Sunny, But Saturated

I love extreme weather. Lightning, thunder, heavy snowfalls with big, fat flakes. Many of my most vivid memories involve weather. I remember sitting inside the storm door excitedly as a child, counting the seconds between a flash of lightning and the following roll of thunder to yell out how many miles away the lightning struck. I remember the first time I saw snow rollers, a rare meteorological phenomenon where cylindrical snowballs are formed naturally as chunks of snow are blown along the ground by the wind. Daddy said, “you may never see them again in your entire life,” and I have not seen them since.

I remember sitting on the front porch of my grandparent’s cabin in Blue, West Virginia, watching a hailstorm approach from across the field as we strung beans. The roar grew louder and the hayfield flattened in a line that drew closer until the hail pounded and dented the metal roof in a pounding percussion. I remember the night my mother woke me from sleep so we could take a walk around our neighborhood through fresh-fallen snow so crisp that it twinkled like stars beneath the streetlights.

I remember the spring blizzard of 1993, which began the first day of my spring break from college and snowed me in with my parents for eight days, forcibly canceling my plans for a week at the beach. I remember the ice storm of 2003 when our snowy world was covered in a half-inch of ice. I walked through the crunchy fields, listening to the trees on the hillsides creak, groan, and snap under the weight of their encasement.

I remember standing in the garden, totally unprepared when the 2012 derecho hit, how the wind knocked me off balance into the mud, and slammed the lawn chairs against the garden fence. I remember the first time I saw the floodwaters take over the fields here on the farm and watched a round haybale float past me as I waded up our water-covered driveway. I had heard the stories of previous floods but had not been able to conceive how our lazy creeks and trickling streams could expand across acres. I remember hurricanes: Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, Irma.

Today, Sunday, is sunny and bright. Perfect fall weather, with the sounds of katydids and crickets in the air. The day is a lovely break between the rains of last week and the passing of remnants of Hurricane Laura, and the rains predicted to arrive perhaps this coming week. After 20 years here, I now know the guessing game of times like this. How saturated is the ground? How high is the creek? How much more rain can fall before it rises beyond its banks? How high will the waters rise?

The answer is a gut feeling. A feeling that comes from knowing the past, from knowing the land, from knowing the local waters. A feeling I had watching the weather predictions on June 22, 2016, a sense of dread when I went to bed. I knew people would die that night. I knew, in the darkness, 8-10 inches of rain on the hills would become roaring deadly waters in the valleys. By morning, 23 West Virginians were dead. Amongst my horror and tears, I was grateful. The storm front lost its strength just east of our Steer Creek watershed, and most of the rain fell just south of central West Virginia. If the storm had reached across a few more miles or if the heavy rain lasted a few more moments, we too could have been devastated.

Human beings often seem surprised by extreme weather. We act as though we didn’t know such damages could happen, as though Mother Nature has freaked out or is punishing us. How quickly we seem to forget the power and pressure of water, the grip of ice, the strength and will of wind. But I am amazed and awed by such things. They imprint in my mind, and I remember.

Floods are one of West Virginia’s most frequent and costly disasters. According to storm data from NOAA, every county in the state reported at least 14 floods between 1991 and 2016. Since 1988, eleven flood events in West Virginia have claimed 20 or more lives. In these eleven floods alone, nearly 400 West Virginians have died. The deadliest, Buffalo Creek (125 dead, 4 missing), was a man-made event, but the remaining are all due to natural weather. Four of those eleven deadliest floods included high levels on the Little Kanawha River.

How well do you know the waterways around you? Can you tell, looking at rising waters and gauging the rainfall, when the time has come to start moving your life to higher ground? When I first moved here, I assumed the flood threats would come with spring rains, but my memory and history tell me that floods come at all times of the year including September (1861), November (1985), January (1937), June (2016).

On average, in floods across the country, about 25% of flood insurance claims are outside the delineated flood plain. Approximately 68% of individual assistance claims from FEMA are for properties outside the flood plain. Every year in West Virginia there is a 1-5% chance we could have a repeat of 2016. Throughout the State of West Virginia, approximately 78,000 residential buildings are in Special Flood Hazard Areas. Only 12% of those structures are covered by flood insurance.

You may not live in the established flood plain, but if you live on low-lying land, or near even a small run of water, you are at risk. Maintain the drainage around your home and develop a plan. Where can you relocate your valuables and family if/when the waters rise? Can you evacuate if the roads are covered or gone?  How quickly do the waters rise during a downpour? How high do they rise when the ground is already saturated, as it is right now,  and more rain is predicted? Those of us who live in the valleys have little choice but to watch and wait when the waters begin to rise. Those who have experienced floods know the nearby waters intimately and have a plan for when future floods come. Even on sunny but saturated days like today, the local creek levels are still in the back of our minds.

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