30 Hours: A personal account from the Clendenin, W.Va. flood

The following content has been graciously contributed by Zach Wright, W. Page Pitt School of Journalism and Mass Communications alumni. For more content and story updates, visit http://zzwright.com/30-hours/.

June 23

We were running late for our sister’s interview for Target. Garrett and I were letting Jasmine practice the route, having her merge onto lanes in high traffic times to get her the experience necessary to commute from Clendenin to South Ridge. After arriving, her interview didn’t start until roughly 3:30 P.M., while being originally scheduled at 3 P.M.

Who would’ve thought a slightly late interview would be so crucial.

When we were able to leave South Ridge at 4 P.M., the clouds were already menacing. Yesterday had produced some heavy rain, and today looked to be no different. However, as we traveled home, the intensity of the rain picked up, and by the time we reached Elkview, we’d decided to pull over and let Garrett handle the driving.

This was our first major mistake.

Garrett valiantly and expertly handled route 119, dodging standing water in his trusted Mazda 6. His impeccable driving skill carried us to Smith’s, the local grocery store, in the town of Clendenin. Smith’s lay right off the street we needed to access our home. Unfortunately, that street had been completely overridden by water, and only the largest trucks Clendenin had to boast were able to trapeze the obstacle.

Clearly, we weren’t getting home tonight.

So we acted. Sensing we may be waiting some time, we went to Smith’s and picked up some basic needs. We grabbed some snack foods, necessities for sandwiches, and a 24 pack of water. Preparing to wait for a few hours as the water had already begun subsiding a bit, our spirits were high and jokes were cracking.

On a trip back into the grocery store, we ran into Dave, an Insurance agent here in Clendenin who my sister had worked for filing papers during the summer. Earlier, our sister had asked a family, whose father is the pastor of a local church across the bridge in the town of Clendenin, if we would be able to stay the night in their house if we had to. They thankfully said yes, and had advised us to find Dave, who said he’d help us locate the spare key.

We left the parking lot of Smith’s and traveled across the bridge, immediately noting the substantial amount of debris battering into the bridge because of the high water. Praying the bridge wouldn’t fail, we parked our car up at the local church. (I can’t guess the exact distance, but we parked the car at least 100 feet from the water bank, and very possibly much more.) Already, we noticed the water was beginning to rise.

Leaving the car in a seemingly high place was no wrongdoing, but leaving our pack of water bottles was our second mistake.

We walked back to the parsonage of our family friends’, and began to set up camp. Dave had showed us where a leak had sprung through the ceiling, and how the basement had already flooded a few inches. Great, just avoid the basement and keep laying out towels. We took a walk around town to see the damage, and discovered the local library had been trashed by water already, the post office had accrued tons of mud and rubble outside of it, and roads were caked with debris. People were riding their side by sides and other various machines to get around, while the large trucks of Clendenin ruled supreme. From our vantage point across the river, we were able to see the parking lot of Smith’s, and the Speedway right beside it.

Both were already submerged.

Dave left to check on the people in the town (this became a common theme), and we were settling in the house (and being intimidated by their cat) when the situation became increasingly dire.

The power had gone out.

We took a moment to calm ourselves. It was around 9 P.M. now, so darkness enveloped the setting around us. We sprung into action, immediately searching the house for supplies, and most importantly, flashlights. Thankfully we found plenty of them in a basket near the kitchen, although the batteries would have to be changed. The spare batteries were located in the basement, which had noticeably flooded more in the few hours we’d been in the house. My brother reached in to grab them, while I held onto him to lessen his chance of falling. We safely acquired them, and hooked each flashlight with fresh batteries.

This quick and decisive action was beyond helpful throughout the rest of the night.

Dave came over to see how we’re doing, and by this time the water had risen up to the steps leading onto the porch. The house, being located along the river bank, but somewhat higher up, was already faring much better than the ones to the left. Already water had begun creeping into the house to the left of us, and the curtain of despair was dropping over the town rapidly.

We acted quickly again to gather all the food, water, and supplies we could, including some packaged water bottles. Racked with regret by leaving the other water bottles in the car, we decided to take what we had and go upstairs for the night. By now, midnight had approached, and one last look out the front door confirmed we’d be taking some serious water that night. The water had overtaken the front steps and was spilling over the porch, while the houses to our left had already begun taking serious water.

We didn’t get much sleep that night.


June 24

Early in the morning (around 3:30 A.M.) I saw my brother crawl back into the bed we were sharing. I asked him if the water had gotten in.

He nodded.

“How much?”

“It’s starting to come up the stairs now.”

Racked with fear, I tried (and failed) to sleep until around 4:30 A.M., and promptly woke at 5:50 at the first break of light into the room. I immediately popped up and checked where the water was. It had already overtaken the first three stairs going up to the second floor, although thankfully it appeared to crest. When I walked back into the room, my siblings were both already up and ready. We began rationing food out when my sister made a startling remark.

“Where is that cat?”

For background, the house we holed up in had two cats. One was a rather timid cat who was shy and sweet. Two had spent the night hissing and swiping at us any chance she had. We located One hiding out under a bed, while Two was nowhere to be found. My brother walked down the steps as far as he could and listened, while we remained silent. He claimed to have heard the cat crying out somewhere on the first floor, but he wasn’t certain where.

My sister, ever the kind hearted animal lover, sprung into action. The family whose house we stayed in had a daughter nearly her size, so Jasmine was able to slip into the other girl’s water boots and sweatpants. She found a basket, and took one small step into the water to make sure everything was okay. No electric current seemed present, so Jasmine pushed onward into the living room. Some time later she came back, cat in basket and water up to her chest.

Jasmine stands at 5’4, and the water had come halfway up her torso.

After Jasmine changed clothes, we sat down for some time, unable to do anything but wait. Jasmine told us how the living room we were staying in just hours beforehand was now overflowed with water and mud, and furniture had been tossed aside like dirty laundry. We weren’t able to do anything but wait for the time being.

We had found two laptops to charge our phones as much as possible, but both laptop batteries had diminished by the morning. With our phone charges all sitting around 50%, we knew we could make it last through the day, but beyond that was chancing it. We had to be smart with our phone usage, our water and the food supplies. We had some chips, Twizzlers, and granola bars but not much else. Garrett recommended we look for non-perishable, sealed foods once the water recedes in the house somewhat, and we agreed to do so. Jasmine had been communicating with Dave next door, and we soon learned he had no water, and he had three people in his house.

It was a no-brainer; we decided to cut our water supply in half and get some to Dave and his people in the house. Dave waded over to our house, and I threw him water bottles attached to yarn so they would be lost in the water in case he missed the catch. After cutting the yarn he’d pick them up, and he had a few water bottles with him as he waded back to his house. We knew we had water back at the car. Only problem now was getting to the car.

We already expected the worse for the car, by the way. We couldn’t see the church parking lot from any window, but we could see the church. The water had risen over a third of the church.

We knew canned food had to exist in the house. We just had to find where. Around noon, the water had begun noticeably falling, and had receded to the first step on the staircase to the second floor. We suited up with sweatpants from a goodwill bag and descended into the house looking for food. Upon entering the first level, we immediately noted the conditions around us. Furniture had thrown around, the couch was upside down, tables were thrown around.

And we hadn’t yet reached the kitchen.

The refrigerator was slanted sideways, and even now I’m not sure how it was held up. All the cabinets had been flushed with muddy water, and strangely enough, the cat litter box was placed on the kitchen counter (we later surmised the water must have lifted the litter box from the adjacent room and brought it to rest on the counter. We know, it’s weird.). We did eventually find the canned food in a cabinet (thank goodness for SPAM) and carried up our food to the second floor. At this time, the water had begun receding enough outside to walk, although it was still around hip height for my brother and I. We decided to take a hike to the car, and see for ourselves what lay at the church parking lot.

Our fears about the car were confirmed when a neighbor had to take us to the parking lot in a boat.

I could feel my brother’s heart sink at the sight of his car. The Mazda was covered in mud, showing clear signs that water had overtaken every inch. We rummaged through and found the water bottles, dirty on the outside but otherwise sealed. We rode back in the boat, now more aware of the damage around us, and feeling the loss (although on a much smaller level) that those around us felt at the sight of their own cars, and even worse, their homes.

My brother and I decided to walk to town, since the bridge was no longer covered in water and able to cross somewhat safely. On arrival to the other side, we confirmed what we thought we saw from the across the street last night. The Smith’s parking lot was submerged, and water completely covered the main road we needed to get to our house. Likewise, more damage that I hadn’t known of before become readily apparent. The local Dairy Queen, a favorite and well-renowned best ice cream place in West Virginia front end had collapsed. A passerby stranger confirmed the entire restaurant had been submerged the night before, and the way had reached the grocery store’s front entrance. No matter where we had left the car, it would’ve been submerged.

But the car only served as a metaphor for the town; if anything was level with the river bank, the water swiftly met it the previous night. And engulfed it.

We traveled back to the house, and waded inside. Dave walked by soon after, and we handed him as much SPAM as he could carry and sent him on his way. I promptly wiped off and took a nap, exhausted already from the day.

When I woke again, the water had again receded. The house was mostly empty of water, but the mud still reigned supreme. We decided to venture once more into town, where we saw other family friends who had lost cars, our neighbors who spent the night on a hill in their car, and lastly, a high school baseball teammate of mine who lived on my road. He was driving a large truck, and told me he was going to try to make it to our road through an alternate route. I told him to call me if he gets through and comes back out, and he said he’d give us a ride home if he does.

We went back to work in the house, salvaging what we could and communicating with Dave and other residents. Giant piles of debris had piled up along the bridge, but the water had dropped enough for it to slowly creak through. The water was starting to leave, and the town was roaring back to life. People were out and about, seeing if anybody needed water or food. It was an experience I’ll never forget I was a part of. And to cap it off, around 7:30 P.M., I received a call from my friend that he had made it through, and was planning to come back again if we wanted.

So we packed our things, prepared the house, got the cats together, and awaited his arrival.

Around 9:15 P.M. we began our trek back home in my friend’s truck.

We arrived safely around 10:45 P.M. No water or electric, but we were home. And that’s what mattered most.

Some final thoughts about this entire ordeal I’d like to point out.

Clendenin rallied as a town and worked together during the crisis hours and the hours following, and it was needed. People provided for each other and all those around us, and the livelihood of Clendenin survived even as homes and cars were demolished.

You don’t even want to know how we used the bathroom. And Sarah, I’m sorry I had to borrow the pink shorts. They were pretty fly though.

Dave was an outstanding neighbor who provided for us in any way he could, as we tried to repay the favor back to him. We were so lucky to have him. Also, Alex, my friend who drove us home. You’re an incredible driver and person.

And lastly to our friends’ who let us borrow their house – we are so sorry for everything that has happened. We are beyond thankful and immensely in your debt for letting us stay there. Thank you from the very bottom of our hearts, and if we could be of service to you as you try to recover from this, never hesitate to contact us.