On Sept. 17, 2004, Hurricane Ivan parked over most of the Wheeling area and dumped a little more than 10 inches of rain in less than half a day. There were washed-out roads, schools evacuated, cars in creeks, people stranded, flash flooding and river flooding on Wheeling Island, and mountains of debris surveyed by local first responders, the Red Cross, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
But no one died.
This time two residents of Ohio County perished after they were swept away in flash flooding along Browns Run. Michael Alan Grow was discovered soon after 911 dispatchers received the first call and was transported to a local hospital, but he succumbed to the suffered injuries. Hundreds of hours worked by first responders and volunteers during an intensive and extensive search for 18-year-old Page Gellner ended when her step-father spotted her near the mouth of the Ohio River behind Wesbanco Arena.
More than three inches fell in Ohio County in less than 45 minutes on Sunday, July 23, and five days later nearly four inches of rain soaked areas in Ohio, Marshall, and Wetzel counties in less than three hours. Six counties were declared disaster areas by Gov. Jim Justice, and state and federal damage assessment teams continue to work in the neighborhoods hardest hit.
“I had never seen it like that,” said Lou Vargo, a 26-year veteran of the Ohio County Emergency Management Agency. “I’ve seen bad flooding before, but watching the weather approaching from the west this time didn’t help us because it developed just as it was entering this area. Most of the time we can track severe weather crossing the state of Ohio, but not this time. There were no issues in Belmont County at all.
“It hit a few areas the hardest, and that included the Browns Run area and the Woodsdale area. One of many who lives along Miller Street in Woodsdale measured the rainfall, and his gage indicated his property was hit with three inches of rain in only 36 minutes,” he said. “There’s a not a sewer system anywhere in the world that could have handled that much rain in that little of time.”
Death and Damage
Blackhawk helicopters and search planes flew above Ohio County for days, and when the aircrafts vanished from sight, residents prayed for a miracle and at least for closure for the Gellner family.
While members of the Moundsville and Benwood fire departments were searching the Ohio River, swift water teams and expert kayaker Zack Herron dared the rage of Big Wheeling Creek until water levels fell later last week. That is when they walked the waterway from Elm Grove to downtown with search dogs and volunteers.
It was not until the 18-year-old’s stepfather believed he saw something in the creek behind Wesbanco Arena was the young lady was recovered and a candlelight memorial took place on August 1 near the same location.
“We had first responders working the search, and we also had companies out to help the victims of the flooding. It was an incredible amount of work, but that’s why I firmly believe that the city of Wheeling has the best municipal fire department in the entire state,” Vargo insisted. “They worked in very dangerous waters hour after hour in the beginning of the week, and our deputies, police officers, and our 911 dispatchers are unsung heroes because of the work they accomplished. They were on a mission for Page’s family and friends.
“The employees of the city of Wheeling worked very hard, too, to clear all of the debris,” he continued. “This has been a continuous event for everyone involved, and we will enter our fourth week come Monday because of all of the cleanup that is still taking place. That is why we are hoping the federal government will combine the two weather events into one disaster declaration so we can get the needed funding and assistance.”
The West Virginia Department of Transportation released early this week that nearly $2 million in damage occurred to roadways in Wetzel, Marshall, and Ohio counties, according to District 6 Engineer Gus Suwaid.
“There are areas in both Ohio and Marshall counties that got hit pretty hard, and Wetzel County was hit pretty bad, too,” Suwaid said. “But, for us, we have to wait until the damage assessment is completely finished before we get to see what has been declared and what hasn’t been because that’s what controls the funding that we will have access to so we can address all of the issues as quickly as possible.
“What we do after weather like that is what we refer to as the ‘windshield survey,’ and that’s how we get a good idea of the damage,” he said. “And then the people who handle the disasters will be the ones who develop where we are and whether or not we crossed the disaster threshold.”
Suwaid said that while some roadways were damaged by the unusual amount of precipitation, the majority of the issues pertain to hillside slips that compromise the streets. The same was true in September 2004, when that storm caused more than 700 slips in District 6, and Suwaid was managing 600 active slip cases in the six-county area before the past two major weather incidents.
“And slips are our biggest challenge and have been for a while because of the weather and the age of the roadways. Every time we fix a slip, we have three more develop,” he explained. “It’s an endless battle, and that’s been the case even before the big flooding in 2004, and another part of it is funding. Our state is in a financial situation right now, and there’s too much work that needs to be completed, but we are working very hard every day to fix as much as we can.”
Longtime residents remember the flooding that took place in the small community 42 years ago at the same time the Ohio River crested slightly above the 36-foot flood stage in Wheeling, but Marshall County Commissioner John Gruzinksas said that’s the one and only comparison the residents can make.
That is why many of them are asking questions, and why the state’s Department of Environmental Protection is conducting an investigation on the human activity on the hill above the city, the commissioner said.
“Where did all of the rock and mud come from? That is a big question being asked right now, and that’s why the West Virginia DEP has already completed a preliminary investigation and completed a preliminary report,” Gruzinksas said. “Everyone is innocent until proven guilty, but there are some areas above McMechen that have been cleared and that may be where all of that debris and mud came from.
“I don’t wish to speak out of turn because the investigation process is still very active,” he continued. “Right now, it’s in the hands of the DEP in Charleston, and local officials are anticipating an investigator from there to come up and determine what occurred with the debris and mud that came down into McMechen.”
Before being elected last November to the Marshall County Commission, Gruzinksas served the county as sheriff for eight years, and as a state trooper for more than 20, so he’s experienced previous disasters. But this one?
“We’ve seen a terrific response by our first responders, volunteer organizations, and the National Guard, and we did get the state declaration, but it’s the federal disaster declaration that gets the money flowing,” he explained. “A lot of hard work has been done, and there’s a lot of hard work that will continue to get that area cleaned up.
“As a state trooper, I went to a lot of flooded areas in the entire state of West Virginia, and what took place in McMechen, in terms of damage in the aftermath is one of the worst disasters I’ve seen. If there was one worse, then I don’t remember it,” he said. “There are homeowners who may lose their homes along Jim’s Run because that was one of the hardest hit areas. It’s flooded there before but not to this extent. It’s just unbelievable because of the debris and all of that mud.”
W.Va. Del. Shawn Fluharty (D-3) volunteered in McMechen soon after the flooding and although his clothes, hands, and even his face were muddy afterward, he appreciated the chance to speak with the residents about their needs and concerns.
“Here in Ohio County we experienced a lot of surface water issues and flooded basements, but what they had in McMechen was different. Down there, just five miles south of Wheeling, those are residents who opened their doors to nothing but mud everywhere,” he said. “It looks like a hillside failed and just slid into that city.
“The only way those folks are going to be able to deal with all of the debris is with large trucks and bulldozers,” he said. “The National Guard was there until the end of the week, and several other organizations are working there to help the residents. If there are more people who want to volunteer, I urge them to get registered with those groups because it really does help with the coordination of all the efforts being made right now.”
Most environmentalists despise the term but it is one that has been used a number of times by residents and elected officials in the Northern Panhandle the past week.
It is activity the federal EPA has regulated, and the permit process is an extended one with several state agencies involved. Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott, however, has instigated a conversation with state lawmakers about granting municipalities in the Mountain State the ability to act when situations render it necessary.
“We received a lot of rain during those two occasions, so it’s unclear to me right now how we could have prevented anything from happening, but I do believe there are things that can be done to alleviate some of the high water and damage in the future,” the mayor said. “Some of our creeks and streams do need to be dredged, but they are all subject to state regulation, and that’s why I’m involved in those conversations so we can avoid the state getting in the way.
“We keep waiting on the state to do what needs to be done, but it could be many years or even decades before anything gets done,” Elliott said. “It only takes one or two areas where the water gets blocked by debris to experience some pretty major issues. Some of the damage that I saw was unbelievable, and I do believe there are ways we could prevent some of it with more tools as our disposal.”
Fluharty, too, believes the dredging process should take place within the Third District he represents along with Del. Erikka Storch (R-3).
“It has to happen, and I plan to introduce legislation to expand Home Rule so cities with Home Rule can navigate around the barrier involving the Department of Environmental Protection,” Fluharty explained. “Anything that goes through the state takes forever; we all know that, so I believe a city should have the ability to do what they feel is necessary, and many believe the time has arrived to address dredging.
“I don’t believe the state should be able to stop a city from doing what needs to be done,” he said. “I am working with Mayor Elliott and the city of Wheeling so we can get those issues addressed on the state level. I’m not an expert on this issue, but it appears to me that many areas are essentially clogged, and those areas have not been dredged for a very long time. We’re going to see horrible weather again; we know that, so this conversation needs to take place to find the best solutions.”
While Gruzinksas agrees with the mayor and state delegate, the commissioner recognized the fact the funding is just as large an issue when it comes to mitigating debris, silt, and waterway blockage issues.
“It’s definitely something that should be looked into and considered, but I can tell you that the Army Corps of Engineers, unfortunately, does not have any projects in their budget. They don’t have any money,” he reported. “That means we can’t even get them to come out and look. We have projects that have been sitting idle because we can’t get them to come here and assess things that they would want to take care of.
“There lies the problem right now, and while there are other agencies that likely would have something to say about dredging, most of the decisions rest with the Army Corps,” Gruzinksas explained. “The Army Corps would even hire the contractors to do the work, but with no money in the budget we’re stuck in the same place we’ve been for a long time.”
Funding is one of the obstacles Elliott has recognized while researching the details involved with the permit process and final approval for dredging projects, and another is the weather.
“I’ve looked into the process, and to do dredging like that you need a lot of agencies to sign off on it,” he said. “You also need the money to do it, and it’s a multi-million-dollar investment. We’re also making progress with the storm sewers, and there is a 10-year action plan in place, but that’s a $250 million project, and there’s not a lot of state or federal assistance available. We’re now looking at what grants might be available because we feel we need to expedite the process because of what has taken place recently.
“We do have to recognize that we are all here by the grace of Mother Nature, and if it’s your time, it’s your time,” Elliott said. “But I do hope that we do everything we can to realistically prevent floods like this in the future while also recognizing that we cannot stop every natural disaster.”
(Photos by Steve Novotney)