Flood damage in the Pilgrim's Knob section of Buchanan County. Photo by Lakin Keene.

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The happy news started spreading around Buchanan County around lunchtime Thursday: The last of the nearly four dozen people who initially had been unaccounted for after flood waters swept across the county two nights earlier were safe, the sheriff’s office had just announced.

The word made its way only slowly to places like Pilgrim’s Knob and Whitewood and Jewell Valley, where widespread power outages and downed phone lines continued to make communication difficult – the very reason, in fact, that the whereabouts of so many people had remained unknown for so long. 

The relief the accompanied the news was twofold:

No one had died during a flash flood that had come in the dark of night and had swept cars and RVs downstream and carried houses off their foundations.

And now all of the resources that had been funneled into the excruciatingly slow process of home-by-home canvassing could be redirected toward a rebuilding effort that will be even slower.

“The damage is – I keep going to the word ‘apocalyptic,’” said K.T. Vandyke, who lives in Bristol now but rushed back to Whitewood on Wednesday morning to check on his parents.

Their house, part of a community of about a half-dozen homes, is still standing, although whether the foundation is damaged remains to be seen. Their bridge is in bad shape, although they’ve been using it cautiously, and on Wednesday a group of about five people with shovels cleared a mudslide that had blocked the roadway.

How to help

Anyone wishing to donate to the Buchanan County 2022 Disaster Fund may do so at https://unitedwayswva.charityproud.org/Donate/Index/19717 or by calling Cristie Lester at 276-525-4071.

It was much worse in some of the other communities Vandyke and his wife drove through on their supply run to Grundy.

“It’s pretty terrible,” he said. “Kind of hard to put into words. It seems like describing it pales in comparison.”

Just how many homes were damaged or destroyed isn’t known yet. The Virginia Department of Emergency Management will have crews in the area on Friday to begin assessing the extent of the damage, spokesperson Lauren Opett said Thursday.

The rain came from a storm that moved through West Virginia and Virginia on Tuesday night, prompting weather alerts and, at 8:30 p.m., a flash flood warning for Buchanan County. The storm damaged roads and homes across the region, including in McDowell County, West Virginia, where Gov. Jim Justice declared a state of emergency, and Tazewell County, where some residents had to be rescued by boat.

In Buchanan County, the water came down relentlessly; the National Weather Service office in Charleston, West Virginia, saw reports of up to 5 inches of rain in just a few hours. 

And all of that water did what water does in places where steep mountainsides drop down into narrow hollers: It poured down the hills and it overcame the usually narrow creeks along which people like Vandyke’s parents had built houses decades ago.

The story wasn’t all that different not even a year ago on the other side of the county, when the community of Guesses Fork in the Hurley area was hit by flash flooding spawned by another torrential, and very localized, rainstorm. 

That community is still recovering. A tally by the Virginia Department of Emergency Management says 31 homes there were destroyed. Another 27 sustained major damage, and eight more saw minor damage. One person was killed.

Volunteers and donations poured into Hurley in the weeks and months following the late August flood, and workers are still busy. Crews from the Baptist General Association of Virginia, who cleaned out and repaired houses that were salvageable, drove their last nail in Hurley on Wednesday, said Butch Meredith, who coordinated the group’s work there. Other volunteers are still fixing bridges and building new homes from the ground up for families whose houses were beyond repair.

And now the efforts will start all over again, 30 miles away.

Meredith said his group got the go-ahead Thursday from the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and the Red Cross to start feeding people, which is exactly where they began their efforts in Hurley last summer. They’re setting up kitchens now and plan to begin serving meals on Saturday. He’ll make his first trip to the newly flooded area on Monday to survey the damage with county officials so they can make a plan for how to proceed.

Then he’ll start recruiting volunteers to clean and gut the houses, and then to start the rebuilding process.

“I’m getting texts and emails and calls now wanting to know when we’re going, what we’re going to do,” he said. “They’re already anxious to come get started.”

United Way of Southwest Virginia also is collecting volunteer information through an online form, and it launched a fundraising effort this week. In Hurley, the hundreds of thousands of dollars raised through a similar campaign went toward expenses including buying building materials for the volunteer construction crews. 

Meredith said he hopes that the generosity shown to the residents of Hurley will be repeated. It’s hard, he acknowledged, when there’s so much need in such a small area.

“I don’t know how this is going to affect the area as far as giving,” he said. “So many folks did so much for people in Hurley and Guesses Fork, and I don’t know if their pockets are deep enough to make another contribution for their neighbors.”

Vandyke said he doubts that many of the people who live near his parents carry flood insurance. 

“If you live in these little communities, nobody can afford it,” he said. “My parents, they worked all their life, they’ve made pretty good money, they made a good living, for the most part. But they couldn’t afford it. So I can imagine that the vast majority of the older folks and people that aren’t as well off are that much more hurting.”

Most of their neighbors are, like his parents, older. One, a woman in her late 80s, slept through the storm and awoke Wednesday morning to find her first floor caked with an inch of mud, he said.

The community along Benny Branch at the base of Brown Mountain where Terry Keen’s mother, Shirley Keen, lives is similar. The group of houses is at the end of a mile-long holler, reached by a one-lane road. Most everyone there is in their 80s, said Terry’s wife, Susie, and they’re all family. 

There, too, everyone was lucky, she said. Her mother-in-law lost a couple of outbuildings, as did several other people. A cousin’s car was washed down the road. 

But no one was hurt.

“Thank the Lord they’re all safe,” she said. “Material things can be replaced; people can’t. … That other stuff is aggravation and stress and worry. But the main thing is your family’s OK.”

The water had come up fast at Shirley Keen’s house. Her grandson had come home from work around 9 p.m.; the rain was pouring down, but the roads were still passable. An hour later, the yard had become a lake and big slabs of concrete had been washed out from the bridge over the creek, carried by the force of the debris-filled water.

“We could stand out on the porch and see logs the size of me, just rolling,” said Teresa Reynolds, Keen’s daughter, who happened to be staying with her that night. “We knew it was bad.” 

The next morning, Terry Keen waded in through thigh-high water to check on them; it took him an hour to get from the main road to her house. On Thursday, he delivered a new generator and plenty of gasoline for her and several aunts who live nearby. That took three hours; he “carried and pulled and tugged,” he said.

Appalachian Power Co. estimated that about 1,300 customers were without electricity on Thursday morning, spokeswoman Teresa Hamilton Hall said. That total includes houses that have been destroyed or so badly damaged that can’t be reconnected, she said.

Rob Arnold, manager of distribution systems for the utility’s Kingsport district, said his goal is to have power restored to 85% of the homes that are capable of reconnections by late Friday or early Saturday. 

His crews probably will end up replacing 40 to 50 poles, and one substation was destroyed and will have to be replaced. 

They’ve been able to use what they learned in Hurley – where he said the damage was worse, from a power-distribution standpoint – to work more efficiently on this job.

“There’s not a positive about having anything like this,” he said. “However, by us just going through this in Hurley less than a year ago, everything was fresh on our minds, so we knew what we needed to do.”

Previous coverage:

Report: All accounted for in Buchanan County

Heavy flooding in Buchanan County, at least 44 missing (with multiple photo galleries from the scene)

Megan Schnabel

Megan Schnabel is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach her at megan@cardinalnews.org.