Remembering the Tragic West Virginia Flood of 1985

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On November 4th, 1985, it was raining in West Virginia. The remnants of Hurricane Juan had already arrived after making landfall in Louisiana on October 28th. However, the rain was coming down with high rates over several hours, which would ultimately lead to one of the worst flooding events in West Virginia history, causing a half billion dollars in damage, and destroying nearly 5,000 homes.

This YouTube video by the WV Public Broadcasting Association shows video of some of the flooding:

The setup for this historic flood is a bit complicated meteorologically. Hurricane Juan made landfall in Louisiana on October 28th, 1985 and generally moved north into Canada over the following days. On November 3rd, a low pressure area developed over Florida and moved northeast along a cold front. This northeast movement brought in a large area of moisture that had been influenced by the remnants of Hurricane Juan’s track. That area of low pressure moving into our region became cutoff from the main jet stream as it moved in late November 3rd. Due to a lack of upper level winds, the remnants remained over our area for about 2.5 days, causing extreme rainfall totals to be recorded before moving out on November 6th (Click gallery below to view images).

RAINFALL

The heaviest rainfall occurred during the late afternoon and evening hours of November 4th into the morning hours of November 5th. Rainfall was enhanced over the Appalachian Mountains due to the process of orographic lifting, a process where the terrain of mountains force air to rise, condense, and cause rainfall to occur. Though lower elevation towns such as Spencer, Grantsville, Elizabeth, and Charleston received generally 3-4″ as a result of the storm (which is still enough to cause localized flooding), the enhancement of rainfall caused by orographic lifting dumped rainfall totals in excess of 10 inches in Pendleton County. Parts of Tucker, Randolph, Pendleton, Grant, and Hardy counties all received in excess of 8 inches of rain as a result of the storm, which caused unprecedented flooding to these areas in particular. A wide swatch of eastern West Virginia (shown below) received over six inches of rain, which led to widespread flooding issues on several river basins, including but not limited to the Greenbrier, Cheat, Tygart, Little Kanawha, Buckhannon, and Potomac Rivers.

Rainfall totals were extreme across most of the eastern half of West Virginia, with a wide swatch of 6″ (shown in red) reported across the area. The highest rainfall totals occurred in Pendleton County, where close to 11 inches of rain fell (Click on image to zoom).

A total of approximately 4,389 homes were destroyed in West Virginia as a result of the flood. Nearly 1,500 of those homes alone were in Grant County. In addition, 762 homes were condemned, and 3,033 homes received major damage in the Mountain State. 131 busineses were destroyed, 23 businesses were condemned, and 474 businesses received major damage. 103 bridges were affected, 429 highways were affected, and 15 schools were affected as a result of this tragedy in West Virginia. It is estimated that over 2,500 people were left homeless, and damage was estimated at $500 million dollars in 1985. 47 people were killed. Ten water gauges in West Virginia recorded record levels. Water records are shown below, as well as a county-by-county analysis of damage received in each county, provided by the book “Killing Waters: The Great West Virginia Flood of 1985”.

Flood waters surge toward the truck as it attempts to make its way across a roadway along the Greenbrier River in Summers County (Courtesy of the West Virginia and Regional History Center).

WATER GAUGE RECORDS IN WEST VIRGINIA FROM THE 1985 FLOOD

  • Buckhannon River at Buckhannon: 30.2 feet (Flood Stage 23 feet), RECORD
  • Cheat River at Parsons: 24.3 feet (FS 18.5 feet), RECORD
  • Cheat River at Near Aurora: 32 feet (FS 19 feet), RECORD
  • Cheat River at Rowlesburg: 36.90 feet (FS 16 feet), RECORD
  • Greenbrier River at Renick: 29.00 feet (FS 17 feet), RECORD
  • Knapps Creek at Minnehaha Springs: 18.43 feet (FS 15 feet), RECORD
  • Little Kanawha River at Glenville: 36.46 feet (FS 23 feet), RECORD
  • Tygart Valley River at Belington: 23.65 feet (FS 14 feet), RECORD
  • Tygart Valley River at Philippi: 31.83 feet (FS 19 feet), RECORD
  • West Fork River near Clarksburg: 27.60 feet (FS 14 feet), RECORD
  • Greenbrier River at Buckeye: 23.20 feet (FS 15 feet), 2nd highest
  • Greenbrier River at Alderson: 23.95 feet (FS 14 feet), 2nd highest
  • Greenbrier River at Hilldale: 25.68 feet (FS 20 feet), 2nd highest
  • Potomac River at Paw Paw: 53.58 feet (FS 25 feet), 2nd highest
  • Shavers Fork at Bemis: 14 feet (FS 16 feet), 2nd highest
  • Tygart Valley River at Dailey: 16.60 feet (FS 14 feet), 2nd highest
  • West Fork River at Weston: 24.10 feet (FS 17 feet), 2nd highest
  • West Fork River at Enterprise: 30.37 feet (FS 17 feet), 2nd highest
  • Little Kanawha River at Grantsville: 42.87 feet (FS 36 feet), 3rd highest
  • West Fork River at Butcherville: 15.15 feet (FS 16 feet), 3rd highest
  • Elk River at Clifton Ford Near Big Run: 17.20 feet (FS 13 feet), 4th highest
  • Gauley River at Camden-on-Gauley: 23.12 feet (FS 19 feet), 4th highest
  • Potomac River at Harper’s Ferry: 30.10 feet (FS 18 feet), 5th highest
  • Shenandoah River at Millville: 25.6 feet (FS 10 feet), 5th highest
  • Cranberry River Above Richwood: 11.41 feet (FS 13 feet), 6th highest
  • Williams River at Dyer: 16.69 feet (FS 10.5 feet), 6th highest
  • Little Kanawha River at Elizabeth: 34.43 feet (FS 36 feet), 8th highest

A house in the background is tilted on its side. Tree tops can be seen sticking out of the water on the Greenbrier River in Summers County (Courtesy of the West Virginia and Regional History Center).

COUNTY FLOOD DAMAGE STATISTICS

  • BARBOUR COUNTY: 30 homes displaced, 4 bridges affected, 259 homes destroyed, 2 homes condemned, 139 homes with major damage, 5 businesses destroyed, and 119 businesses with major damage.
  • BERKELEY COUNTY: 7 homes displaced, 80 homes destroyed, 31 homes condemned, 46 homes with major damage, and one road affected.
  • BRAXTON COUNTY: 25 homes displaced, and 3 homes with major damage.
  • CALHOUN COUNTY: 30 homes displaced, 134 homes destroyed, and 38 homes with major damage.
  • DODDRIDGE COUNTY: 31 homes displaced, 16 homes destroyed, and 17 homes with major damage.
  • GILMER COUNTY: 25 homes displaced, 21 homes destroyed, 193 homes with major damage, 1 home condemned, 2 businesses destroyed, and 38 businesses with major damage.
  • GRANT COUNTY: 500 homes displaced, 1 bridge affected, 3 schools affected, 1,475 homes destroyed, 146 homes condemned, 225 homes with major damage, 36 businesses destroyed, 2 businesses condemned, and 69 businesses with major damage.
  • GREENBRIER COUNTY: 25 homes displaced, 1 bridge affected, 42 homes destroyed, 8 homes condemned, 192 homes with major damage, 3 businesses destroyed, 2 businesses condemned, and 8 businesses with major damage.
  • HAMPSHIRE COUNTY: 40 homes displaced, 1 bridge affected, 529 homes destroyed, 55 homes condemned, 39 homes with major damage, and 28 businesses destroyed.
  • HARDY COUNTY: 225 homes displaced, 1 bridge affected, 1 road affected, 600 homes destroyed, 120 homes condemned, 40 homes with major damage, 10 businesses destroyed, 5 businesses condemned, and 60 businesses with major damage.
  • HARRISON COUNTY: 120 homes displaced, 1 bridge affected, 56 homes destroyed, 11 homes condemned, 383 homes with major damage, 6 businesses destroyed, and 77 businesses with major damage.
  • JEFFERSON COUNTY: 30 homes displaced, 46 homes destroyed, 25 homes condemned, 25 homes with major damage, 1 business destroyed, and 1 business condemned.
  • LEWIS COUNTY: 49 homes displaced, 4 homes destroyed, 2 homes condemned, 158 homes with major damage, and 3 businesses with major damage.
  • MARION COUNTY: 1 home destroyed, 29 homes with major damage, and 7 businesses with major damage.
  • MINERAL COUNTY: 1 bridge affected, 4 homes destroyed, and 52 homes with major damage.
  • MONONGALIA COUNTY: 100 homes displaced, 102 homes with major damage, and 2 businesses with major damage.
  • MONROE COUNTY: 25 homes displaced, 1 home destroyed, and 26 homes with major damage.
  • MORGAN COUNTY: 15 homes displaced, 27 homes destroyed, 20 homes condemned, 21 homes with major damage, and 11 businesses with major damage.
  • PENDLETON COUNTY: 380 homes displaced, 20 bridges affected, 9 roads affected, 7 schools affected, 303 homes destroyed, 119 homes condemned, 163 homes with major damage, 5 businesses destroyed, 1 business condemned, and 8 businesses with major damage.
  • POCAHONTAS COUNTY: 70 homes displaced, 6 bridges affected, 115 homes destroyed, 43 homes condemned, 311 homes with major damage, and 32 businesses with major damage.
  • PRESTON COUNTY: 346 homes displaced, 7 bridges affected, 4 roads affected, 2 schools affected, 204 homes destroyed, 70 homes condemned, 20 homes with major damage, 15 businesses destroyed, 3 businesses condemned, and 15 businesses with major damage.
  • RANDOLPH COUNTY: 50 homes displaced, 9 bridges affected, 3 roads affected, 146 homes destroyed, 13 homes condemned, and 239 homes with major damage.
  • SUMMERS COUNTY: 50 homes displaced, 1 bridge affected, 21 homes destroyed, 3 homes condemned, and 23 homes with major damage.
  • TAYLOR COUNTY: 7 homes displaced, 1 home destroyed, and 4 homes with major damage.
  • TUCKER COUNTY: 352 homes displaced, 3 bridges affected, 3 schools affected, 275 homes destroyed, 92 homes condemned, 266 homes with major damage, 19 businesses destroyed, 9 businesses condemned, and 22 businesses with major damage.
  • TYLER COUNTY: 10 homes displaced, 20 homes destroyed, and 23 homes with major damage.
  • UPSHUR COUNTY: 25 homes displaced, 3 homes destroyed, 225 homes with major damage, and 3 businesses with major damage.
  • WEBSTER COUNTY: 20 homes displaced, 1 road affected, 6 homes destroyed, 1 home condemned, 13 homes with major damage, and 1 business destroyed.

The flood caused serious economic damage to eastern West Virginia, and population drops in towns reflected some of that damage. From 1980 to 1990, the population dropped from 1,937 to 1,453 in Parsons, W.Va. (-25%), 966 in 1980 to 648 in 1990 in Rowlesburg, W.Va. (-33%), 2,155 in 1980 to 1,923 in 1990 in Glenville, W.Va. (-11%), 1,352 in 1980 to 1,148 in 1990 in Marlinton, W.Va. (-15%), 2,038 in 1980 to 1,850 in 1990 in Belington W.Va. (-9%), and from 357 in 1980 to 195 in 1990 in Albright, W.Va. (-45%).

For a more in-depth look at this terrible West Virginia tragedy, I highly suggest purchasingKilling Waters: The Great West Virginia Flood of 1985” by Bob Teets and Shelby Young.

Local High Water, Severe Weather Possible Thursday and Friday

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A local high water risk, as well as the chance for severe weather is possible across our region Thursday into Friday. Before we dive into the setup, here’s a quick summary of what to expect for central West Virginia for Thursday and Friday:


FLOOD THREAT

  • Greatest threat over the West Virginia mountains, where 2-4″ of rain could fall.
  • 1-2″ of rain, with localized totals around 3″ in our area may cause high water spots.
  • Nothing like last summer’s floods, which dropped 6-9″ of rain in 12 hours.

SEVERE THREAT

  • Bowing storm segments could produce gusty to damaging winds, nothing widespread.
  • Tornadoes and hail will provide a very low threat to the area.

Now let’s dig into the setup. We currently have a stationary front that is dividing cool and drier air to the north and warmer and more moist air to the south just to the south of our region. As we head into the morning hours of Thursday, that front will turn into a warm front, and push that warmer and more moist air mass into our region that is currently over Kentucky, as shown in the map below.

This frontal boundary extends all the way into the southern Great Plains, where the front is causing more intense severe weather to occur. Several waves of low pressure are moving along the frontal boundary (one of which is shown above in Indiana). There is another low pressure area over southeastern Kansas, and yet another forming in southwestern Texas. Instead of the frontal boundary moving quickly out of the region as is typical, there is an area of high pressure off the coast of Georgia that is keeping air masses from moving along. This is allowing that warm front near our area to remain nearly stationary across our region, and allow these developing waves of low pressure to move across our region.

With the abundance of moisture, as well as warmer air that is south of that warm front that is nosing north into our area, breaks between rounds of showers and thunderstorms could provide enough destabilzation of the atmosphere to promote the growth of strong to severe thunderstorms. Though tornadoes and hail are very low risks, the risk for a few bowing thunderstorm line segments capable of damaging winds are possible for Thursday and Friday, but particularly on Thursday where more sunshine is expected. The Storm Prediction Center in Oklahoma has issued our region a “Slight” risk for severe weather Thursday in anticipation of some sunshine expected between storms tomorrow, as indicated in the map below.

The high water threat is a more significant hazard than the severe weather threat. Bear in mind though that nothing like the historic floods of last June are expected. However, especially east of our region, a local high water event is possible. In general for our area, 1-2″ of rain is looking likely, with localized amounts of 3″ being possible. We shouldn’t see too many issues in our region until areas start exceeding the 2 inch mark. Our area’s grounds are not particularly saturated, so the ground as well as the growing spring vegetation will absorb some of the rainfall that occurs.

Let’s break down the forecast rainfall totals for each day:

The heaviest rainfall in our region looks likely on Thursday. Expect a complex of showers to roll in early Thursday, with another complex possible late in the afternoon. The afternoon/evening round will be the round that could pose a small severe weather threat, primarily with high winds being the threat. The West Virginia mountains are at the highest risk for flash flooding Thursday, with a general 1.5-3″ of rainfall expected over the mountains during the day on Thursday. In our region, expect more in the range of 0.75-1.5″ of rain.

As we roll into Friday, the greatest threat for flash flooding shifts slightly south to the Greenbrier Valley, where 1.25-2″ of rainfall looks likely in that region. In addition to the previous day’s forecast rainfall, where grounds will be more saturated, this area will be susceptible for a few areas of flash flooding being possible. In our region, slightly less totals in the range of 0.5-1″ of rain is expected, as thunderstorms are expected to be less intense in nature than that of Thursday.

Finally, a few showers are possible in our region still Friday night, before the front finally ceases to impact us by the morning on Saturday. Still, an additional 1/4″ or so of rainfall will be possible Friday night. No flooding is anticipated during this time period. The weekend will be looking much better weather-wise, so if you have plans for mom, they should be in great shape if they’re outside!