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.

The Snow Season in Central West Virginia

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Despite the warm temperatures we are currently seeing in central West Virginia, the season of snow is right around the corner! In fact, as recently as 2012 have we seen a measurable snow before Halloween!

Earliest First Snows in Our Region

The top 10 earliest measurable snowfalls recorded for both Charleston and Elkins.

As far as history is concerned, the mountain counties have already seen snow this early in the year, and the lowlands are not far behind. Elkins’ earliest measurable snow has taken place on October 6th, while the earliest measurable snow for Charleston occurred on October 19th. As far as the last three years, Charleston received its first measurable snow on November 13th (2014), December 18th (2015), and November 19th (2016). For Elkins, its first measurable snow the last three years have taken place on November 18th (2014), December 3rd (2015), and November 19th (2016).

The top 5 latest first measurable snows of all-time in Charleston are February 25th (1950), January 2nd (2012), January 1st (1995), December 20th (1965), and December 18th (2015). The top 5 latest first measurable snows of all-time in Elkins are December 28th (1931), December 15th (1946), December 11th (1947), December 8th (1941), and December 4th (1990).

Snowiest Months

If you are not a fan of the snowy season, then 2017 has been a good year to you. During the entire year, Charleston has seen only five days with measurable snowfall. For Charleston, that is the second lowest number of measurable snow days in the city’s history, only to the year 1949 (4). Elkins has seen 18 measurable snow days so far in 2017, which is currently tied for the lowest number of days of measurable snowfall with the year 1932.

On the flip side, Charleston has seen as many as 18 days of measurable snow in a single month, which occurred in January of 1978. 17 days of measurable snow in a single month were observed in January 1985 and January 1979. The highest number of days with measurable snowfall in a single month in Elkins is 23 set in January 1985. Impressively, 22 days was reached in February of 1964 (Only 29 days), and 22 was also reached in January 1978. The highest number of days with measurable snowfall in a year in Charleston is 42 days, which was set in 1995, followed by 41 (1978), 40 (2010), and 38 (1985, 1979, 1977, and 1960). For Elkins, the highest number of days with measurable snowfall in a year is 65, which was set in 1981, followed by 63 (1979), 61 (1989), 58 (1970), 57 (1968), and 56 (2010).

Average Snowfall in the Mountain State

Average snowfall per year (State Climate Office of North Carolina).

On average, Charleston receives about 36″ of snowfall during a year, while Elkins averages around 83″.

The large difference between the two cities has a nearly direct correlation with elevation. During the winter months, it is very common for an upslope snow effect to take place on the mountaintops of the Appalachians. This effect takes place when moisture in the form of clouds from a source of water (usually the Great Lakes for our region) is pushed up over the mountaintops and condenses, causing snow to fall when temperatures are sufficiently cold. Upslope adds significantly to the average snow total of an affected town, and Elkins is certainly one of those affected.

Breaking it down by month, Charleston averages about 1″ of snow in November, 6″ in December, 11″ January, 10″ in February, 6″ in March, and 1″ in April. Elkins averages about 1/2″ in October, 5″ in November, 17″ in December, 24″ in January, 19″ in February, 12″ in March, and 5″ in April.

Record Snowfall in the Mountain State

According to the West Virginia Encyclopedia, Terra Alta holds the record for most snow to fall in a single month, with 104 inches falling in January 1977. The encyclopedia says that the most snow to occur during a 24-hour period is 35 inches at Flat Top, on the Mercer/Raleigh County line on January 27-28th, 1998, an average of about 1.5″/hour for 24 hours. The most snow to occur during a single storm is 57 inches, which took place during the great post-Thanksgiving snowstorm of 1950 in Pickens in Randolph County, WV.

In terms of snowfall from a single event, the most snow to fall in Charleston is 23.3″, which occurred about 20 years ago on January 8th, 1996. More recently, 18.7″ of snow fell on January 23rd, 2016, and 12.8″ of snow fell on December 20th, 2009. In Elkins, a whopping 28.2″ of snow fell on November 26th, 1950, the most snow ever to fall in the city. More recently, 22.5″ of snow fell on February 15th, 2014, and 21.6″ of snow was on the ground on December 20th, 2009.

 

Lastly, I’m going to end this post with a list of some of the most common winter weather advisories, watches, and warnings, and their meanings to refresh everyone on the differences between each. Expect a winter forecast sometime in November.

 

Different Winter-Related Watches and Warnings and their Meanings

Winter Storm Watch

A Winter Storm Watch is issued when there is the potential for significant and hazardous winter weather within 48 hours. It does not mean that significant and hazardous winter weather will occur…it only means it is possible.

Significant and hazardous winter weather is defined as a combination of:
1) 5 inches or more of snow/sleet within a 12-hour period or 7 inches or more of snow/sleet within a 24-hour period
AND/OR
2) Enough ice accumulation to cause damage to trees or powerlines.
AND/OR
3) a life threatening or damaging combination of snow and/or ice accumulation with wind.

The snow/sleet criteria for a Winter Storm Watch for the five westernmost counties (Allegany, Mineral, Grant, Pendleton, and Highland) is higher (6 inches or more within a 12-hour period; 8 inches or more within a 24-hour period).

Blizzard Warning

A Blizzard Warning means that the following conditions are occurring or expected within the next 12 to 18 hours.
1) Snow and/or blowing snow reducing visibility to 1/4 mile or less for 3 hours or longer
AND
2) Sustained winds of 35 mph or greater or frequent gusts to 35 mph or greater.
There is no temperature requirement that must be met to achieve blizzard conditions.

 

Winter Storm Warning

A Winter Storm Warning is issued when a significant combination of hazardous winter weather is occurring or imminent.

Significant and hazardous winter weather is defined as a combination of:
1) 5 inches or more of snow/sleet within a 12-hour period or 7 inches or more of snow/sleet within a 24-hour period
AND/OR
2) Enough ice accumulation to cause damage to trees or powerlines.
AND/OR
3) a life threatening or damaging combination of snow and/or ice accumulation with wind.

 

Ice Storm Warning – ¼ inch or more of ice accumulation.

 

Freezing Rain Advisory – Ice accumulations of less than 1/4 inch.

 

Winter Weather Advisory – A Winter Weather Advisory will be issued when 2 to 4 inches of snow, alone or in combination with sleet and freezing rain, is expected to cause a significant inconvenience, but not serious enough to warrant a warning.

For this particularly snow event in 2016, several winter weather advisories (blue) and winter storm warnings (pink) were issued by the NWS.

Freeze Watch – A Freeze Watch is issued when there is a potential for significant, widespread freezing temperatures within the next 24-36 hours. A Freeze Watch is issued in the spring at the start of the growing season (when it is late enough to cause damage to new plants and crops).

 

Freeze Warning – A Freeze Warning is issued when significant, widespread freezing temperatures are expected. A Freeze Warning is issued in the spring at the start of the growing season (when it is late enough to cause damage to new plants and crops).

 

Frost Advisory – A Frost Advisory is issued when the minimum temperature is forecast to be 33 to 36 degrees on clear and calm nights during the growing season. A Frost Advisory is issued in the spring at the start of the growing season (when it is late enough to cause damage to new plants and crops).

 

Wind Chill Advisory – A Wind Chill Advisory is issued when wind chills of -5F to -19F are expected east of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and when wind chills of -10 to -24F are expected along and west of the Blue Ridge Mountains and in Frederick and Carroll Counties in Maryland.

 

Wind Chill Warning – A Wind Chill Warning is issued when wind chills of -20F or lower are expected east of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and when wind chills of -25F or lower are expected along and west of the Blue Ridge Mountains and in Frederick and Carroll Counties in Maryland.