The build-up to the events of Jan. 19, 1996, weren’t obvious at the time. However, reviewing my journal of the preceding days leaves me with the feeling that we should have seen it coming. I’ll try to stick to the subject and omit most of the technical information and the more abstract personal observations.
“Jan. 7, 1996: Snowed big time — let it. We have made preparations so are not in any desperate situation…”
“Jan. 8, 1996: Snow stopped. Roads aren’t passable with a few 4X4 trucks with snow blades stuck right in the middle. Walked out to Route 50, then to the store. Met several other people on foot — sort of festive. At the store, there’s a clearly distinguishable melted snow path to the beer and wine cooler. Late afternoon sun beautiful across the snow…”
“Jan. 10, 1996: A customer south of Romney called. He had destroyed the clutch in his small Japanese tractor while moving snow. He would like it repaired before the next snowstorm, forecast in a day or 2…”
“Jan. 11, 1996: Stef (old Hippie in 2014 terminology) went to Romney to stock up for the snowstorm due tonight.”
“Jan. 12, 1996: Still snowing this morning but stopped before noon. A customer brought a car for me to work on. We had to shovel a place to park it. The kids cleared snow from part of the frozen river in our backyard to make a “skating rink.”
When night fell, the kids set a kerosene lantern on a mound of snow in the middle of the river and just went on skating…”
“Jan. 14, 1996: Sunday. A warm day — lazy. Nothing memorable happened…”
Nothing indeed. This began nearly a week of warm days that set the coming events in motion.
“Jan. 15, 1996: Went to the residence along the South Branch of the Potomac to work on the Japanese tractor with the fried clutch. Found the tractor outside the garage in a pile of melting snow, out of fuel. It took considerable effort to get the tractor going and into the building where I would have the unusual luxury of shelter from the wind and a level floor. Moved on to Slanesville to help a customer get a Massey Ferguson 35 out of a muddy snow bank where it was stuck. Balanced traction with the brakes and walked it right out. I was as surprised as anyone but didn’t let on.”
“Jan. 16, 1996: Went parts chasing in Winchester, Va. Bright sun on melting snow is blinding…” The stage was now set; snow rapidly melting, ice breaking up in the North River picking up logs and brush and jamming in the tight, shallow bends. The ground was saturated and could accept no more water at the rate at which it was being produced.
The snowmelt ran off into the rising creeks and river.
“As night fell, residents near the river stepped out occasionally to observe the river’s progress. Bright beams of spotlights scampered this way and that over the rushing brown water.”
Early in the morning of Jan. 19, nature would add the catalyst that would touch off a disaster.
“Jan. 19, 1996: A gray and dismal dawn finds a warm rain falling on the already melting snow. Schools are closed for the day, though we aren’t sure why. I attempted a trip to Winchester. Came across several areas of high water and was eventually stopped by police and told that parts of Route 50 were impassable. Went back home to find Stef and our 3 daughters standing in the backyard watching the rising North River.
The snow, rain and fog in the gray morning light with the browns and grays of trees, fences, rocks, the flooded river — the tall girls dressed in grays, dark blue, brown and white combine to give the appearance of a 19th century Impressionist painting, ‘Le Deluge de River Norte.’”
Cars, trucks, RVs and so forth were being driven or towed from the homes close to the river and parked on higher ground. Though some residents did not approve of these vehicles appearing in their yards without prior arrangement, they were expected to just shut up and live with it. This is a likely disaster and not a time for neighborhood politics.
We had lived here along the North River for 8 years, and I thus considered myself the local expert on the river’s habits. In previous high water events, the river would reach a certain height then seem to “break over” into some low lying areas and thus cease rising. Applying this principle, the homes along the river should be safe. Even the high water marker from the infamous flood of 1985 suggested that they would be missed by the worst of the rapidly swelling North River.
Our terrain along with the river’s elevation and other factors combine to cause a regional oddity. We are left with two types of floods. The larger rivers, such as the Potomac and the Cacapon, may flood to disastrous proportions while the creeks and smaller rivers only swell moderately. For example, North River Mills, within sight of the North River, was isolated for a time but otherwise virtually unaffected by the flood of 1985. At the same time, the damage caused by the larger Potomac and Cacapon rivers is legendary.
Occasionally, the opposite happens. The river never did “break over” as expected, and very soon, there was over five feet of water in the homes closer to the water. Our place, being the closest to the water but still high enough to be unaffected, became the disaster relief station supplying bathrooms, coffee, sandwiches and telephone. Stephanie went into high production pizza-making mode. The girls served the folks in the house and in the garage where I had lighted the woodstove. I was sent out for ingredients and, en route, found a crowd of residents of a riverside trailer park standing at the edge of U.S. 50, watching their homes submerge.
Charles Malick and I then went to work helping a neighbor — whose home was on slightly higher ground — evacuate. We waded through knee-deep, ice-cold January floodwater without the benefit of hip waders. The trick is to keep moving. The pressure of the water causes one’s blue jeans to compress tight around the ankle providing a sort of rudimentary seal. If you stand still for a moment and the material hangs limp, lace-up leatherwork boots fill up with icy water and you’re done for.
Of course, this method was only good for a few passes between the home and the road where we loaded the trappings of modern life — TV, VCR, computer — into the warm, idling Ford Bronco. This seemed frivolous in a way considering that folks only a few yards away had lost everything. But this was not the time for these thoughts — just do the work.
The water subsided abruptly — so much so that one might wonder why it even bothered. After dark, the girls went down to the devastated area to deliver pizza and coffee to those assessing the damage to their homes. Some were already beginning repairs. I took along a lantern and walked the area. The electric power was out; the road was pocked with washout craters. Mobile homes sat crooked, slanted or were missing — a war zone.
In the aftermath: Some domestic doves had accidentally become released during the flood. For weeks, these white birds could be seen flying against a blue sky over the drab floodplain mud and wreckage. The renters and more or less transient residents of our riverside community have moved on. One extended family, though, has stayed and acquired most of these properties and has built on higher ground. These tough, hardworking folks have not only recovered but have prospered.
At North River Mills, with storekeepers Bruce and Betty Miller now gone, daughter Becky Miller had invested heavily to reopen the store there. During this flood, the store was largely affected. It’s unclear if this flood was the setback that led to its permanent closure. Another flood of equal magnitude the following August certainly sealed its fate.
Relatively recent additions to the building, such as the “shootin’ match room,” are in a state of collapse while the older, original central structure seems to be holding its own. Though a few rumors have circulated locally, it is unclear what the present owner’s intentions might be.
The riverside trailer park along U.S. 50 at Hanging Rock is gone. Once a noisy, dusty little community, only a concrete block well house and a small pile of barely recognizable wreckage at the downstream end remains to suggest that the multitude of homes were ever there.
At the residence south of Romney, I returned to complete work on the tractor. I found the work area crowded with furnishings that had been evacuated from the residence, which sits much closer to the South Branch of the Potomac. This home took a severe hit during the flood of 1985. Though two Styrofoam cups deeply saturated with red wine stains told of a long, late vigil, the South Branch never reached the house.