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Flash Flooding Leaves Three Dead

May 3, 2002

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KEYSTONE, W.Va. (AP) _ Heavy rain pounded a five-county area where West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky meet, sending normally quiet streams raging over their banks and into homes and streets. Authorities said at least three people were killed and others were reported missing.

The Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River and its tributaries began spilling their banks on Thursday as severe storms rolled through the region, with as much as 4 inches of rain falling in six hours.

West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise declared a state of emergency in McDowell County, and the National Guard sent two helicopters to remove stranded residents from their homes. At least two people died and eight others were missing, said Mark Rigsby of the state Office of Emergency Services.

In Virginia, rescue crews searched along Knox Creek in Buchanan County for five people who were unaccounted for. One body was recovered, said sheriff’s dispatcher Vicky Jones.

``People were tying themselves to trees. They couldn’t get helicopter assistance in; it was awful,″ Jones said.

Virginia Gov. Mark Warner said an estimated 200 homes had been damaged or destroyed in the area and at least eight people had been rescued, two from a rooftop and six from a stranded school bus.

In eastern Kentucky, water was up to the rooftops of homes in the towns of Freeburn and Majestic, both a few miles from the Virginia and West Virginia lines, said Ray Bowman, a spokesman for the state Division of Emergency Services. Some roads were under as much as 10 feet of water.

Authorities gave no numbers but said they were investigating several missing person reports.

More than 1,000 residents were evacuated from their homes along the Tug Fork on Friday morning, according to Doug Packett, director of emergency dispatching services in Kentucky’s Pike County.

West Virginia officials closed the flood walls Friday morning at Matewan and Williamson, in Mingo County, as the river continued to rise.

The town of Williamson is wedged between the river and railroad tracks in a narrow valley surrounded by steep, tree-covered mountains. Officials hoped the flood wall, built after flooding in 1977, would be high enough to keep the river out.

A spokeswoman with the Division of Highways said the McDowell County seat, Welch, was already isolated by the flood water. The only route still passable required a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

At Welch Community Hospital, one doctor’s car was ``standing on its nose,″ and a coal truck driver had to swim to safety in front of the hospital, said Willie Cooper, chief financial officer at Welch Community Hospital.

``The water was up past the hood of the truck,″ she said.

Fifteen students spent the night at Welch Elementary School after rock slides blocked a main road, preventing their parents from reaching them. The school staff brought them dinner from a nearby restaurant and read stories and played games with them into the night, Principal Jeffrey Nash said. Schools were closed in both McDowell and Mingo counties Friday.

Brenda Blankenship, postmaster of the Post Office in Hurley, Va., said Knox Creek started spilling into her town about 4:30 p.m. Thursday.

``It was like the mountain just opened up and water started to come out,″ Blankenship said. ``Everything is demolished. All the businesses in Hurley are gone, houses are gone. They’re just gutted.″

In all, Thursday’s storms knocked out power to more than 80,000 West Virginia homes and businesses, and more than 100,000 in Virginia.


On the Net:

U.S. Geological Survey: http://water.usgs.gov/cgi-bin/daily_flow

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