One of the worst flood disasters in West Virginia history has left thousands without power, ruined hundreds of homes, and taken at least 23 lives (Sunday’s toll was lowered on Monday morning after two missing people were found alive). The floodwaters coursed through several valley towns in southeastern WV from late Thursday into Friday after multiple lines of heavy thunderstorms “trained” through the area along a stalled frontal boundary. The first wave of storms arrived Thursday morning after having ripped through the Midwest overnight with high winds and more than a dozen tornadoes. Damage and injury from that severe weather ended up less than expected, whereas the West Virginia flooding was far worse than anticipated, although a flash flood watch was issued by the National Weather Service a day in advance. At least 500 homes were destroyed or severely damaged in Roane County alone, according to the WV Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Neighboring Greenbrier County was also very hard hit, especially the small town of Rainelle, where at least 15 people died. The flood damage extended to the Old White TPC golf course in White Sulphur Springs, home of the annual PGA Tour’s Greenbrier Classic golf tournament. This year’s tournament, which had been scheduled for July 7-10, has been cancelled. Power remained out for more than 10,000 people on Sunday afternoon, three days after the flood began.
A flash flood watch is in effect Monday for a large swath of southern WV and neighboring areas. Although widespread heavy rains are not expected to recur, even localized downpours could exacerbate problems in the worst-hit places. Ominously, a flash flood warning was issued for Summers and Greenbrier Counties at 10:56 AM EDT, as showers and thunderstorms were already expanding in that area with intensification expected this afternoon.
Figure 1. Mark Lester cleans out a box with creek water as he cleans up from severe flooding in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., Friday, June 24, 2016. Image credit: AP Photo/Steve Helber.
Figure 2. Jay Bennett, left, and step-son Easton Phillips survey the damage to a neighbor’s car in front of their home damaged by floodwaters as the cleanup begins from severe flooding in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., Friday, June 24, 2016. Image credit: AP Photo/Steve Helber.
Figure 3. Numerous bands of thunderstorms rolled east-southeast across the heart of West Virginia, as shown here in NWS NEXRAD radar imagery from 1729Z (1:29 pm EDT) Thursday, June 23, 2016. Reds and oranges indicate the highest reflectivities and heaviest rain. Image credit: NCAR/RAL Real-Time Weather Data.
Based on radar and other data, Tye Parbyzok (MetStat) estimates that the highest 24-hour rainfall amounts observed in West Virginia last week would be expected to recur less than once every 1000 years on average (see Figure 2). A growing body of research shows that the ever-increasing amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is intensifying the heaviest rainfalls observed in many parts of the world, and models indicate this trend will continue. According to one study highlighted in the 2014 U.S. Climate Change Assessment, a two-day rainfall that might have occurred only once every five years in the early 20th century has become almost 40% more frequent since then, with the greatest increase in the Northeast, Midwest, and Upper Great Plains. The amount of precipitation falling on the wettest 1 percent of days increased by 71% in the Northeast, including West Virginia, from 1958 to 2012. Climate-related trends in flooding are more difficult to assess, since flooding depends on land-use practices as well as atmospheric variables. The beta website Climate Signals has a page devoted to climate-change factors relevant to the West Virginia floods.
Figure 4. Maximum 24-hour recurrence intervals for rainfall from 9:00 pm EDT Tuesday, June 21, through 8 pm EDT Friday, June 24. A swath of southern West Virginia experienced 24-hour rainfalls that would be expected to recur less than once every 1000 years. MetStat computed the recurrence interval statistics based on gauge-adjusted radar precipitation and frequency estimates from NOAA Atlas 14 Volume 8, published in 2013. MetStat provides free access to their near real-time precipitation ARI analyses at their website and Facebook page. Image credit: MetStat, Inc.
U.S. flood toll is running high in the 2010s Based on its single-state toll, West Virginia’s flash flood is the nation’s deadliest in a number of years. Flash floods are notorious for taking only a few lives at a time, which obscures their cumulative impact on the nation. Last year was a particularly tragic example, thanks in large part to relentless onslaughts of heavy rain and resulting flash floods and river floods in Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri. In the National Weather Service database of severe weather fatalities (which counts flash and river flood deaths separately from hurricane fatalities), flash and river floods killed 176 people in the United States in 2015. That statistic got little notice, but it’s in fact the largest such total in more than 30 years, ever since 204 lives were lost in 1985. Over the decade 2006-2015, a total of 844 people were killed in U.S. flash floods and river floods, with more than 100 lives lost in 2010 and again in 2011. Disconcertingly, more than half of the past decade’s flood deaths (a total of 446) occurred in vehicles, despite the growing use of the NWS mantra “Turn Around, Don’t Drown.”
2015: 176 deaths, 112 in vehicles 2014: 38 deaths, 16 in vehicles 2013: 82 deaths, 37 in vehicles 2012: 29 deaths, 11 in vehicles 2011: 113 deaths, 68 in vehicles 2010: 103 deaths, 45 in vehicles 2009: 56 deaths, 33 in vehicles 2008: 82 deaths, 39 in vehicles 2007: 89 deaths, 51 in vehicles 2006: 76 deaths, 34 in vehicles Total: 844 deaths, 446 in vehicles
West Virginia’s tragic flood history Last week’s flooding hit a state that could use a break. The rise of much-needed alternative forms of energy has brought hard times to the coal industry, and it’s likely that no state has been more affected than West Virginia. Yet the coal industry also played a major role in the state’s deadliest flood on record: the Buffalo Creek disaster of February 26, 1972. After days of heavy rain, a dam built atop coal slurry failed catastrophically above the town of Saunders, with the resulting wave of coal-blackened, sludgy water overtaking two other dams before cascading into more than a dozen unincorporated settlements downstream. In less than an hour, the flood wave swept through the valley, killing 125 people and injuring more than 1100, with some 500 homes destroyed. Although several commissions pinned the blame for the disaster on practices of the Pottstown Coal Company, no indictments were returned and the company settled with the state for a fraction of the damages originally sought. The state’s Division of Culture and History has a moving website devoted to the disaster, which was explored by sociologist Kai Erickson in the 1978 book Everything In Its Path: Destruction of Community in the Buffalo Creek Flood. The website’s final page includes the names and ages of each victim, which serves as especially poignant testimony to this calamity--as does the 1975 film “The Buffalo Creek Flood: An Act of Man,” which is excerpted in the YouTube clip below, from the Kentucky-based Appalshop media center.