020720 Bluefield flood photo

High water signs were placed at the Coney Island underpass in Welch. (Jessica Nuzzo/Bluefield Daily Telegraph)

PRINCETON — County schools and roads were closed Thursday as rain continued to fall and create flooding conditions throughout McDowell County and neighboring Mercer County.

Schools in McDowell and Mercer counties were dismissed because of continuing rain and high water issues in some back road areas. The Mercer County Board of Education announced late Thursday that all schools would remain closed today due to widespread flooding; all extra-curricular activities are canceled, including athletics.

McDowell County Schools will be closed today as well, the school system announced late Thursday.

The National Weather Service in Blacksburg, Va., issued a flood warning for McDowell and Mercer counties in West Virginia and Tazewell, Bland and Buchanan counties in Virginia. An extended period of rain and thunderstorms was forecast for Thursday, creating favorable conditions for flooding. Rainfall as great as 2 to 3 inches was expected with some local amounts being even higher.

Conditions will remain wet today and into the weekend.

“Yes, we have been looking at this for several days and it has been concerning us for almost a week that we saw this was coming,” meteorologist Robert Beasley said. “It is a little unprecedented because we usually do not have air this moist at this time of the year.

“The heaviest rain has now moved east of your area and I think anything you get now will be much lighter,” Beasley said. “You should not get more than a quarter or half an inch. You are going to get a little snow (today). Typical mountain snow showers, less than an inch. It is not going to last very long but it is going to be a lot colder over the weekend; it will remind you that winter is not done yet.”

Warmer weather is expected soon.

“Next week, it will be back into the 50s,” he said.”We are in a cycle of weather systems right now.”

As heavy rain fell Thursday morning, the McDowell County Commission declared a local state of emergency as high water and flooding were reported throughout the county. The county’s emergency operations center was opened as high waters were reported across the area.

“The county commission declared a local state of emergency as of 9:45 a.m.,” Deputy Director Angie Workman of McDowell County 911 said.

“We’ve got high water levels throughout the county, especially in Berwind, Coalwood, Valls Creek, Panther and toward Anawalt and Jenkinjones,” Workman said. “There’s actually some houses being affected now, primarily in Berwind and Coalwood.”

As of 1 p.m. on Thursday, Workman stated that McDowell County was still under a state of emergency. The roads closed were the bypass on McDowell Street in Welch, Berwind Mountain Road, River Road in Yukon and Route 52 to Welch at Coney Island.

In addition, Workman said that several homes on the west side of McDowell County had been evacuated.

“We do have several roads that have been shut, some houses have been evacuated on the west side of the county,” Workman said. “We are working with the Red Cross to get shelters set up. I don’t think it is going to get any better.”

The flooding was worse in the western part of the county, specifically in the Coalwood, Panther, Berwind and Anawalt areas.

Some of McDowell County’s flooded roads became passable by Thursday afternoon, but motorists were advised to use caution and beware of debris in the roads. Most of the flooding still appeared to be in the county’s western half. Much of the county from Welch down to the Bradshaw and Panther areas experienced flooding, and deputies with the sheriff’s office reported high water in the War and Cane Break areas, according to John Sidote, a volunteer who coordinates information during major emergencies.

“Here in Welch, both our underpasses were flooded,” Sidote said. “Coney Island still has a drainage problem there and it (water) closed off a good portion of it.”

Norfolk Southern Railroad was using temporary means to help drivers get through the Coney Island area until the water subsided, he said.

An underpass at lower McDowell Street, which has a flood wall, had to be closed. The Elkhorn and Tug rivers meet near the Welch Post Office, and this brings much more water into that area, Sidote said. The post office was not flooded. Local firefighters are often able to pump water away from the underpass, but that was not the case Thursday.

“Today the water came over the flood wall and they had to close that street off since 1:30 p.m.,” he said. “It’s still closed right now as of 5:30 p.m. We’re hoping as soon as the water gets down to a certain level they can start pumping again to get the water out.”

Varying amounts of rain fell on McDowell County. Sidote estimated that between 3.5 to 4 inches fell on some parts of the county over a two-day period.

“Several homes received water in their basement. I don’t know if there has been any road damage. We’ll find out about that over the next few days as the Department of Highways look at them,” Sidote stated.

There were no reports of floodwater reaching Welch Community Hospital, he said. The last time water got into the hospital was during a serious flood in 2002. Sidote said first responders across the county worked all day.

“Everybody really did a great job keeping it all together,” he stated.

In another part of southern West Virginia, Emergency Dispatch in Monroe County said some reports of flooding were coming in, with the northbound lane of Route 219 just north of Peterstown covered with floodwaters. Monroe County schools were dismissed at noon.

Back in Mercer County, Beckley Road from the Spanishburg Post Office to Reese Harmon Road was closed Thursday morning due to high water, according to a Mercer County 911 dispatcher.

“About three miles up Rich Creek Road is closed,” Emergency Services Director Tim Farley said. “It’s just a lot of runoff off the mountains right now. We’re going to have a lot of issues around the county with flooding.”

A rock slide was reported near Matoaka, but Farley said he understood that it was not serious. Three stranded dogs were rescued in Montcalm, he added.

Two people had to be evacuated that afternoon from a trailer at Tomahawk Loop off Route 10 near Rock River Road. The Princeton Rescue Squad brought an inflatable boat and reached them, Farley said later. To the best of his knowledge, it was the only rescue that had to be carried out Thursday in Mercer County.

Route 19 in the Spanishburg area was closed later when water covered the road in three places, and Country Girl Road was closed as well, Farley said. A lane in Route 10 near Matoaka had been closed as well.

Shelters had not been opened in Mercer County.

“We’re trying to determine that now,” Farley replied when asked about evacuation shelters. “I think everybody’s got a place to go.”

Farley warned motorists not to drive through high water.

“We don’t advise driving into water that’s crossing the highways,” he said. “We’ve had issues with the culverts and pipes getting stopped up for any reason. People think they drive into what they think is a road bed there and there’s no road bed because it’s washed away. The slogan is ‘Turn Around, Don’t Drown.’”

Water rushed down the hills overlooking Lorton Lick Road near Bluewell, running over the pavement in several places and making it almost impassable at times. One longtime resident, Danny Gaither, said Thursday’s flooding was not an unusual situation for him and his neighbors. The creek behind his home, locally called Lorton Lick Creek, and the ditches along the road often overflow when heavy rain arrives.

“This is a common occurrence here,” Gaither stated.

His neighbor, Shawn Bragg, stood on the front porch and watched the storm.

“A lot of people here are shoveling out ditches. People are trying to make sure they’re open,” Bragg said.

In Bluewell, people stopping at a local store were getting what they needed and hurrying home.

“I would talk to you,” Thomas Fowler said as he was leaving. “I live down in McDowell County in Pageton, and I’ve seen some pictures and (the water) is pretty high.”

Maegan Bailey of Bluewell had to pick up her children after Mercer County Schools were closed due to the rising water.

“They shouldn’t have had school today,” she said. “That’s ridiculous.”

Other shoppers said water was rising in the Jimmy Lewis Lake area and other places near Bluewell. Darlene Cleary, who lives in McDowell County at Upland, had faith that the situation would get better.

“I think it’s horrible,” she said of the storm. “But I think if God brings it to us, He’ll bring us through it.”

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