On a drive down Dismal River Road in the Pilgrim’s Knob and Whitewood areas of Buchanan County on a cloudy, 80-degree Wednesday afternoon in April, a newcomer first sees idyllic scenery of a small mountain community cut through by the Dismal River, with lots of shady trees and glimpses of sunlight in the slowly trickling water.
A UPS truck makes deliveries, a few residents go in and out of the post office and several people work in yards already colored by spring’s redbud trees and red and yellow tulips.
But a closer look reveals the lingering effects and damage from catastrophic flooding on July 12, 2022. Trees, branches, trash and debris still litter much of the riverbed, and you can see the path the swiftly rising water took that night.
Interspersed among the small brick and frame houses and mobile homes that dot the sides of the road are the crumbling foundations of homes, garages and outbuildings that were damaged beyond repair and the shells of trailers swept downstream and abandoned after the storm.
Although repairs were made to the road in the immediate aftermath of the flash flooding and a number of bridges were fixed, the damage is still evident. Across the river, portions of railroad track can still be seen dangling from the side of a cliff.
That night in July, 5 to 6 inches of rain fell on parts of eastern Buchanan County and western Tazewell County in just a few hours.
When it was over, 70 homes had been destroyed or damaged, according to Travis Staton, president and CEO of United Way of Southwest Virginia, a lead agency in the fundraising and recovery efforts. About half of the damaged homes have been repaired, but the rebuilding of the homes that were destroyed hasn’t even started.
A similar storm that hit 11 months earlier and about 30 miles away in the Guesses Fork area of Hurley, on the other side of Buchanan County, killed one woman and destroyed or severely damaged dozens of homes. The recovery there also continues today.
[Cardinal News has covered both devastating flash floods from the beginning — you can find all those stories on our Southwest Virginia flooding project page.]
Most of those involved in the Whitewood recovery effort agree that the only good thing that came out of the Hurley flooding was that it prepared them for what was to come with the second round of flooding.
“We had developed the long-term recovery group for Hurley and we went to that group and said, ‘Can you all agree to expand the scope a little bit and let’s now include Whitewood in our work?’” Staton said. “And a lot of those people are government folks from the county, like social services, the building inspector, the emergency management coordinator, and all those said, ‘That makes sense,’ and so it has enabled us to kind of start and hit the ground faster.”
But money from the state appears to be just as slow in coming to those devastated by the Whitewood-area flooding as those impacted by the Hurley event.
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At Pilgrim’s Knob, the community hardest hit by the July 2022 flooding, the land flattens out and widens, so there are more pockets of homes. On this day, Carl Owens was walking three dogs down a side road to the family home, a small, one-level brick house that sustained major damage.
He and his wife, Betty, both 70, have lived there for 35 years and never purchased flood insurance. Their home is much farther from the river than most houses in the area and they didn’t think they needed it, she said.
She wasn’t at home the night of July 12 because she was sitting with a sick 98-year-old woman as part of her job with Consumer Direct Care.
It wasn’t until the next morning that she learned from a neighbor that her family — her husband and grandchildren — were safe, but their house had been heavily damaged, with water rising to the top of one of its windows.
For the next five months, the couple was able to stay at their former daughter-in-law’s house while their house was “taken down to the studs,” she said.
“It’s been a journey, but we were blessed that United Way and the Red Cross and others helped us. One team comes in and then new people come in to get it all done,” she said.
Although there was much left to be done, the couple was happy to get back into the house in January.
Help for Whitewood
Organizations and agencies from across the region stepped in to help residents of Whitewood recover from last summer’s flood.
Among them: Baptist General Association of Virginia, Food City, Appalachian Power Co., Christ in Action, American Red Cross, Samaritan’s Purse, Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia, Operation Blessing, Crisis Cleanup, Feeding Southwest Virginia, Team Rubicon, the Latter-Day Saints, Tzu Chi Foundation, Hands and Feet Ministry, God’s Pit Crew, and local residents, church and school groups.
Source: United Way of Southwest Virginia
Three months later, boxes, furniture, tools, building materials and other items still litter the carport and front porch, but much work has been completed inside, including a new bathroom, new drywall, painting, flooring and cabinets. Countertops for the kitchen had been ordered.
Still, as grateful as she is for all the help, Betty Owens said she doesn’t feel quite at home because several of her neighbors’ houses were beyond repair and they had to move elsewhere.
But she looks forward to the day, probably later this summer, when the repairs are complete on the house and work begins to level the muddy yard, grass is planted and the remains of an outbuilding are removed.
“It’s been a little difficult, but we managed to get through it with the help of the Lord,” she said.
“We are blessed overall,” she added.
Buddy Fuller was at home in Whitewood for the storm. He’d never seen it rain like it did that night and he anxiously waited and watched to see how it would affect his home and the house next door, which he owns and rents to a family.
His house was on higher ground so the floodwater never got inside. But the family next door had to rush through water that was suddenly chest-high to get their children and cars to safety, where they waited out the storm, according to Fuller, who was separated from them by high water between the properties.
Fuller, who was a Buchanan County supervisor for 20 years, patrolled the fence all night, watching for erosion and yelling back and forth with neighbors. Around 5 a.m., he said there were small signs that the water was starting to recede.
Retired after working for more than 30 years as a dispatcher/clerk for Norfolk Southern, Fuller maintains a number of rental properties in Buchanan, Russell and Tazewell counties. He said that several properties were affected, including the rental house next door, a house he used as a storage building and all its contents, and a trailer park on Dismal River Road.
There were about 15 mobile homes in the park and about 10 were occupied, according to Fuller. A couple of trailers were turned on their sides, but most stayed upright. The water was high, but it wasn’t as swift because it’s a wide area and the water had somewhere to go, Fuller explained.
The land was damaged by erosion and ditches were formed. Fuller recently took out an ad in a local newspaper asking those who had lived in the park to get all of their belongings out. He has applied for a Small Business Administration loan to help with repair of all his rental properties, but was recently told he has to resubmit the application.
If it’s approved, he plans to haul off the trailers so he can fix the issues with the land and make sure the sewer, water and electric systems, which are all underground, are working. He doesn’t know how much it will cost to clean up and repair the trailer park or his other properties damaged that night.
He hopes to redevelop the property so a trailer park can once again be located there.
With the help of the United Way, church groups and others, Fuller and his tenants were able to clean up that house next door enough so the family was back in before Thanksgiving, which he called a “miracle.”
Although he lost a lot, he said he doesn’t like to complain.
“I’ll tell you, man, it really took its toll on me, but not a lot of people know about it because I didn’t do a lot of complaining because there’s nobody to complain to,” he said.
“Another reason I didn’t complain is because I’ve seen the devastation everyone else has gone through and at least I had a place to lay down,” Fuller added.
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A true ‘localized flash flood’
According to journalist Kevin Myatt, who has written about weather for about 20 years and pens a column on the subject for Cardinal News, the flooding that occurred in eastern Buchanan County and the western fringe of Tazewell County resulted from highly localized downpours in a narrow line of thunderstorms that became concentrated over the same location, pouring off steep terrain and funneling into narrow drainage channels.
A line of thunderstorms developed ahead of a slow-moving cold front over West Virginia that evening then moved southeast into western parts of Virginia, Myatt wrote. The western part of the line slowed over Southwest Virginia from the Interstate 77 corridor westward, with 3 to 6 inches of rain in two or three hours over the areas with the worst flooding.
Less than 20 miles away, Richlands only received 0.71 inch of rain that evening, and most amounts at surrounding gauges in Southwest Virginia were under 1 inch.
“It was a localized flash flood in the truest sense of all three words,” according to Myatt.
In addition to the Whitewood and Pilgrim’s Knob communities, Jewell Valley, also located along the river, was affected. As rain fell, water poured down the hills, rushing into waterways and quickly overwhelming them.
Power and water were knocked out across the area, and many roads were blocked by downed trees and mudslides. Bridges were also damaged and impassable, including many private bridges that led to homes on the other side of the river.
The flooding drew national media coverage, largely because 44 people were reported missing in its immediate aftermath, cut off due to a lack of cell service and the inability to reach stranded areas, but all were found within a couple of days. There were no deaths or injuries, which some called remarkable.
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Waiting for money, and for a green light
Following the flooding, the United Way fielded requests for assistance from 294 individuals, according to Staton. Of those, 21 had homes that were destroyed, 25 had houses with damage of $10,000 or more, and 24 had homes with damage of less than $10,000, he said.
Of the 25 houses with major damage, repairs have been completed on four and work is underway on the rest, Staton said.
Of the 24 houses with minor damage, repairs have been completed on 15 and nine are still being worked on, he added.
Staton noted that work for disasters and long-term recovery typically takes two to three years to complete.
But only two of the households whose homes were destroyed have been able to move forward and that is because they are relocating, Staton said. They found other properties in Southwest Virginia and are being helped with furniture, fixtures and other household items lost in the storm, he added.
There has been no rebuilding or recovery for the 19 remaining households whose homes were destroyed, and there are two reasons, according to Staton: The county’s floodplain is being redrawn, and the General Assembly remains deadlocked over proposed changes to the state’s biennial budget.
“We are waiting on the county for the green light,” Staton said. “We can’t pull building permits at this point because the floodplain is being remapped.”
County Administrator Craig Horn, county Emergency Coordinator Bart Chambers and Lee Moise, the county attorney and floodplain coordinator, did not return calls seeking comment for this story.
However, Moise told Cardinal News in 2022 that there are inaccuracies with county flood maps that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has used since the mid-1990s.
Those maps lay out contours of floodplains and floodways and govern how, and whether, houses can be rebuilt in flooded areas. Moise said the whole state was set to be remapped and Buchanan County was supposed to be a priority. FEMA did start remapping the Guesses Fork area immediately after the August 2021 flood, he said.
As for federal funding, for both the Hurley and Whitewood floods, FEMA denied financial help to individual homeowners. Both times, the federal agency said there wasn’t significant enough damage to warrant aid.
In response to FEMA’s denial in Hurley, Del. Will Morefield, R-Tazewell County, proposed a statewide flood recovery fund that would pay for property losses that weren’t otherwise covered by insurance or federal aid. That idea morphed into a budget earmark of $11.4 million for Hurley-specific flood relief.
In October, Gov. Glenn Youngkin said he believed that the framework that had been developed to handle the Hurley relief money could be used to create a similar effort to help Whitewood.
In December, the governor announced he was introducing an amendment to the two-year state budget for an additional $11 million in emergency funds for the Whitewood flood.
After the localities later determined that the damage estimates would be closer to $18 million, Morefield said he amended the governor’s proposal to include $18 million in the House budget. If approved in the final budget — which remains at an impasse — the money will be administered by the same process as was used in Hurley.
Both Morefield and state Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell County, said they believe the $18 million budget amendment has bipartisan support and will eventually be approved. But Hackworth predicted the approval won’t come until late June or even July.
Then, the money will go through the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, as did the funds for Hurley.
If Hurley is an indication, it may still be months before Whitewood residents see any of that state money. The first state funds went to Hurley residents in December 2022 — 16 months after the flooding.
In the meantime, the area’s impacted residents may have to continue to depend on the help of volunteers and local donations.
According to the United Way of Southwest Virginia’s Disaster Dashboard on its website, nearly $900,000 has been raised for flood relief efforts in the Whitewood area and $444,144 had been spent, as of March 31.
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Signs of progress, thanks to volunteers
In early April at a small red brick house on Dismal River Road, repair work was underway by a trio of volunteers with the Baptist General Association of Virginia.
Stan Laro, Dennis Milan and Tom Kern were busy installing white cabinets in the gutted kitchen. The house was starting to come together with the soft gray paint tones and dark laminate flooring seen in several of the homes under repair.
Laro, of Singers Glen in Rockingham County, was a building contractor for 55 years before he retired. He said he’s volunteered in the area several times because he wants to “help people who are suffering. We want to offer hope. We want to help people and work with Christ.”
The Baptist General Association of Virginia has been in the area repairing houses from the start. Last July, its volunteers had just finished repairing about 15 houses in the Hurley area when the second storm hit.
Just recently, they completed most of the work and left the Whitewood area, according to Butch Meredith, construction coordinator of the Impact Missions staff, a ministry of the Baptist group.
Volunteers with BGAV have repaired about 40 homes in the Whitewood area, he said, while giving a tour of the areas hit by the second round of flooding, which he said stretched for about 30 miles, ending near the SunCoke plant at the top of Dismal River Road.
The BGAV’s role has been reconstruction of damaged homes. Volunteers provide the labor and the materials are given free to those who need them, paid for through donations.
“And every nickel spent in the Whitewood event is all donated money. Every nickel,” said Meredith, who is from Roanoke.
The houses that were destroyed in Hurley are still being rebuilt by the Mennonite Disaster Service, which is based in the Shenandoah Valley. Once that’s complete, and when building permits are finally in hand, Staton said that the hope is the Mennonite group will move over to Whitewood and begin work on rebuilding the homes there.
Many volunteers for BGAV are retired, but people of all ages get involved, including several teenagers who recently spent their spring break helping. Some return again and again.
“They get kind of caught up in helping people,” Meredith said. “I’ve said it so many times. … These people don’t want a handout. They just need help getting back on their feet, and so our volunteers see that, and they interact with the homeowners as much as possible and they see how genuine these folks are and how genuine the need is.”
All the BGAV’s major projects have been completed with just a few smaller jobs – inside painting, trim work, work on decks, steps and a bathroom – remaining. Those jobs will be completed by “commuter volunteers” who attend church in the area, according to Meredith.
In addition to remodeling damaged homes, BGAV disaster response has mobile kitchens that provided meals to those in the area after the storm and portable laundry units and showers that were on site through mid-October.
Meredith has spent a lot of time in Buchanan County since October 2020, when the Baptist organization was asked to help rebuild a couple of houses damaged by a much smaller flood.
Over that time, he has formed relationships with residents and has gotten to know people at the very worst time in their lives.
Point to a house that was damaged and he can tell you the story behind it.
There’s the couple in their 80s whose home was washed into the road. In addition to their house, they lost a garage that was filled with a trailer and tools the husband loved to tinker with. They found a small mobile home they could afford to rent and he spent a lot of time and effort cleaning up the trailer and all his tools, only to have someone fill the trailer with the tools and steal it all.
Then there’s the woman who returned home as the Whitewood area was flooding and watched in horror from her car as a mobile home was swept down river on a collision course with her house. Taking video with her phone camera, she prayed that her home be spared. Just as it was about to hit her house, the trailer took a turn and went behind it.
“It just put things in perspective,” Meredith said, adding that her home had some damage that has since been repaired.
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Cleanup, and planning for the future
Jeff Cooper is in the fourth year of his first term as a Buchanan County supervisor representing the large Garden District. Every year he has served has brought at least one flooding event, including the major floods in Hurley and Whitewood.
He said the county continues to do everything it can legally do to help those impacted by the Whitewood flooding, but he acknowledges that morale is down these days, and people are disappointed.
The 2023 Buchanan County Flood Resilience Plan recently approved by the county’s board of supervisors identified the following seven priority actions:
- Enhance staff capacity for floodplain management, including hiring a certified floodplain manager or training a current employee for that role.
- Remove debris and restore streams, to include the immediate hiring of a disaster recovery services contractor to help the county secure FEMA and other disaster recovery grants. Removing debris from the Whitewood flooding is the highest priority.
- Update county flood hazard maps, which were developed in 1997 and didn’t include some “stream reaches,” including the stretches of Dismal Creek in the Whitewood area that flooded in July 2022.
- Develop hazard mitigation planning, which reduces loss of life and property by minimizing the impact of disasters. All natural disaster risks must be identified and long-term strategies developed for protecting people and property from similar events.
- Expand emergency management capabilities. The two recent catastrophic flood events reinforced the need to update the county’s emergency operations plan and to create an evacuation plan, continuity of operations plan and disaster recovery plan.
- Explore additional buyout programs and opportunities to remove homes and businesses with the highest risk of flooding out of harm’s way. Often, these are structures that have flooded repeatedly in the past.
- Identify flood risk reduction projects and opportunities within priority areas, which are places with recorded flood impacts. In many of these areas, there are concentrations of structures or infrastructure within FEMA special flood hazard areas, including structures within the floodway, which is the area of highest risk.
The entire plan is online at https://buchanancountyonline.com/plan.pdf.
The first weeks and months after the storm brought a lot of attention — from the media, from people and agencies who came in to help. But most of the help is gone now, there’s no federal help coming from FEMA for property owners and they’re waiting to see what the state will do, he said.
“The first couple of months were really busy,” he said. “A lot of folks were on the ground helping everybody out. And since then, those people have left, and all the help has kind of gone away. What assistance there was, was used up and now it’s just kind of waiting on the government to step in and help, and that’s been very slow, to say the least.”
Like the state legislators who represent the area, Cooper believes the state money will come through, but he believes it will take some more time, just as it did in Hurley.
He noted that some people are frustrated that the county can’t help them with their barn or porch or yard, and he said it’s just not possible.
Several people in the Whitewood area had praise for the county’s work in the area, right after the storm and more recently.
Cooper said the county has done what it can legally do, from helping repair roads in the aftermath of the storm to reestablishing drainage ditches and pipes and picking up the debris left from cleanup.
After the Whitewood flooding, the county spent $90,000 on a truck from Florida that more efficiently picks up material. Before that, the county was using a dump truck, a trailer, an excavator and several workers to do the job, which wasn’t as efficient, quick or economical, Cooper said.
Work to clear out the river bed also continues by the county, but there’s a long way to go.
County leaders also have approved the new 2023 Buchanan County Flood Resilience Plan. It was established as a result of a Virginia-wide initiative to provide support for regions and localities to reduce the impacts of flooding, including flooding driven by extreme weather, according to the county’s website. Its aim is to reduce flood risk and increase the county’s resilience. Two public meetings were held to discuss the plan and it was approved by the board of supervisors on May 1.
The county hired the RES & Stantec team to pursue grant funding to increase local flood resilience.
RES, an ecological restoration company, and Stantec, a global engineering firm focused on community quality of life, also formed a team that created the flood resiliency plan.
The plan lists 32 flooding events in Buchanan County since March 1929. It blames the flooding on the county’s steep topography, which “causes precipitation to drain quickly, and at high velocities, which can lead to rapid flooding following moderate or heavy rainfall.”
The plan calls for a number of actions, including hiring a certified floodplain manager or training a current employee for that role and immediately hiring a disaster recovery services contractor to help the county secure FEMA and other disaster recovery grants.
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‘A silver lining,’ thanks to lessons learned in Hurley
More than one person mentioned the “silver lining” that dealing with the Hurley flooding meant for the cleanup and recovery in Whitewood.
Meredith said it took those involved about two months to really get the rebuilding process going in Hurley. But they learned so much from the process, they were on the ground much more quickly in Whitewood, where rebuilding started in a couple of weeks, he said.
Staton agreed, saying processes, partnerships and people were in place so recovery could begin sooner.
The community came together, he said. United Way worked closely with local and state organizations, like the Department of Social Services, faith-based organizations such as the Mountain Mission School and groups from outside the area like the Mennonite group and the Baptist General Association.
“Those partnerships and those new relationships withstand time, and, hopefully, we don’t have a disaster again, but there are other things that our community can come together and work on,” Staton said.
“It shouldn’t take a natural disaster for us to reach across lines and work publicly and privately to better our communities and make them healthier, stronger and better.”
Hurley’s recovery continues, as state money trickles into the community
Less than half the state aid approved to help those whose homes were destroyed or damaged in the 2021 flood in Hurley has been distributed. U.S. Rep Morgan Griffith is seeking additional federal money to help with rebuilding.
The recovery from the August 2021 flooding continues in the Hurley community of Buchanan County, although less than half of the $11.4 million approved by the General Assembly to help residents there has been distributed.
As of May 8, 64 applications had been approved for payment in the amount of $5.6 million, according to Alexis Carey, public relations director for the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, which manages the fund.
A total of 91 applications requesting $7.5 million have been received by DHCD. Four applications have been reviewed and denied, Carey said.
When asked why less than half of the amount approved for aid has been doled out, Carey said the department is “working quickly” to process applications.
“Each application is unique in nature and the application process requires documentation is properly verified to protect against possible fraud,” she said. “This process is an important part of our commitment to maintaining the integrity of our program.”
Marci Watson, the director of the Buchanan County Department of Social Services, referred questions about the aid process to DHCD.
But in December, when just $2 million had gone out to those whose houses were damaged or destroyed by the flash flood, Watson said efforts to distribute the money may have been hampered by a shortage of available contractors and a need for documentation.
The application process started in November.
Property owners who spent their own money to buy supplies or pay contractors must provide documentation of those expenses to be reimbursed, Watson said. But many didn’t know that at the time and might not have saved the paperwork, she added.
And owners must also submit estimates from contractors to receive a payout from the state fund, which has been hampered by labor shortages related to the COVID-19 pandemic, she said.
More than 40 homes were destroyed or severely damaged by rising water and mudslides and one person was killed. Up to 7 inches of rain fell over just a few hours.
Few property owners carried flood insurance, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied a request to provide them with financial help to rebuild. Until the state aid started coming in, the rebuilding was funded primarily through private donations, with work done by volunteers.
U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, is also trying to get some federal funding to build new homes to replace those destroyed in the Hurley flooding.
The congressman submitted a request for $1.5 million in community project funding to the Appropriations Committee for fiscal year 2024. The sponsoring agency is Appalachian Service Project of Jonesville.
Griffith said there’s likely an even chance that the money will be approved.
“Last year we got 80% of our requests approved,” Griffith wrote in an email. “This year the rules and process have changed because of the new Congress, but we think the likelihood of the Hurley request getting approved is about 50/50.”
Under House rules, each member is allowed to select 15 of the proposals submitted to their office. This year, Griffith received 36 proposals for the funding, he said. Proposals must be submitted by the community and have broad support, he added.
Griffith said he hasn’t received any proposals for funding for those whose houses were damaged or destroyed in the July 2022 flooding in the Whitewood community of Buchanan County, but if he receives one in the future, he will review it.
United Way of Southwest Virginia also continues to help those in Hurley recover. According to Ryan Dye, director of marketing and communications, of the 19 homes that were destroyed, 12 have been rebuilt and the remainder will be. Of the 21 homes with major damage over $10,000, all but one have been rebuilt. Three bridges have been repaired.
The Mennonite Disaster Service is rebuilding the homes that were destroyed. It dedicated three new homes and an addition between January and March. The rebuilding of two additional homes is expected to be completed in September because the volunteers with the service are currently working on their farms, with two more to be rebuilt after that, Dye said.
Of the $922,044 raised to help those in Hurley, $781,474 has been spent, according to Dye.