THE FLOODS OF MAY 2 2002
After the floods of July 2001, residents of the coal fields warned it would happen again. Government officials mostly scoffed. Then the rains came at the beginning of May.
This time it was mostly McDowell County, with a small slice of Mingo County into Williamson and then on into eastern Kentucky and southwestern Virginia. The destruction wasn't as wide. But where it was bad, it was worse than some of the most damaged areas of last July.
Cars buried by mud and rocks in Panther.
A home full of rocks in Ritter Hollow states: "NY City got theirs on 9-11-01. We got ours on 5-02-02."
Bob Gates and I spent five days filming, photographing and interviewing in the flooded areas of McDowell County. In July 2001 (home page and stories), we examined valley fills at nine mines and found all had eroded and contributed to flooding. This time we found no large active mountaintop mining or valley fills near heavily damaged areas. However, we found numerous timbered areas, old slate dumps, deep mines, old surface mines and areas that had been bared by forest fires. Even more disturbing were the several places. such as Northfork, Matoaka and Landgraff, that were hit by nearly identical flooding patterns as in the previous summer. In North Fork, the same slate dump above Worth collapsed and sent coal on the same journey down the creek to the some of the same people's homes.
Several other communities that experienced the worst damage were new to flooding. The devastation of Ritter Hollow may equal that last summer in Booger Hollow below the Princess Beverly mine in Dorothy, Raleigh County. Freddie Steele summed it up with the statement painted on his trailer in the photo above. In Coalwood, one of the prettiest and most robust communities in McDowell County, at least 80 percent of the homes were damaged or destroyed. A wire fence was all that saved the shuttle statue in the park.
Only the fence saved the shuttle display in Coalwood from being washed away.
Coalwood is surrounded by timbering. We walked up one logging site where the roads ran straight up the mountain. They were severely eroded from the water gushing down. Many cut logs had jammed up the creek. The mountains along one side of Coalwood were heavily burned in a forest fire in the mid-1990s. Division of Forestry officials blame some of the flooding on the forest fires. Local residents blame the timbering as well.
Unlike mining, timbering is overseen by the Division of Forestry within the
state Department of Commerce. Though Forestry officials maintain West Virginia
has one of the toughest sets of timbering rules, these are essentially just
voluntary best management practices. The legislature did enact the Logging
Sediment Control Act in 1992. Loggers now must be licensed and certified in
their abilities to fell trees safely and follow Best Management Practices to
control sediment runoff into streams. For example, 100 feet on each side of
perennial and ephemeral streams should be untouched, so it can filter runoff
from the logging site. Trees can be cut in this buffer zone, as long as exposed
soil is seeded immediately. No treetops should be left in streams. Roads should
not have more than a 10 percent gradient, 15 percent for short distances of less
than 200 feet. Roads should turn often, for long straight stretches increase
velocity of runoff. Water-barshorizontal ditches across roadsshould be used to
slow and divert runoff. Within seven days after logging ends, skid roads and
landings must be reseeded.
A log jam of cut timbers in a creek above Coalwood.
Unlike July 2001, Division of Forestry inspectors hit the ground soon after the flood and went to every timbered site in seven watersheds. If there was flood damage at the bottom of the hollow, inspectors generally walked back to the logged area, according to Jim Circle of the Division of Forestry Beckley office. They also mapped all the timbered areas on large maps hanging on the office walls. Not all the maps were finished when Bob Gates and I visited in early June. However, I was able to shade in (pink blobs) more a dozen timbered areas along Route 52 between Windmill Gap and Roderfield (see below). A map on the Panther page shows the timbered sites there.
Just as in July 2001, land alterations from timbering and mining contributed to the flooding, we found in explorations on the ground and in the air. However, the two large mountaintop mines in McDowell County were just outside the flooded areas, and their valley fills did not erode. One is on the Virginia border below Skygusty, while the other is the Bluestone mine stretching from the McDowell County line north of Kimball to Pinnacle Creek just south of Pineville. This year, the heavy runoff came more from the numerous logged areas, from the multitude of old slate dumps that riddle the hollows, from the old deep mines oozing water, and from at least one sprawling old reclaimed surface mine between Roderfield and Avondale. We didn't just look at maps of timbered and mined areas. Just as we did after the July 2001 flood, we walked the hollows to find the disturbed lands and talked to local residents and looked at their photos. That way we confirmed that the logging and mining was connected to excessive runoff.
Again what was so surprising about the flood was not that the rivers and streams at the bottom of the valleys swelled out of their banks and surged out into nearby homes and businesses in the flood plains. This certainly was devastating--and somewhat preventable. But heavy rains do cause the creeks to rise. What was shocking, just as last July, were the houses on the hillsides and at the top of hollows that were filled with rocks and mud or even swept away. What was also surprising were the tiny creeks in narrow hollows that turned into rivers in minutes, usually fueled by runoff from some kind of land disturbance above them. We passed several blown-out hollows that we later investigated more closely and found timbering or old mining on the hillsides.
In some cases, people watched the streams during the floods and knew by their color what land disturbances were feeding the flow. Eva Sue Rash, the Mayor of Anawalt, stood by the town hall during last July's floods and saw the brown water of Little Creek coming from Leckie and knew logging was up there. Behind her came the black water of Tug Fork, traveling up from the old mines and slate dumps in Jenkin Jones. This May, Anawalt got a smaller flood. Cut logs came down the Tug Fork, remnants of a new logging job, Rash said.
Lifelong residents find other reasons for the flooding as well. North Fork Mayor Nick Mason, 80, had never seen floods like those of this year and last. He knows his community like the back of his hand, every mine, every slate dump, every stream. He puts the most blame on the lack of dredging. He believes the creek beds are six to eight feet higher than when he was a boy. He also notes that the saplings that grew on the stream banks are now huge trees and topple whenever the ground gets wet, blocking up the bridges and culverts.
I spoke with relief workers from Christian Reform World Relief in Michigan who had been to eight other major floods, including the Red River flood at Grand Forks, North Dakota. The May 2002 flood was unlike any they had ever seen. Others come slowly, with considerable warning, because they involve major rivers rising out of their banks. The water spreads across the flatlands and into basements. Ken Van Ess watched a home video soon after he arrived in McDowell County from his home in Minnesota. "At first, they were having a good time watching, almost like a carnival, " he remembered. "Then all of a sudden the water started coming heavier. Next thing, a car and truck came, and then a house started coming down the river. That's the difference: the flowing down. Most typical floods spread out."
More details on each community can be found by clicking on the name at the top of the page. If you want to learn about and see photos of timbering, look at Coalwood, Premier, Panther, Roderfield and Skygusty. For old slate dumps, look at Northfork and Kimball. Ritter Hollow, the most devastated community, was impacted by gas lines, timbering and old surface mines. Matoaka, too, has a combination of land disturbances. Gary had a huge spill from a slurry impoundment.
After the July 2001 floods, Gov. Bob Wise ordered the Department of Environmental Protection to study whether timbering and mining contributed to the flooding. After investigating the flooding at two hollows with mining and some timbering, Scrabble Creek and Seng Creek, and one with no new mining, Sycamore Creek, DEP did find that mining and timbering made the flooding worse. Taking the position, that any increase in runoff is unacceptable, DEP wants the legislature to enact stronger controls on mining and timbering. Most importantly, valley fills would be built from the bottom up, not constructed by dumping rocks over the edge from above and letting them land anywhere. The Governor must now approve the recommendations and the Legislature must pass them as emergency rules, with a vote coming probably at the September interim session. (See more on the study).