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Remembering the 1985 election day floods

Published: Nov. 4, 2020 at 8:44 PM EST|Updated: Nov. 4, 2021 at 4:21 PM EDT
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HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) -

It’s now been 36 years since historic flooding devastated parts of West Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley.

On November 4 and 5, 1985, heavy rain fell across the area. Big Meadows in Shenandoah National Park recorded nearly 18 inches of rain.

While other locations across the Valley recorded 4-11 inches of rain, the heavy rainfall, on an already saturated ground, caused rivers to rise. The high water led to many water rescues.

When the South River crested in Waynesboro, water damaged more than 200 homes and businesses in downtown.

The flood waters from Rt 33 in 1985 and comparing it to how it normally looks
The flood waters from Rt 33 in 1985 and comparing it to how it normally looks(WHSV)

The situation in West Virginia was even worse. The hardest hit areas included Pendleton, Hardy and Grant counties.

“Eight-hundred roads and bridges are blocked by high water or mudslides,” said WHSV anchor Ken McNulty during a newscast on November 5, 1985.

Known as NewsCenter 3 in 1985, WHSV covered the flooding 30 years ago. The Election Day flood devastated many parts of our viewing area.

“Seeing the town of Petersburg, and it just looked like a war zone,” said Jim Humphrey, who was a West Virginia state trooper when the flooding happened.

In late October 1985, Hurricane Juan moved across the Gulf Coast and dropped several inches of rain across the area.

Then, an area of low pressure developed, stalling out across the area on November 4. This is when the devastating flooding began.

“Telephone communications from here to West Virginia have been virtually non-existent, so we have no details about flooding in any particular area,” explained McNulty during the newscast.

Peggo Bobo-Alt had only been a Grant County dispatcher for a few months when the floods hit, “So all this debris would bank up in these canyons, it would create like a dam. And it would break loose with this unbelievable force.”

“The water came up all of a sudden,” said Humphrey, “and my state police vehicle started floating in the water.”

When the storm hit, Humphrey was responding to rescue calls. As roads began to flood, he was the one of those who needed to be rescued.

“I bailed out and I swam to the side of the mountain and I climbed up as far as I could get,” recalled Humphrey, who spent the night clinging to a tree, fighting off the cold and the heavy rain.

“I kept hearing these God awful sounds, crashing, and power lines popping, and the smell of propane tanks,” continued Humphrey.

He was rescued the next morning.

Many areas became cut off due to the severe flooding that washed away roads and bridges.

Butch Crites worked for the West Virginia Department of Highways at the time of the flood.

“We worked from daylight until way after dark, trying to put things back together. And get the roads open and get the debris out of them, there was all that stuff you had to get out of the road and it was just a big mess,” explained Crites.

Thirty years later, Bobo-Alt is now the Director of Emergency Services in Grant County. She has one memory that still haunts her to this day.

“We kept getting calls about these 12 people and we tried everything. People tried to come down from the north to get to them. People tried to get through Jordan Run to get to them. And there was no way to help those people. And eventually, the calls stopped coming. Because it got darker and the water got deeper,” said Bobo-Alt. “And you’re sitting there and you don’t know if that house is gone. You don’t know where they’re at. And there’s a point where even the best prepared people in emergency communications have to do just do some praying. Because there’s nothing else you can do.”

Out of the 12 people in that house, only one survived.

“I lost two good friends,” said Crites.

The emotions of the flood still running fresh through the minds of those who lived through it.

Thirty-eight people lost their lives in West Virginia due to the flooding.

Roads and bridges have been rebuilt and towns, including Petersburg, have been revitalized over the last few decades.

Improvements have been made to communication, and also river monitoring because West Virginia is so mountainous, most of the livable land is on a flood plain.

A levee was built in Petersburg after the 1985 flood, to prevent this tragedy from ever happening again.

Forty seven deaths were the result of the flooding in West Virginia.

The flooding led to 9 historic record crests with river gauges across our area, in Virginia and West Virginia.

These historic river crests in 1985 are still the current record holder at each of these sites.
These historic river crests in 1985 are still the current record holder at each of these sites.(WHSV)

MEMORIES

Here are some memories that some have posted on facebook:

Nancy Reffett: “Remember it well. We were unable to get to Ottobine to vote because roads connected to bridges were gone.”

Martine Clare LaPrevotte: “I will never forget it. The sights we saw at Clover Hill and Briery Branch. The devastation and threat of Switzer Dam possibly not holding due to damage. The first time I ever thought I may not be here tomorrow.”

Denise Carr: “We lived in Maysville West Virginia in 1985. Friends lost their homes and we lost a dear friend. We will never forget. So thankful God was with us!”

Mike Losh: “I lived on Middle river at the time. I watched a two story house float away before being destroyed by the river. Days later I found a muddy pink piggy bank full of old coins. I learned it belong to the daughter of the farmers spring house that washed away. It was at treasure chest to me but I returned it to her.

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