HURLEY – Debbie Lester’s roses came back.
So did some of her calla lilies, and even the purple shamrocks that her mother had planted for her in the front flower bed.
That last one surprised Lester. She thought the plant had been washed away last August when the floodwaters had swept down from the hills and across her yard and under and through her mobile home. The muddy water had carried away so much else; why not the shamrocks?
But then this spring, they popped up out in the middle of the grass in her front yard. So she dug them up and put them back where they were supposed to be, where they had been growing so well.
Lester appreciates roots. Even after she was almost trapped by the flood, even after she had to live in a borrowed trailer while total strangers took her home apart and put it back together, even after her kids urged her to move, she was determined to stay right where she was.
“I’m kind of too old to start over,” said Lester, who’s 66. “Plus my church is right down the road, my kids are right down the road. I’ve known this community – I mean, I can name everybody on this holler, and if I need help there’s not a one of them that wouldn’t come and help me.
“So I just said, ‘I can’t start over. I’ll fix this one.’ And then the help just started pouring in.”
It’s been a year since the Guesses Fork area of Hurley was stunned by a morning storm that dropped up to 7 inches of rain in just a few hours. Water and rocks and mud poured down the steep mountain slopes that flank the community on two sides. Guesses Fork, the creek that runs alongside the road and the houses, rose far out of its banks, fed by rain and hillside runoff and eventually choked by tons of flood-borne debris.
One person died. Dozens of families were left homeless. The final tally from the state: 31 structures destroyed, another 30-plus damaged, many severely.
[Read our coverage of the Hurley flood here.]
The recovery work started immediately. Donations and volunteers poured in. Local officials quickly formed a task force to manage the recovery.
Nearly a year later, signs of progress dot Guesses Fork Road: Kids’ toys are piled outside houses that had been ravaged by floodwaters, trucks are parked in driveways that had been rendered inaccessible when bridges were destroyed.
But reminders of the devastation are just as visible. All along the road, gutted houses bear spray-painted X’s, the mark left by search and rescue teams. Old foundations peek through waist-high weeds. Portions of the creek remain clogged with debris, raising fears of more flooding.
Residents and local officials are effusive in their gratitude for the million dollars in donations and countless volunteer hours that have restored their community to where it is today.
But they are also frustrated that bureaucratic red tape and a lack of funding have hampered further recovery efforts. A denial of aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency still stings. More than $11 million in state money earmarked for Hurley flood relief remains just out of reach as Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration discusses how to disburse it. Federal rules that govern rebuilding in floodplains and clearing out waterways have caused confusion. More than a dozen families lack permanent homes.
In many ways, the issues raised by the Hurley flood – and by a strikingly similar flash flood in Whitewood, on the other side of the county, in July – aren’t new. They’re just recent.
[Read our coverage of the Whitewood flood here.]
With its steep mountains and narrow hollers, Buchanan County is no stranger to flooding. Old-timers all have stories about the flood of 1977, which left three people dead and led to a years-long effort to move much of the town of Grundy to higher ground.
The county has counted roughly 50 floods – 65% of them flash floods – since 1996, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration started tracking such events in an online database.
Seven people have died in those floods, more than any other locality in the state.
Efforts are underway – still, and again – to make the county both less susceptible to floods and more resilient when they do happen.
“The reality is, we can’t make it stop raining,” said Tee Clarkson with First Earth 2030, a Richmond-based consulting firm that’s helping Buchanan County develop a flood resiliency plan. “It’s hard to identify the next area that’s going to be hit with something, so we have to look at it universally across the county, and say, OK, how are we going to position the county and the residents and the structures and the infrastructure to better absorb these sorts of rainfalls, which are not going to stop?
“We have to figure out how to deal with the water in a better way.”
* * *
Almost a year after the flood, Stephanie Stiltner still talks about how she should have been better prepared for it: how she should’ve known what to do when the deluge struck so suddenly that morning, how she shouldn’t have hesitated in any of the split-second decisions she had to make.
How she has to be ready the next time the water cascades down the hollers and rises from the creek.
She got a scare in late July, when the same storm that delivered devastation across eastern Kentucky dumped torrential rain on Southwest Virginia. She was awake at 4:30 a.m., watching the creek. By 7, she was bagging up medicine, collecting her kids’ shoes, finding her purse.
Memories of Aug. 30, 2021, came rushing back. The hours huddled on the hillside, the late-night swiftwater rescue, her childrens’ terror.
“The last time the water was at the edge of the yard, we started getting coats and shoes,” she said. “By the time we got coats and shoes on, it was under the house. By the time we got out the door, it was thigh-high. So I’m a little anxious about it.”
She didn’t let her kids play in the yard that day in July, fearful that the sodden ground would collapse under them and plunge them into the creek. She didn’t let her 12-year-old son go away with friends for the weekend because heavy rain was in the forecast; during the flood, she hadn’t known for almost eight hours whether her two children who had gone to school were safe, and she doesn’t want to be separated from any of them like that ever again.
The kids still have bad dreams, and the 4-year-old will insist on checking the creek if she wakes up in the night and it’s raining.
But in many ways, life has returned to normal. The kids are involved in baseball, football, basketball, cheerleading. Stephanie and her husband, Ben, shuttle them to practices and games and doctor’s appointments across the new bridge that once again connects them to the main road.
After months of cleanup and rebuilding work by volunteers, and by the Stiltners themselves, the house has been restored, more or less, to its pre-flood condition: new floors, new drywall, new trim, donated furniture. There’s some painting to be done, and the kitchen countertops haven’t come in yet. They still have to replace their fence and do some landscaping.
But they’re no longer sleeping seven people to one bedroom, and the smell of mud and stagnant water is long gone.
And this month they celebrated the start of a new chapter: The family finalized the adoption of three of their children, who had been placed with them through the foster care system and joined the family’s other two kids.
“We’re thrilled with that,” Stiltner said. “Thrilled everything’s kind of getting back to normal. … All in all, we are as good as we were. Other than being a little bit traumatized, we are as good as we were.”
She knows, despite the anxiety and the nightmares, that her family is fortunate.
“Ben and I, we’re sitting nice,” she said. “We’re not living in half a house, or we’re not living in somebody else’s house. But there’s so many people that don’t have homes, and they don’t know when they’re going to get a home.”
By Denise McGeorge’s count, there are 15 families whose homes were destroyed and who are still waiting to move into permanent housing. McGeorge, who was hired by the Buchanan County Department of Social Services last fall to work with flood victims, still meets every week with her team to talk about the open cases.
There’s some good news on the horizon: One of those families has bought a home but hasn’t moved in yet. Another eight are in line for new houses being built by volunteer crews from the Mennonite Disaster Service; three are under construction now along Guesses Fork, and five more are planned.
“When you’re dealing with volunteer labor and time, and working around schedules, it doesn’t go as quickly as I’m sure everyone would like,” McGeorge said.
“I just try to remind everyone that this has definitely been a marathon, it’s not a sprint. And that we’ve had another flood since this flood,” she said. “We want to step as quickly as we can but as surely as we can.”
Craig Horn, the county administrator, and Lee Moise, the county attorney and floodplain coordinator, know that residents are frustrated about the pace of rebuilding. They said they’re frustrated, too.
Horn said permitting and engineering requirements and expenses related to replacing several of the private bridges delayed some of the homebuilding projects – without bridges, work crews couldn’t access the sites.
Further complicating matters have been what Moise said are inaccuracies with the county flood maps that FEMA has used since the mid-1990s.
Those maps govern how, and whether, houses can be rebuilt in flooded areas. They lay out the contours of floodplains and floodways, and they establish the so-called base flood elevation, or the level to which the water would be expected to rise during a 100-year flood.
“It’s been a problem for the county ever since,” Moise said. “We have people who live on the top of the hill, and they have been determined to be in the floodplain, even though they may be 75 feet elevation above the creek. But yet they’re being shown in the floodplain.”
The county has been “pleading” for new maps for years, he said. He understands that the whole state is up for remapping, and that Buchanan County supposedly is on a priority list. He credits FEMA with starting the process of remapping the Guesses Fork area immediately after last year’s flood. The agency has already sent the county a draft of the first of three map segments, he said.
In the meantime, confusion has continued. After the flood, county staff got conflicting information about which information it could use to approve building permits, Moise said.
He said only two or three building permits have been approved for the Guesses Fork area since the flood, and he believes they were issued using the new draft map.
* * *
Recovery takes money. And waiting for that money to materialize has in some cases led to delays with rebuilding.
Local fundraising brought in more than $1 million that has purchased construction materials and other necessities. Faith-based organizations including the Mennonite Disaster Service and the Baptist General Association of Virginia have donated thousands of hours of labor to clean and repair and build.
But some residents were hesitant to accept the help, afraid it would mean they’d lose out on aid from FEMA. So they waited while the federal agency assessed the state’s request for assistance.
And when, in late October, FEMA told then-Gov. Ralph Northam that it wouldn’t be sending money to property owners – that “the impact to the individuals and households from this event was not of such severity and magnitude” to warrant help – they waited, again, while the state appealed the denial.
And then, in January, FEMA again said no.
The agency did approve Buchanan County and the state of Virginia to receive up to $1.6 million in grants to help repair infrastructure. But neither residents nor officials understand why FEMA twice denied the individual assistance request, and the opacity of the agency’s decision-making process has led to the theory that places like the coalfields just don’t count for as much in FEMA’s math.
“I think we’re all in concert that the rules need to be changed, because they seem to be weighted against rural areas,” said Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem. He said he’s been working with Virginia’s two senators – Democrats Mark Warner and Tim Kaine – to figure out how to implement change. They’re trying to make sense of what he called “subjective” FEMA standards.
“They will tell you that they don’t look just at the dollars,” Griffith said. “And that’s true. There’s a whole list of different things they look at, but it’s very difficult for a community to figure out, what do we need to show you?”
Warner said last week that one solution might be to use communities’ average home values to set damage award thresholds. That way, he said, a high-income, high-density community in Northern Virginia and a lower-income, sparsely populated area in Southwest Virginia would be on more equal footing.
In truth, FEMA assistance wouldn’t have been a magic bullet in Hurley; the most that a property owner can receive from FEMA is $36,000, and the average payout is closer to $4,000 or $5,000.
But the rejection stung in a community that has long felt that it occupies a forgotten corner of Virginia. And it galvanized state lawmakers to act.
Del. Will Morefield, R-Tazewell County, proposed creating a statewide fund to help Virginians whose property had sustained flood damage. It would pay up to $500,000 for residential properties and up to $1 million for commercial properties, and it would be funded by revenues from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.
In early December, Youngkin said he wanted to pull Virginia out of the initiative. By February, Morefield and fellow legislators had introduced an alternate plan: an $11.4 million budget appropriation that would provide similar aid, but just to victims of Hurley’s flood. Youngkin signed the budget in June.
Two months later, Guesses Fork residents are anxiously awaiting any news about how to apply for the money. A half-dozen of the families that still don’t have permanent housing are holding off on making a decision about how to proceed until they learn how much money they might receive, and how they can use it, McGeorge said.
It’s still unclear how eligibility will be determined or how, exactly, the funds can be used.
The money will be administered by the state Department of Housing and Community Development, which is still creating a process to manage it, spokeswoman Amanda Love said in an email.
“At this time, we are working with our local stakeholders and partners, as well as other state agencies, to determine eligibility, timelines for distribution of funding, parameters on funding based on the passed legislation, etc.,” Love wrote.
Morefield said he has urged the state department to collaborate with the Buchanan County Department of Social Services, which has amassed reams of data about local needs.
Both Marci Watson, the department’s director, and Travis Staton, president and CEO of United Way of Southwest Virginia, said that their offices are eager to work with the housing department but that they’re waiting for word from Richmond.
“We stand ready to partner and help and collaborate,” Staton said last month. “We’re all patiently waiting to see what their plan and process is going to be.”
Morefield said he hopes that an announcement with details about how to apply for funding will come within weeks.
* * *
Even as cleanup from the last flood continues, fears mount among Guesses Fork residents that another one is coming.
After two days of rain in late July, the creek was running high and fast in front of the Stiltners’ house.
The water is probably 15 feet wide there, Ben Stiltner pointed out, but it narrows to just 6 feet or so a little farther down the road. It didn’t used to be like that; tons of dirt and debris carried by the flood changed the size and, in some places, the course of the creek.
His wife’s fears about another flood aren’t just the stuff of paranoia; she looks at how the creek has changed since last year and predicts disaster.
“You have anxiety because when it rains, you know the creek’s full of dirt, rock and concrete bridges,” Stephanie Stiltner said. “So where’s the water supposed to go?”
McGeorge said that other than housing, the state of the creek is the biggest concern she hears from residents.
“The creek has naturally rechanneled itself, and the waterway runs differently now,” she said. “There are areas that were many feet deep that now may be a foot or a few inches. It continues to be a concern and a worry and a stress. … When there are major storms, they’re very concerned.”
Soon after the flood, the county asked an engineering firm for a back-of-the-envelope estimate of what it would cost to restore the creek to its pre-flood state, Moise said. The answer: $30 million.
But the regulatory requirements might be even a bigger hurdle than the cost.
The Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees work on the nation’s waterways, takes dredging and rechanneling requests very seriously, said Jennifer Serafin, chief of the Corps’ Western Virginia regulatory section in Roanoke.
Some permits are relatively easy to get, she said, like those for bank stabilization or repairing road crossings after a flood. Depending on how you do the work, you might not even need a permit to scoop out debris that’s blocking a culvert or threatening a bridge, she said.
But when you start talking about dredging a creek or moving its channel – even back to its prior path – the permitting process becomes much more stringent. The Corps has to weigh the need versus the potential ecological effects and impacts on downstream neighbors, Serafin said.
“Part of the reason I think why flooding gets so bad sometimes – in not just this area but all over the country – is that we’ve spent so much time rerouting channels and not giving the actual water, the stream or the river, its access to its floodplain. Because that’s what it’s trying to do,” she said.
“I’m not saying that the river or the creek is more important than the homeowners, because they live there now, they have property, they have a right to protect that property. But we have to understand those dynamics of why that creek is going outside its banks, and where it’s trying to go, because that was its floodplain at one time. It’s trying to use that land that it doesn’t have access to. It’s trying to get access to it now, there’s just a house in the way.”
And the Army Corps isn’t the only agency that must sign off on a dredging or rechanneling project.
If the creek in question is habitat for an endangered species – Guesses Fork hosts the Big Sandy crayfish – then the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would get involved. If the work could adversely affect a cultural resource, the National Historic Preservation Act comes into play. If any of the affected area includes Native land, then the appropriate tribes would also be consulted.
Moise said the county got the distinct impression from FEMA that returning Guesses Fork to its pre-flood condition wouldn’t be “viable or feasible.” Horn said much the same thing: “My understanding, we’ll never be allowed to do that. Now, the federal government will not tell us we can’t do that. But they won’t tell you you can do that.”
Serafin said her office hasn’t received an application to work on Guesses Fork from Buchanan County but said she’d be happy to talk with local officials. She said she doesn’t want to discourage anyone from requesting a permit, but she said her staff tries to give applicants a realistic look at their chances.
“We can’t tell somebody, no, you’re never going to get a permit, because anybody’s welcome to apply for a permit,” Serafin said. “We certainly will give people kind of that worst-case scenario, in the sense of like, well, you could go through all of this and we could ultimately deny the work.”
She said she encourages communities to look at smaller projects that could achieve some of the same goals: bank stabilizations, upgraded road crossings, larger culverts for driveways.
In fact, Buchanan County is already trying to bite off smaller pieces of the work, starting with the trees and building detritus that still clog sections of the creek.
The county tried to handle the cleanup itself but found that the work was too much for its limited resources, Moise said. So several weeks ago the county asked FEMA to send its own contractors – and pick up the bill – to finish the job in Guesses Fork.
He hasn’t gotten a response yet. But Moise said FEMA has done similar work in other areas, so he’s hopeful. He also thinks FEMA would be in a better position than the county to obtain all of the permits that would be needed to do the work.
The county probably will make a similar request for help in the Whitewood area, where cleanup from the July flash flood continues.
“It’s just more than a county our size, with our minimal resources, can handle,” he said. “We just need more help.”
The county is also working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to pay for smaller-scale creek cleanup projects through the Emergency Watershed Protection Program.
The service helped the county identify several sites along Guesses Fork that are eligible for the cost-sharing program, said Wess Stanley, district conservationist in the service’s Lebanon office.
The timetable will depend on weather and crew availability, he said, but he’d like to see the work finished within a few months. The total estimated cost is just over $900,000, he said; NRCS will pay 75% and the balance will fall to the county.
* * *
The very week that Guesses Fork flooded, Buchanan County submitted an application for a state grant through the newly created Community Flood Preparedness Program, which is also funded through RGGI revenues.
By October, the county had received $387,500 and had convened a project team. Tee Clarkson of First Earth, who’s helping county staff navigate the process, said they face a challenging task: figuring out how to better protect the county’s people and structures while dealing with topography that both limits available building acreage and contributes to flash flooding.
The group has been gathering data about areas that have traditionally flooded, and about other parts of the county that might be at risk. They plan to start holding public meetings next month and hope to hear from residents about trouble spots like blocked culverts or places that consistently take on water.
Clarkson expects they’ll look at projects to strengthen creek banks and remove debris throughout the county, and to create an expanded disaster alert system.
They hope to have the plan completed by early next year, he said. But their work won’t be done.
“Where is this money going to come from?” Clarkson asked. “Once the plan is complete, where do we go for funding to get some of this work done?”
It’s likely to be a combination of state and federal dollars, he said. But Buchanan County almost certainly will join a long line of localities with their hands out.
“When we’re talking about federal dollars, think about what just happened in Kentucky,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of people looking at some of these federal dollars to help.”
There’s already a large pot of federal money available for floodproofing houses in Buchanan County. But not everyone can benefit.
In 2019, Congress appropriated more than $235 million for flood mitigation in the county. Much of it is being used to move Hurley High School and the county’s career and technical center, both of which are in high-risk areas. The rest is earmarked to floodproof homes by raising their first floors above the flood elevation or to buy and demolish houses that can’t be altered.
About 500 properties were deemed eligible, said Bob Peterson, who manages the project from the Army Corp’s Huntington office. His team has received applications for about 60% of those parcels, he said, although some property owners dropped out after the final vetting process started. (The program is voluntary.)
But there’s a catch: The Army Corps first got Congressional authorization to develop plans for flood mitigation in the region following the flood of ’77. And even though funding for the work didn’t come through until 2019, and even though weather and flooding patterns have changed in the decades since the mid-1970s, only properties that would have been affected by the ’77 flood are eligible for the program – which leaves out many of the recently flooded homes in both Guesses Fork and Whitewood.
Peterson understands that the limitations might frustrate residents.
“I realize that these recent flooding events are fresh on everybody’s mind, and I’m sure they want us to jump in and appraise their home and properties and offer them funding to buy them out,” he said. “But unless they were part of our authorized project, we’re not going to be able to do that. …
“This is really the sad part for us as well: We really understand the situation with a lot of people. A lot of people don’t have flood insurance, a lot of people just don’t have the means to rebuild after a flooding event.”
It would take an act of Congress to expand the Corps’ authorization, Peterson said.
Warner said he’s heard complaints about the limitations of the program and is sympathetic. The idea that the ’77 flood is the litmus test today, when so many factors are different, “just doesn’t cut it.” He said he needs to learn more about the issue before proposing any action, but he believes that Army Corps processes in general – including the permitting requirements that make stream cleanup so difficult – deserve a close look.
A spokeswoman for Kaine said that it’s possible that the Corps’ floodproofing efforts could be extended by Congress, and that his team will look into it. Griffith said he hadn’t heard concerns about this particular issue but wanted to learn more about it.
There isn’t going to be a single solution to fix the kind of flooding that has been seen across the region in recent months, Warner said. Maybe a flood fund could be created from some of the money paid for mineral rights, or maybe the Army Corps and the state could collaborate on a stream cleanup blitz, or maybe the state could set aside more money for emergency relief.
“These are communities that have lived through tough times, and they’ve got to have faith that the system writ large is actually going to hear their needs and respond to it,” he said. “I think oftentimes what people feel in rural communities is, you know, that they’ve been forgotten. And in many cases, that has been the case.”
As it happens, even meeting that ’77 threshold might not be enough to get relief.
Two Guesses Fork houses that were to be part of the Corps floodproofing program were destroyed by last year’s flood, Moise said.
The Corps told those homeowners that because there was nothing left to floodproof and nothing left to appraise, they wouldn’t get a payout.
* * *
Debbie Lester never did have the heart to tell the volunteers who fixed up her house that she’d accidentally let a little brown snake in the front door one day.
It was before the helpers had arrived, when she’d been trying to muck out the house on her own to keep the mold at bay.
But even though she knew that the snake had to be long gone by the time the crews started working, she couldn’t keep her mind from going there sometimes. Like when she’d sit on the couch that she’d salvaged from the floodwater and wonder if the snake might’ve made a home in the upholstery.
She’s still somewhat amazed that total strangers gave up weeks of their time to put her house back to rights. For weeks, she said, they worked in the damp fall chill, in a trailer that smelled of mud and decay and that maybe – but probably didn’t – feature a snake.
“There’s nothing I can do for them like they did for me,” Lester said, sitting on that rescued couch while Van Morrison’s “Days Like This” played in the background. She gave them all wooden Christmas ornaments or keepsakes made of coal; that’s what she was able to do, she said.
Stephanie Stiltner still stays in touch with some of the BGAV workers who spent so much time restoring her gutted home and making friends with her kids. The help almost felt like too much sometimes – they’d tell her that they’d be coming back to put up the trim, while she was grateful to even have new drywall.
“I said ‘thank you,’ but it don’t feel like it’s enough,” she said. “Maybe someday it’ll come so I can help somebody else as much as they helped me.”
She’s already donated to the Whitewood recovery effort – as have other Guesses Fork flood victims, McGeorge said. They know what their neighbors are up against, she said.
Both Lester and Stiltner said maybe, just maybe, Whitewood will get some FEMA help because the flooding there covered a larger geographic area than in Hurley. Neither sounded particularly hopeful.
“Those people over there are just like us,” Stiltner said. “I don’t feel that they are going to get the help that they should get.”
* * *
To donate to ongoing flood relief efforts for Buchanan County, visit the United Way of Southwest Virginia. Funds are also being collected for flood relief in Tazewell, Dickenson and Wise counties.