Greenbrier community memorializes flood victims
By JAKE JARVIS and LORI KERSEY
Jul. 30, 2017
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. (AP) — Becky Phillips can't imagine leaving this city.
She, her husband and their three kids lived at the edge of Mill Hill Drive in a one-story home they never intended to leave. With their green-and-white house nestled between the usually calm Howard's Creek and a small hill where their kids could run and explore, the couple imagined living here as they grew old.
The house is gone now, its foundation wiped clean off the land by last June's unusually strong flood. The flood washed away their sense of normalcy and claimed the life of their 14-year-old daughter, Mykala.
"We're from Tennessee, but there's nothing back there for us," Becky said. "There are no jobs back there. There aren't many here, but I still got my job at The Greenbrier. There's no reason to go back."
The further you venture down Mill Hill, fewer and fewer houses are left standing. The Phillips' home is gone, along with most of their neighbors. At the end of the road, where a slick mud coated everything for weeks, fresh sod now blankets the ground like a bandage for the scarred land beneath it. A jungle gym stands tall atop the buried foundations where generations of families grew up.
As communities across West Virginia remember the June 2016 flood that killed about two dozen people, White Sulphur Springs remembered the five they lost on Mill Hill: Belinda Scott, Hershel Nicely, Nataysha Nicely, Dakota Stone and Mykala Phillips.
To commemorate their lives, the land has been turned into Brad Paisley Community Park, named for the West Virginia native and country music star who officials say was the single biggest donor to the state's flood recovery. The neighborhood was one of the areas hit hardest by the disaster, and now it's a place to gather and remember.
Of the 11 houses that were in that area, only two remain standing. The rest were either washed away by the floodwaters or damaged beyond repair.
"It's a very popular destination right now," said Tom Crabtree, an architect for the nonprofit organization that developed the park. "Cars drive through all day. It's definitely kind of a symbol of the reconstruction of White Sulphur Springs."
Wherever Ronnie Scott goes, Dancer goes, too.
She's a squat brown dog, a mix of dachshund and Chihuahua, who usually sits quietly by his side. She's by his side at church, in the grocery store and she even straddles the back of his ATV as the two ride for hours down wooded trails. They are inseparable now.
"I wish she could talk," Ronnie said. "I'd love for her to tell the story about how her life has changed over the last few months just like mine has."
If Dancer could talk, she might tell you how often Ronnie cries now, and how the first time she saw tears well up in his eyes, she licked them off his cheek. The tears usually start to flow when he thinks about his late wife, Belinda Scott. Most people knew her simply as "Bee."
Ronnie goes to the park at Mill Hill Drive almost every day. He visits a tree there, the only thing his wife could reach to for safety during the flood. She clung to the tree alone for hours, her skin burning after their home exploded from a gas leak. The tree, now a memorial and a testament to Belinda's will to live, is covered with handwritten messages and a child's drawing of a bumblebee.
"That'll be sacred ground," Ronnie said. "It'll always be."
The park, and the houses that used to be at the end of the road, are like an island. On two sides, water from two creeks separates the land from the rest of the neighborhood. A steep and forested hill blocks the other. Because they were surrounded on all sides, many people were trapped when the flood hit.
Belinda and Ronnie couldn't predict the kind of devastation that was in store. Belinda figured there was enough time to move their lawn furniture onto the porch. Their son, Kevin Scott, had come by with his wife and two kids to help them. Ronnie was down the road moving their cars to higher ground.
The water rose fast. Belinda and her son knew they had to leave the area, so they started marching down Mill Hill through the floodwaters. Belinda went back to the house to grab a pet she had forgotten.
Kevin looked back, and his mom was gone. The water was up to his waist by then, and he and his wife hoisted their children high on their shoulders. They broke into a house next door to Belinda's and climbed the stairs to the attic.
Ronnie and Belinda were separated. She in the house, he on the hill. She called him to say she smelled gas. He told her to find his tools and break a window to let some of the gas escape so rescuers could get to her. She struggled to walk up the stairs while carrying the tools and her phone, so she said she would call him back.
"Well, I never did get that phone call," Ronnie said. "I was on the side of the hill when my house blew. And I knew when I heard that — I knew Belinda was gone."
But she wasn't.
The explosion blew her into the tree, and she clung there for hours. Kevin , trapped in the house next door, broke through a vent in the attic and talked to his mom through the night. She wailed in pain as his kids kept asking, "What's wrong with Mawmaw Bee?"
Ronnie and a few others eventually sought refuge inside a neighbor's house atop the hill.
"They said some kid down there was in the tree screaming and hollering, and I didn't know it was Belinda," Ronnie said. "That went on for hours and hours. I couldn't hear. They wouldn't even let me go out on the porch.
"That just was one big nightmare after another, and it'll always be."
When rescuers finally got to her, 70 percent of Belinda's body was burned. They rushed her to Cabell Huntington Hospital. When Ronnie finally made it there, she lay in a hospital bed tethered down with tubes and a ventilator. Standing at her bedside, Ronnie spoke her name. As she tried to respond, buzzers and alarms sounded, sending doctors and nurses running back in.
He pulled a doctor aside to ask him about the pain his wife was in.
The doctor told him, "It's unbearable pain."
Just days before the flood, Ronnie and Belinda euthanized their 17-year-old teacup Chihuahua. For two months, the dog had been having seizures. Ronnie said he knew the dog was in pain and needed to be put down, but he struggled to say goodbye.
"I told that doctor, I said for two months I made that little dog," Ronnie said, then pausing. "I said, 'It should have been done.' And that's when I asked him. I said, 'Can you make it where she don't have any pain for about two hours?'"
Belinda had the strength to hold onto that tree. Ronnie had the strength to let her go.
Dancer couldn't have known this was the world she was stepping into. Ronnie adopted her last fall, and at first, Dancer paid him no attention. But Ronnie will tell you someone was working to unite the two.
"I got an angel," Ronnie said. "And my angel, I think she talked to God that they ought to put me and Dancer together."
The Nicelys and most of their extended family members have lived in White Sulphur Springs for generations. Hershel Nicely, the patriarch of the family, made a career of fixing tanks for the U.S. Army. They crisscrossed the country and moved around the world for most of his younger years. About 20 years ago, he bought a house on Mill Hill from his cousin.
By then, most of his five children had grown up and started lives of their own. Hershel Nicely's youngest daughter, Nataysha, and her son, Dakota Stone, were living with him when the flood hit.
Elmar Nicely, his eldest son, lives in Amarillo, Texas, a 21-hour drive away. Before the flood hit, Elmar hadn't come home to West Virginia in 10 years. It was expensive to come home, and he struggled to pull together enough in savings to afford the trip.
"My family is close. There's never any kind of falling out with each other," Elmar said. "If there is, we'll get our butts whooped by my uncle and go on back about our business. There wasn't any kind of falling out, there's just life."
He called as often as he could. The last time he called his father was on Father's Day, a few days before the flood hit.
The last Elmar heard from Nataysha was from her Facebook page. As the floodwaters began to rise, his sister posted several pictures showing high water washing away her dad's truck and lapping at the front porch. Her posts turned frantic when the water came through the door.
She posted for the final time at about 3:45 p.m., telling family members the fire department was supposed to be on the way but no one had showed yet.
Elmar called her. No answer. He called again. No answer.
Shortly after the floodwaters receded, Hershel and Dakota's bodies were found on The Greenbrier's golf course. Nataysha's body also ended up there, but it wasn't dug out from under heavy debris for about a week.
Elmar packed his car and drove the 21 hours across the country, but there was nothing to come home to. The home had been wiped clean off its foundation. All that remained was a makeshift memorial of crosses and letters piled on the sidewalk that led to the home. The flood had washed away everything.
When Elmar visited the empty plot, all he found was a few of his dad's tools buried in the dirt.
The plot of land is now known as Nicely Park. A sidewalk cuts through it and stretches back to Howard's Creek, flowers and saplings lining the path.
"Dad raised us up to be men and handle what we need to handle," Elmar said. "Just to hear him, you know? Dad was always there for us, and that's gone."
For months after the flood, Elmar shut out his children, most of whom were away at college. Instead of confronting his grief, he said he felt lost and threw himself into his work. It wasn't until a few weeks ago, as the first Father's Day without his father approached, that he started working through the pain.
Elmar said he has stopped taking for granted that his family will be there the next day. He and his wife plan to move back to the East Coast to be closer to their family and children in college.
"We realized we're too far away from our family," Elmar said. "Our family — our roots — are back there. We're going to go back home."
When floodwaters ripped the Phillips' home off its foundation, it might have kept floating down the road if a tree hadn't been there to stop it.
There was never any hope of repairing it. Two Mickey Mouse dolls, a broken watch, a small collection of seashells and a few pictures hanging on the wall — that's all the family saved from Mykala Phillips' bedroom before they moved into a new home just five minutes down the road. The pictures sat untouched in a white trash bag until a month ago.
"Mykala loved music," said her mother, Becky Phillips, pulling a colorful picture of a music note from the bag. "We bought lots of these at the dollar store for her."
The flood came fast — too fast for Mykala and her family to get out. Becky was at The Greenbrier, where she works in housekeeping, when she called her family to tell them to get out if they could. They had already called 911 for help. A dispatcher told them to stay put, that someone would be there to save them.
No one came.
A wave of water hit the house. Jayson Phillips, the eldest child, grabbed a bunch of extension cords lying around the house. He tied himself to his family in a line — first his father James Phillips, then himself, then his younger brother Carter. Mykala asked to be at the end to help support Carter, who hadn't yet learned to swim.
The flood was stronger than the extension cords. When the family jumped out of the window into the cold water, one cord broke, and the water dragged Mykala away.
James tried to keep hold of his two other kids. Belinda Scott, clinging to a tree just yards away, hollered at them, telling them grab onto a neighbor's house, break a window and climb in.
Submerged to his neck in water, James blocked his children from an onslaught of debris. About 20 of his teeth were knocked out.
"They know what happened, they just don't talk about it," Becky said. "Carter doesn't because he's young — he's 8. Jayson, he probably does talk about it to his friends, but he doesn't with us. They talk about Mykala a lot.
"They talk about her, but they don't talk about the flood."
The Phillips' new home has become a place of refuge. Besides the family of four and their three dogs, teenagers and other pets that need shelter come and go as they need to. The family recently rescued a dog that was tied up with a chain down the road. One of Jayson's friends lives in the spare bedroom, and Mykala's boyfriend stops by every day. He calls Becky his mom.
"These kids are all my kids. I'm like a momma bear — I'll take them all in," Becky said. "I've got a bunch of them, but I'll take them all."
She was at work the day of the flood, normally a 15-minute walk from home. That day, it took more than two hours to get to the beginning of Mill Hill. The water was too strong to keep wading through.
Nowadays, Becky keeps her kids closer than ever. She said she likes them to stay home as much as possible, and she looked forward to school finally letting out so they could all spend more time together. She wants them close, but she, too, needs time alone.
Becky and Carter like to visit the end of Mill Hill Drive and the new park whenever they can spare a few minutes. Becky visits Mykala's grave, too, but not as often as she would like.
Whenever James talks about leaving the area, his wife doesn't entertain the discussion.
"I'm not going to leave Mykala up here," Becky said. "I refuse to do that. I will stay here the rest of my life, probably."
'Neighbors loving neighbors'
The forecast called for rain.
Gray clouds rolled over White Sulphur Springs Friday afternoon. Meteorologists warned of flooding, but only occasional bouts of rain dampened the ground. Hundreds stood just off of Main Street holding umbrellas, ready to face whatever storm came their way.
"When you pass through the waters, I will be with you," Cathy Rennard told the crowd, quoting a scripture from the Bible. "And when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you."
Minutes after the memorial service started, the sky cleared. One by one, Rennard read the names of the 23 known flood victims from across West Virginia.
The names of eight people lost from the surrounding areas are etched into a memorial near the city's gazebo. A local Boy Scout made it for his Eagle Scout project. If you follow the walking path through the two walls of the memorial, it leads to Nicely Park and onto Brad Paisley Community Park.
Mill Hill Drive's two remaining houses have been refurbished for use as a community building and a caretaker's cottage for the park.
Many of the Mill Hill residents have moved into new homes at Hope Village, a new housing development about 10 minutes away. Others will move in soon. On the lots they traded, two nonprofit groups — Homes for White Sulphur Springs and Main Street White Sulphur — developed the park.
It has a playground named for Mykala Phillips and a memorial at the tree Belinda Scott clung to after the explosion. The park land will be owned and maintained by Main Street White Sulphur Springs.
For the first anniversary of the flood, the city of less than 2,500 people attempted a monumental task: restoring a sense of normalcy to the people still living there. In the year that passed, people stepped up to fill the city's new needs.
Main Street went from planning a festival or parade every now and then to managing acres of property. Audrey VanBuren, a member of the White Sulphur Springs City Council, funneled the grief of losing her mother-in-law Faye VanBuren and sister-in-law Melissa Beichert into helping construct the memorial near the gazebo.
"There's one thing I want us all to remember," Audrey VanBuren said. "On that day, and on the days that followed, we chose to be loving, kind and forgiving — to be neighbors loving neighbors."
Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, http://wvgazettemail.com.