Rain falling like it would never end has changed the meaning of summer in this tiny corner of Appalachia.
When the downpour finally stopped in White Sulphur Springs on June 23, 2016, five lives had been lost along one road alone — Mill Hill Drive. And 23 people were dead statewide in West Virginia’s worst flooding since 1985.
As the floodwaters receded, a muddy landscape of ruined homes and businesses, wiped-out roads and bridges and devastated lives emerged in hard-hit Greenbrier County. Then there followed an army of volunteers, donors and government workers, rallying to help.
On the anniversary of those rains, a memorial wall, museum and a series of parks linked by sidewalks around Mill Hill Drive will be dedicated Friday on behalf of victims and the community. It’s a place where nearly a dozen businesses have re-opened, and few here are untouched by tragedy.
“It’s a time of celebration and rebirth,” said City Council member Audrey Van Buren, who lost her mother-in-law and sister-in-law in the disaster. “It’s about everyone in our town, and how the volunteers have flocked into town to help us to rebuild. It hasn’t been hundreds. It’s been thousands of people since day one who have poured into the city. We’ve been so blessed.”
Teenager Cameron Zobrist pitched a memorial wall as an Eagle Scout project. It was built with donated material and labor. Now on Mill Hill Drive, a sidewalk leads to a rose garden on the property of Debra Nicely, who lost her husband, daughter and grandson. The bodies of Hershel Nicely, 68; Nataysha Hughes, 33; and Dakota Stone, 16, were found nearby.
Further along Mill Hill Drive, a playground honoring 14-year-old victim Mykala Phillips sits beside a garden memorializing Belinda Scott, 54. Scott’s home exploded after a gas leak and she clung to a tree for hours above the floodwaters, dying three days later. The tree is now surrounded by flowers and ornaments depicting her love for butterflies and bees.
“Her name was Belinda,” Van Buren said. “But everybody called her Bee.”
James and Becky Carter Phillips moved their two sons into a new home not far from the one where Mykala was last seen. Their daughter’s body was found weeks later.
With memories still too vivid, James Phillips isn’t interested in revisiting his old neighborhood. His wife likes the idea of the museum and memorial, especially since she wouldn’t have to repeat the story of the flood to curious guests at the Greenbrier, where she works. The luxury resort also saw damage to its golf course, since repaired.
“I get asked so many questions all the time,” she said. “I could direct them right there and they can just look.”
Not long after the floods, ground was broken on Hope Village, a 42-home community for residents whose homes were destroyed.
Belinda Scott’s husband, Ronnie Scott, plans to move in with his dog, Dancer, adopted after the disaster. Debra Nicely was there for the groundbreaking. One of the streets is named Nicely Way.
In February, Nicely shared on Facebook an unknown author’s post about coping with grief by pretending life is fine. Last month, another post hinted at a return to normalcy after she assembled a backyard grill by herself, writing “GO ME!!!”
Elsewhere in Greenbrier County, the town of Rainelle, population 1,500, lost five residents and dozens of homes. And in nearby Kanawha County, where six people died, movement has been slow to patch destruction in two communities including Elkview, where a washed-out bridge made a mall inaccessible. Now the bridge is being replaced and two anchor stores are returning to the mall.
So many low-income homes in Rainelle were abandoned that some worried the community could lose its tax base. But now a Tennessee-based Christian ministry is building at least 50 homes and fixing others.
“The difference the volunteers are making in the lives of the homeowners is a powerful thing,” said Krista Williams of Rainelle, an AmeriCorps VISTA program volunteer, “and it’s creating a movement in this community like we’ve never seen.”
The state’s conservation agency is removing sediment from Rainelle’s flood-control channels. The nearby city of Lewisburg sent a street sweeper to clean Rainelle’s streets, once piled high with debris.
Spunky 70-year-old Mayor Andy Pendleton has dubbed Rainelle “Noah’s Ark” because of the rebuilding, but doesn’t want it to stop just yet.
“There’s so much more to do,” said Pendleton, who walked tearfully through the town’s devastated streets a year ago. “People need jobs. We need to make it ‘Why would people come to Rainelle to visit?’ I want a purpose for Rainelle.”