24 dead in West Virginia floods; search and rescue continues
CLENDENIN, W.Va. (AP) — Surrounded by muddy devastation, Cathy Light and her husband Chris thought it was “heaven sent” they had free burgers to munch on in a Clendenin parking lot Saturday.
To their left, the roof of a Dairy Queen slumped to the pavement. Behind it, a trailer home was ripped from its foundation, with four concrete stairs all that remained in the ground. Occasional whiffs of rotten food wafted from a nearby grocery store that, not long ago, was filled with five feet of muck water.
Before they jumped in a rescue boat in Clendenin on Saturday, the Lights could only save their dog Odie and a TV that sat atop a bedroom dresser — the highest-up they stored anything in their house, really.
The heavy rains that pummeled West Virginia resulted in at least 24 deaths, leaving families homeless with the tearful realization that they’re starting from scratch.
“I don’t have anything,” said Cathy Light, as she ate the free meal provided by Grace Community Church. “Where do we go now?”
The scene in Clendenin, located in Kanawha County, wasn’t as deadly as in Rainelle. Sixteen people died in Greenbrier County, at least 15 of them in Ranielle. Greenbrier is the only county where Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s administration believes people remain missing.
“It does not appear there are unaccounted for people in other counties, but it’s still a somewhat fluid situation,” said Chris Stadelman, Tomblin’s chief of staff.
Rainelle Mayor Andrea “Andy” Pendleton wept as she surveyed her town Saturday.
“I weep for my people, I weep for the businesses,” she said.
About six buses full of people whose homes were either without power or too damaged to inhabit were evacuated. Some were taken initially to a fire department facility, but then it flooded so they were moved to an abandoned store. When that started to flood, buses took the evacuees to a church 40 miles away.
Search and rescue teams went house to house, marking those checked with a spray-painted ‘X.’ Abandoned pets were taken to a shelter. A water department filtration system, built with a $2.6 million loan, was damaged, Pendleton said.
Help came from multiple sources, including two search and rescue teams from Virginia.
Six other deaths were reported in Kanawha, in addition to one each in Jackson and Ohio counties. About 500 people were stranded overnight in a shopping center when a bridge washed out, and dozens of other people had to be plucked off rooftops or rescued from their cars. A gravel access road was built to let them out.
On Saturday, Tomblin was approved for a major federal disaster declaration to get help for Greenbrier and the two other counties hardest hit by flooding. Tomblin’s office said he made an expedited verbal request Saturday to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for individual assistance for Kanawha, Greenbrier and Nicholas counties. Individual assistance includes housing and crisis counseling.
Some of the heaviest rainfall was in Greenbrier County, where The Greenbrier luxury resort and golf course is nestled in the mountains. The PGA Tour has canceled a tournament there from July 4-10 because the course is overrun by floodwaters.
“Cancelling The Greenbrier Classic is certainly the most prudent course of action as our foremost concern is the well-being of those who are having to live through this tragic situation,” PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem said in a news release Saturday. “Our thoughts and prayers are with them.”
Resort owner Jim Justice said the needs of flood-ravaged West Virginians are of utmost concern. Two health-care facilities at the resort will be open this weekend to provide care for residents. The resort will also offer a limited amount of free rooms and meals to those affected by the floods for as long as the resort is closed for business, Justice said in a statement Saturday evening.
“All of our focus needs to be on helping all of the people of our great state,” Justice said in a news release. “So many have lost loved ones, their homes, and have no place to go.”
An area near the West Virginia-Virginia border received at least 9 inches of rain while other parts of the state had 3 to 5 inches, National Weather Service hydrologist John Sikora said. A flood warning remains in effect for Greenbrier County until 6:30 p.m. on Saturday.
Others waited days to see their loved ones rescued.
Kari Townsend of Clendenin sat at a shelter in Charleston for most of Friday before her niece, Britani Shafer, and her niece’s five-month-old baby, Shay, made it to safety.
The mother and child had been holed up in a doctor’s office in flooded downtown Clendenin since Thursday afternoon, and started running out of baby formula. Shafer could only send a couple text messages to let her family know what was going on.
Shafer’s neighbor was able to get her out in a truck, and he drove the pair back to meet up with their family.
“There was not a dry eye, let me tell you,” Townsend said. “The baby is fine, (Britani Shafer) is good. It’s awesome.”
Scott Stroud in Nashville, Tennessee and Steve Helber in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to fix the spelling of the town Rainelle.