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Guardsmen Go After Isolated Flood Victims

November 9, 1985

Undated (AP) _ Floodwaters that killed 45 people and caused millions of dollars in property losses in Virginia and West Virginia were slowly falling today, as National Guard combat engineers began plowing through tons of debris blocking 16 miles of roads.

The guardsmen, using tractors, bulldozers and dump trucks, witnessed some of eastern West Virginia’s worst destruction, said Capt. Rebecca Davison of the West Virginia National Guard.

In some areas of the state isolated by the torrential flooding, emergency crews have been reduced to ″yelling from the ridges″ as they seek 44 people missing since the rivers receded, officials said Friday.

West Virginia Gov. Arch Moore today authorized state police Superintendent W.F. Donohoe to deputize ″sheriff’s departments, local police, conservation officers and, if necessary, individuals in the street″ to help in disaster relief efforts.

The Appalachian flooding, brought on by four days of heavy rains, killed 22 people in West Virginia, 21 in Virginia, and one each in Pennsylvania and Maryland, officials said.

Pendleton County in West Virginia was the most isolated, and emergency workers today are still trying to reach some outlying areas cut off for as long as four days.

Guardsmen opened contact Friday to the Pendleton County community of Smoke Hole, cut off by rising floodwaters on Monday.

″They took vehicles as far as they could, then walked,″ Sgt. Ed Clay of the 150th Armored Cavalry unit said of the unit that opened the way to the town.

The floods washed away entire communities, destroyed an estimated 4,000 homes and caused at least $200 million in damages in West Virginia, officials said.

Thirty-three of the state’s 55 counties experienced flooding and 22 - with a combined population of more than half a million - suffered major damage, state officials said.

Red Cross volunteers streamed into West Virginia Friday from as far away as Louisiana to help collect and deliver food and clothing.

In Virginia, officials estimated damage at more than $650 million from flooding that ravaged western Virginia and turned low-lying areas of downtown Richmond into a muddy lake.

Officials said the death toll in the state reached 21 Friday with the discovery of the body of Robert John Wichser of Woodstock, a former aide to the late Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois, Rep. Paul Findley of Illinois and Rep. Ed Zschau of California, 18 miles downstream from where he disappeared.

The James River at Richmond dropped to below flood stage today, after cresting nearly 22 feet above flood stage on Thursday, the National Weather Service said, leaving city officials with a cleanup that could take up to two weeks. The high water swept raw sewage from the city’s closed treatment plant into the river.

Janet Clements of the state Department of Emergency Services said she expects the damage in Richmond to top $100 million.

Eight counties in eastern West Virginia, including Pendleton, have been declared federal disaster areas. Town by town, Davison said, the National Guard unit encountered worse and worse destruction.

In the town of Riverton, where 150 residents were surrounded on three sides by the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River, more help was needed than the crew could provide, she said.

″Riverton? The town is just about washed away,″ Davison said. ″Brick buildings were torn from their foundation, school buildings are gone - completely moved off their foundation.″

″I would be surprised if Riverton rebuilds itself. The river was originally on one side of the highway. Now it has two or three channels,″ she said.

In addition to plowing away debris, National Guard units delivered drinking water to scores of communities whose supplies were contaminated by dead livestock and sewage from swamped treatment plants.

″You can see dead turkeys all over the place,″ Davison said.

Agriculture Commissioner Gus Douglass said Friday that West Virginia’s agriculture and forestry land suffered $44.6 million in damage and that the figure could rise to $65 million.

He said 4,000 acres have been ″seriously to totally damaged″ and that 10,000 more have been ″moderately to heavily damaged,″ and that 1 million turkeys and a like number of chickens were lost in Pendleton County alone, along with 3,000 cows. Another 750,000 chickens and turkeys were lost in Hardy County, along with 2,000 cows.

Virginia officials were awaiting a response from President Reagan on Gov. Charles S. Robb’s request that 11 localities in western Virginia be declared disaster areas.

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