Appalachian flood kills four

Saturday, May 4, 2002

WILLIAMSON, W.Va. -- Rescue crews in helicopters and four-wheel-drive vehicles searched through the steep valleys of Appalachian coal country Friday after flash flooding left at least four people dead and 14 missing.

Five inches of rain fell in six hours Thursday, sending streams and rivers surging out of their banks in the mountainous area where West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia meet.

Some communities were cut off by mudslides and others had water up to the eaves of homes in a deluge so powerful that people lashed themselves to the trees. More than 100,000 homes and businesses lost power at the peak of the storm.

"It was like the mountain just opened up and water started to come out," said Brenda Blankenship, postmaster of tiny Hurley, Va. "Everything is demolished. All the businesses in Hurley are gone, houses are gone. They're just gutted."

At least three people in West Virginia and one in Virginia were killed. Authorities spent Friday looking for at least 14 people reported missing: eight in West Virginia, five in Virginia and one in Kentucky.

"People were tying themselves to trees. They couldn't get helicopter assistance in. It was awful," said Vicky Jones, a dispatcher with the Buchanan County, Va., Sheriff's Office.

The Tug Fork river, which separates West Virginia from Kentucky for miles, rose steadily Friday. Officials in Williamson closed the flood doors for the first time in their 18-year existence, but parts of the community of 3,400 people were already swamped.

Across the river in Kentucky, more than 1,000 people fled their homes. Dozens gathered on the roadsides overlooking Goody, Ky., and watched as the murky waters covered their yards. In some places, only rooftops could be seen.

Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner's office said about 200 houses in Buchanan County were damaged or destroyed. An undetermined number of structures were damaged in Kentucky. In West Virginia, Gov. Bob Wise, who toured the area by helicopter and on foot Friday, estimated that at least 375 homes and 30 businesses were damaged.

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