badly damaged that rebuilding would be impossible.
Scores of others sustained damage but could, in theory, be made habitable again with enough materials and labor and time.
And, of course, money.
Not everyone who lost a home had insurance. And the residents who did carry homeowners or flood policies are discovering that neither one is likely to cover the damage caused by slides, or the immense cost of replacing private bridges that were washed away or crushed. So far, the county has counted 22 of those.
Late last month, the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied the state’s request for financial help for individual homeowners, saying in a letter to Gov. Ralph Northam that the impact of the disaster “was not of such severity and magnitude” to warrant the assistance.
Volunteers from Buchanan County and across the state have stepped into the void, converging week after week on Hurley – tearing out drywall tattooed with mold, rebuilding disintegrating subfloors, installing new kitchen cabinets.
Donors have given hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and building materials and food.
But winter, and the holidays, are coming, said Travis Staton, CEO of United Way of Southwest Virginia and a member of the Long-Term Recovery Group, an ad-hoc committee that is overseeing fundraising and volunteer coordination.
“There’s a lot of people in Southwest Virginia that honestly could use some help right now,” he said.
* * *
Calling what happened in Hurley a “flood” doesn’t come close to capturing the devastation.
The torrential rain turned the normally docile Guesses Fork into a raging force, inundating some houses with creek water and carrying others away to lodge against the railroad trestle at the top of Guesses Fork Road.
But the downpour also unleashed slide after slide down the mountains, across the road, into homes. Houses that were far enough from the creek to be spared the rising water from the front were hit from behind with tons of mud and rocks that crashed through walls and tunneled through foundations.
The force of the water and the rocks and the mud chewed away parts of the roadway, leaving jagged bite marks along the edges of the asphalt. Power poles along a nearly 3-mile stretch were snapped. Water lines were breached.
There isn’t an official rain gauge in Hurley, but TV weather reports from that day used radar to estimate that the area around Guesses Fork Road got as much as 7 inches of rain in just a few hours. Grundy, the county seat 16 miles away, got maybe half an inch.
“I’ve seen floods. This area is used to floods. But I had never seen one that quick, and I’d never been in it, literally wading in the water and dealing with the aftermath of it,” said longtime Guesses Fork resident Stephanie Stiltner.
She and her husband, Ben, had put two of their kids on the school bus that morning and were home with the other three when the water started to rise.
By 10:30, water was coming into the house and the five of them headed up the hill, away from the roiling waters of Guesses Fork.
“And then the terror started,” Stiltner said. “The mountain started coming off. Literally, my best description of it is, it looked like the mountains were melting.”
They kept moving up the hillside – 100 feet, 150 feet. They could hear a woman screaming; they later learned it was a neighbor whose house had been destroyed and who had clung to a refrigerator until she could climb into a tree.
Stiltner figures they were on the hill for about four hours. They made their way back to their front porch; a swift-water rescue team ferried them to safety at about 10 p.m.
They lived with her mother for two weeks. They couldn’t get back into their house for a week after the storm, and then they worked feverishly for another week – shoveling out mud, hauling away ruined furniture and flooring – so that they could move back into the intact part of the house as quickly as possible. Two of their kids have autism and don’t handle change well, and needed to be in familiar surroundings, she said. The other three are foster kids whom the Stiltners are trying to adopt.
Help started to arrive. A crew of Southern Baptist volunteers cut out ruined sheetrock, cleaned out the rest of the mud and sprayed chemicals to neutralize the mold and mildew. Several weeks after that, volunteers from the Baptist General Association of Virginia started working on rebuilding.
Sitting at her kitchen table, talking over the whine of a saw in the next room, Stiltner gets emotional when she recalls the phone call telling her that someone was going to fix their house.
“We’ve been very, very extremely blessed, probably more than we deserve – more than I deserve, anyway,” she said. “The community has really rallied together.”
She and Ben have a homeowners policy but have been told it won’t cover anything. They have no flood insurance. The materials alone for a new bridge will run $18,000, they’ve been told. They lost 25 feet of front yard along the newly widened creek.
But she pointed out what she called the real losses: Two houses above their property, one house below it and a nearby church are all gone.
“I pray daily, I pray nightly, I pray in the car when I’m by myself,” she said. “This is difficult. I’ll be the first to say that: This is very difficult.
“But when I get bummed out or I get down, I tend to think, my neighbors have nothing. And that’s the truth. You’re talking about people who have worked their whole life, in coal mines and things like that, trying to make a living, and then to lose it and have nobody to fall back on. Because very few people had flood insurance.”
* * *
Many homeowners were counting on FEMA to come through with assistance to fill the gap left by their lack of insurance, or by the denials of their claims.
But in a letter received Oct. 29 by the office of Gov. Ralph Northam, David Bibo, an acting associate administrator of FEMA wrote:
“The damage to the infrastructure was significant in the area designated for Public Assistance. However, based on our review of all of the information available … it has been determined that the impact to the individuals and households from this event was not of such severity and magnitude to warrant the designation of Individual Assistance … . Therefore, your request for Individual Assistance is denied.”
In short: FEMA would help pay for the county’s infrastructure repairs, but homeowners were on their own.
“My first reaction was, I couldn’t handle it,” said Butch Meredith, who oversees volunteer construction efforts for the BGAV. “It was awful. To talk to these people on a daily basis and see the need and get a feel for what’s going on and to have that, it just knocks your legs out from under you.”
The county is working with the state to appeal FEMA’s denial. How long FEMA has to respond to the appeal is unclear.
“From my experience in past disasters, once you get a denial it’s that much harder to get an appeal approved,” Staton said. “So I think it’s going to be an uphill battle.”
FEMA’s decision-making process is opaque at best, he said.
“My fear is that FEMA’s formula might not be equitable for rural communities,” he said. “But I can’t get a real answer for what FEMA’s formula is.”
When disasters hit densely populated areas – like Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans – the devastation is easy to see: thousands of homes damaged or destroyed, millions of dollars in losses.
The scope might be narrower in a place like Hurley, but that doesn’t mean the need is less, Staton said.
The land and structures that were damaged are valued at $5.7 million, according to county records. That number is likely to rise by another million or two as more problems are discovered, said Bart Chambers, Buchanan County’s building official.
According to U.S. Census figures, the median household income in Buchanan County was about $32,000 in 2019. That same year, an estimated 21.7% of the county’s 21,000 residents were living in poverty.
The median value of owner-occupied housing in the county was $72,300.
“I do think it’s time that some folks really look into how those formulas and allocations are done, particularly from rural communities,” Staton said. “And maybe there’s some conversations that could be had around how is it done and is it really equitably done for small communities and small populations that aren’t as dense but have an even more significant need sometimes.”
Even if FEMA help does come through, it won’t fix as much as some residents might hope. The most any homeowner could receive is $36,000, Staton said; nationally, the average FEMA award is $4,000 to $6,000, he said.
Staton said he’s been talking to state officials about tapping the Virginia Disaster Relief Fund, a public-private program that was created after a tornado devastated the Washington County community of Glade Spring in 2011 and FEMA denied individual assistance.
But it’s a program of last resort, meaning that all other funding assistance – including FEMA money – must be exhausted before it could be used, said Lauren Opett, a spokeswoman for the VIrginia Department of Emergency Management, which administers the fund.
The amount of money in the fund is based on donations, so she couldn’t say how much might be available to help Hurley residents. And the process isn’t quick, she said. Once an application is submitted, it must be approved by a review committee, and then awards are dependent on how much money is available.
Del. Will Morefield, R-Tazewell County, said he’s working on a legislative solution. He’s hopeful, but he isn’t ready to talk about any details yet.
“It’s perplexing to me that FEMA would not approve it,” he said. “How bad does it have to be? When homes have been completely wiped off their foundation – how bad does it have to be before you would be eligible to receive private assistance? …
“Ultimately, it just looks like they decided that they were not going to approve it, and quite frankly, that’s unacceptable and very sad.”
U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, wrote to Northam early this month urging him to appeal the denial. “Like you, I have also visited the Hurley area of Buchanan County and witnessed the damage firsthand,” the letter reads. “The devastation is severe, with many individuals being permanently displaced from their households.”
A spokeswoman this week said Griffith had no comment beyond what was in the letter.
Local fundraising efforts have picked up urgency.
A recovery fund launched by the Long-Term Recovery Group and administered by United Way was closing in on its $500,000 goal last week, said spokesman Scott Robertson.
The Knoxville, Tennessee-based Thompson Charitable Foundation had just provided a $100,000 challenge grant; Robertson said the group expects to have the final $20,000 of matching money raised by Thanksgiving, which will bring the fund total to $450,000.
Other donations have included $20,000 from Buchanan General Hospital, more than $106,000 from a fund drive led by Food City, $1,129 from inmates at the Pocahontas State Correctional Center.
Homeowners provide documentation of insurance denials and of the building supplies they need, and money from the fund is paid directly to vendors. The materials are picked up by the volunteer crews, who then make the repairs.
United Way has earmarked $143,750 for 28 homes so far, Robertson said, a tally that’s expected to grow as the process of assessing damages continues.
Some homeowners have been hesitant to accept the help, he said, worried that it could lead FEMA to turn down their claims if Virginia’s appeal is successful.
Separately, a fundraising effort led by Buchanan County Supervisor Trey Adkins, whose district includes the Guesses Fork area, brought in more than $150,000, including $90,000 from an anonymous donor in Grundy. About $120,000 was paid out directly to residents, he said; the rest was used to rent equipment to help with cleanup.
The support has been overwhelming, he said. On the day of the storm, hundreds of people converged on Hurley to help with rescue operations. Over the following weeks, the community center, gym and adjacent parking lot were packed with food and pallets of water.
One day, Adkins said, a guy drove up in a pickup truck with North Carolina plates and dropped off a load of corn on the cob.
He said he feels confident that the appeal of FEMA’s decision will be successful. But for now, they just have to wait.
“Everybody’s been so busy trying to clean up, trying to salvage what they can of their belongings, that they haven’t had time to sit down and wrap their minds around what happened or cry or whatever they need to do,” Adkins said. “It’s been heartbreaking to see what the folks have been through.”
* * *
The conversation in Debbie Lester’s kitchen could have been any meeting between a contractor and a client.
The new cabinets have arrived, but they don’t fit. Can the fridge be moved? The stove?
But in Lester’s kitchen, a sofa was parked in the middle of the floor, out of the way of the yellow t-shirted volunteers who were replacing floors and patching walls. The faint smell of river mud still hung in the air.
Lester moved in in 2002 after her last house, which was lower down and closer to the creek, flooded.
She’d had insurance on that property, but the worst of the damage was outside – the bridge washed out, her car flooded – and the policy wouldn’t cover it.
The creek – that’s where flooding usually came from. She figured she was safe on the hill, until the hill came down. She didn’t carry insurance on this house.
And so here she was, surrounded by volunteers in yellow t-shirts and cabinets that didn’t fit quite right but would work out somehow. She was joking with the crew, telling them that if they’d just get the kitchen done, she could cook them a real meal. For now, she’s living in a camping trailer in the yard.
The homeowners that the BGAV crews work with pick out the flooring and the cabinets and other trim as much as possible, Meredith said. It should feel like their house, as close to normal as possible – hence, his good-natured back-and-forth with Lester over her kitchen design.
BGAV volunteers usually stay for about a week at a time. A few of them have professional construction experience but most learn on the job, Meredith said. They bunk down at night at a church in Grundy.
As of last week, the BGAV crews had worked on six houses and supplied materials for three more.
Many of them come back again and again, he said. “We’ll be here as long as we have volunteers coming,” he said. They’ll be back in the spring if there’s more work to do.
Meredith lives in Roanoke but spends about half of each week in Buchanan County. He drives from job site to job site, checking on supplies, talking to homeowners. He’s been active in disaster relief for years – Katrina was one of his first – and Hurley is as bad as he’s ever seen.
“In the first couple of weeks, and maybe still today … some of these homeowners were like deer in the headlights, so overwhelmed with everything they just absolutely did not know what to do,” he said.
“But once they see that there is help, and it’s real – they see people working on houses down the road from them, they know it’s coming this way – and I think that does a lot.”
That same day he met with Lester, Meredith delivered some good news to Della Prater.
The morning of Aug. 30, Prater had watched – and prayed – as a mobile home swept down the creek cross-wise, right toward her house. It had turned lengthwise just before it reached her property, and it squeezed past the back of her house without making contact.
But the creek still found a way to leave its mark. Rushing water attacked the foundation, leaving damage so extensive that Prater said she’d been told the house couldn’t be salvaged.
But now here was Meredith, telling her that a team of masons would be dispatched to make repairs after all.
She doesn’t have insurance. “It probably wouldn’t have mattered if we had, the way they’re talking,” she said.
She still says “we”; her husband, who shared the house with her for more than five decades, died 25 days before the flood. Family had been staying with her every night since then. Now she’s living with her daughter, a teacher in Lebanon, an hour and a half away.
“I thank the Lord that he’s helped me,” she said. So many people have helped, she said – neighbors, the United Way. “But I do hope that FEMA changes their mind.”
* * *
Amid all the uncertainty that has been a fact of life for residents of Guesses Fork since Aug. 30, waiting has been a constant.
Waiting to safely get back into their house to assess the damage. Waiting to hear from the insurance company. Waiting for FEMA’s decision, and then waiting for the appeal. Waiting for volunteers and for building supplies, and waiting to learn whether they’ll have heat so that they can stay put over the winter.
“We are getting help, and we’re getting good help,” Stephanie Stiltner said. “And all the people are friendly and nice and courteous, and they’re working around my kids, so I have no complaints at all. But it took a while to get help. I know it takes time to get organized, but when you don’t have anything, it’s very, very hard to wait.”
As resilient as residents have been, the not knowing has exhausted many of them, said Marci Watson, whose case-management team at the Department of Social Services has been a key part of the Long-Term Recovery Group’s work.
“They feel like they’re in limbo,” she said. “The waiting process is ruthless. It’s wreaking havoc on people emotionally.”
Local officials, too, have been dealing with uncertainty since the day of the storm.
“These guys got hit, blindsided,” Meredith said of local officials. “They had to invent the wheel and then start. And they’ve done a bang-up job. It’s just a mess to deal with and it’s going to be a mess for a while. But it’s already better.”
Chambers has been working his way down the list of houses that need to be inspected, counting up the bridges that were destroyed, tallying the costs. The destruction was so complete that it took a while just to figure out where houses had been, he said.
In addition to being the county’s building official, he’s also its emergency management coordinator. The first days after the storm, that was his priority – launching search-and-rescue operations, coordinating help from other localities, calling in a Virginia State Police helicopter to pluck a woman out of a tree.
Last week, he walked through Patty Coleman’s house with her son and Buckey Blankenship, a volunteer who’s been helping him assess homes.
A blue tarp partially draped the door frame where the mud had rushed in. The floor had caved in, and mold and mildew covered the walls.
Several days later, the house was added to the list of homes that had been completely destroyed.
Teresa Coleman, Mark’s wife, said her mother-in-law didn’t carry flood coverage but did have a homeowner’s policy. She said the insurer told her that nothing will be covered.
Just how many residents will decide to rebuild is an open question. Even if they want to, the stream bed has moved since many of the homes were first constructed, so code might not always allow rebuilding on the same site, Chambers said.
And then there’s the question of whether they should rebuild. Until officials can figure out what caused this unprecedented level of destruction, it will be impossible to know how to mitigate the danger, Chambers said.
“What I am in fear of more than anything is if these people do go back in their homes, it could happen again,” he said. “If this had happened in the middle of the night, we’d have been in trouble. We’d be still digging for bodies, I would imagine.”
Even the number of houses that could potentially be made habitable again is up for debate, since every agency – FEMA, VDEM, Red Cross – has its own definition of “destroyed.” FEMA guidelines, for instance, use the label if 18 inches of water or mud came into a house, Chambers said, but that doesn’t mean the home couldn’t be rebuilt.
As of last week, the official list kept by the county had 48 structures marked as “destroyed.” Chambers said he has seen about 20 that can’t be rebuilt, period.
The total cost of cleanup for the county is a moving target as well.
Chambers puts the county’s cost of road repairs and debris removal at $2.8 million. Restoring the water system: another $8.5 million.
An initial estimate put the cost of stream restoration at $8 million – but that recently jumped to more than $30 million based on a new assessment by a regional engineering firm, Chambers said.
How to help
- To read more about the work of the Long-Term Recovery Group or to donate to the recovery efforts, visit unitedwayswva.org/hurleyflood/.
- To volunteer, call 276-935-2954. Volunteers are coordinated through the Mountain Mission School.
FEMA did approve Buchanan County for public assistance. The reimbursement program will cover up to 75% of eligible costs, which could include emergency expenses such as debris removal as well as permanent work such rebuilding roads and bridges and restoring public utilities.
There have been bright spots during the recovery.
In the first days after the disaster, officials were estimating that it could take 30 days to restore power and a year to bring public water back online
Instead, Appalachian Power had electricity back on within a week. Public water was flowing again in mid-October.
Appalachian’s crews and contractors replaced 2.8 miles of power line and about 55 poles, said Walter Carlton, a distribution system supervisor for the utility. They worked out a system with the Virginia Department of Transportation and local authorities to close the road for 10 hours a day to give utility crews uninterrupted time to work.
Water crews weren’t able to get in and start repairing and replacing pipes for two weeks after the storm but still had restored water to more than 150 households by Oct. 18, said Bob Anderson, executive director of the Buchanan County Public Service Authority.
Watson, with the Department of Social Services, said they’re all trying to learn from what worked, and what didn’t.
“There probably will be a next time,” she said. “It may not be in Hurley, it may be somewhere else, but if we live, there’s going to be disaster.”
Stiltner’s 3-year-old, Jayanna, still gets scared when it rains. Stiltner said she’ll hear the toddler playing with her little houses and telling her toys that they need to get on the second floor because the first floor is flooding.
“It’s left effects on all of us,” she said. “But we are survivors. We have to be.
“I hope that it will teach my children to be generous and kind and to believe in God. I really hope that is what they get out of this, and not I lost everything or I lost so much.”
[Read more about the flooding and the recovery efforts on our Southwest Virginia flooding project page.]