RICHLANDS, Va. — When the Clinch River starting leaving its banks Thursday morning, Richlands, Va. residents had to scramble as flood waters starting invading low-lying neighborhoods and downtown areas.
By the end of the day, an estimated 200 people ended up being rescued by boats and “high-water,” trucks, Richlands Police Chief Jerry Gilbert said, adding that as of Friday afternoon most residents could return to their homes as the water was receding.
“Our flooding was pretty extensive,” he said. “Several areas were hit hard, mostly along the main line of the Clinch River (which runs through the city). Several roads were closed. But I am not aware of any injuries at all.”
Most streets were back open by Friday afternoon as cleanup crews were busy with backhoes cleaning off debris and using power hoses to wash away the mud that covered the ground everywhere as the water receded.
“It’s been awhile since we’ve seen this much water,” he said, referring to the 1977 flood and another one in 2003. “We evacuated folks from East First Street, Iron Street, down behind the mall and Tazewell Avenue (among others downtown) and then in the Raven-Doran area.”
Gilbert said the number of homes damaged by floodwaters had not yet been assessed.
Some of the yards in those impacted streets were still covered with water up to house foundations Friday afternoon, along with debris washed up, and Gilbert said water rose high enough to pour inside many homes.
Beside the Clinch River coming into the city is the Critterville Playground and ballfields. Most of that complex was still under water Friday afternoon with debris from the the flood still clinging to the fences of the ballfields.
“We are working to get all the roadways cleared and checking in neighborhoods making sure everyone is safe,” he said.
The day on Thursday did not start out as Gilbert had planned.
“I was sick and had not planned to come to work,” he said.
But a call from headquarters about the flood warning brought him in quickly.
“We sent everybody out to the (flood prone) areas to warn residents,” he said, and at the same time started calling for help, and it came quickly as the water kept rising so fast drainage systems ware overwhelmed.
“There were folks coming from everywhere to give us assistance,” he said, including area fire departments, the Virginia State Police (VSP) and first-responders from other agencies.
Gilbert said his department has only two small motor boats so a swift water team from the VSP came with powerful boats for that purpose as well as a team from Pulaski.
The shelter at the police headquarters, which was once the National Guard Armory, was initially used for those who needed it, but about 15 residents in the shelter had to be moved to the middle school when the police station itself, located on Front Street, became surrounded by water.
“Most of the ones we evacuated had family waiting,” he said.
Everybody was evacuated safely, he said, and the assessment of damage is ongoing, aided by a team from the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM), which also helped with the evacuation.
Gilbert said when the process began, all agencies and officials at every level responded quickly.
“They asked what we needed, and they did it,” he said.
Gov. Ralph Northam also declared a state of emergency and called the local National Guard unit to help.
The call came in to help about 7 p.m. on Thursday, said Staff Sgt. Brenton Boone with the 1033rd Engineer Support Company out of Cedar Bluff.
“Basically what we have been doing today (Friday) is going house to house doing health and welfare checks,” he said. “The VDEM has requested that we also look at any potential hazmat (hazardous materials) issue with propane leaks or gas spillage.”
Boone said they have been to about 150 houses, and noted any house where they could not contact someone, and will go back and check on house to see if Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) help is needed for cleanup.
Boone said he was told by some residents that they had never seen the water levels as high as they were Thursday.
The National Guard will also deliver supplies to residents, and they were helping unload donations pouring in Friday, including a large trailer sent by the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church in Marion.
Harry Howe of Marion was with the church’s disaster response team and said they brought buckets full of needed supplies for cleaning, including sponges, gloves, masks, brushes and liquid cleaners.
“We had about 300 buckets to start out but dropped a few off at another location,” he said. “We also have hygiene kits,” which include dish towels, hand rags, toothbrushes, toothpaste, combs and other items. “What it takes is the community coming together like this.”
The Richlands High School Lady Blues basketball team was also on hand helping out and delivering supplies, including bottled water.
“We wanted to do something to help the community,” said Head Coach Aaron Lowe.”We were supposed to have a game tonight (Friday) and we didn’t get to play (schools were canceled Friday because of the flooding) so it was a good opportunity to get all the girls together. They wanted to help.”
Lowe said each girl made a donation well as the Lady Blue basketball account.
Player Rachael Rife said she was enjoying the experience.
“It is good to help the community,” she said.
Her sister Arin Rife said she was glad to help as well.
“It’s giving back to the community to show support like they support us with basketball,” she said. “It feels right and it feels good to give back and help everybody out.”
That support from residents as well as from area first-responders and state agencies is something Gilbert appreciates.
“It is special,” he said. “It shows who we are.”
Although some compared the flood to one in 1977, the record was actually set in 1901, according to the National Weather Service (NWS) in Blacksburg.
Meteorologist Reggie Roakes said the rain, about 3.5 inches that fell during a 24-hour period, resulted in the Cinch River peaking at 14.5 feet at about 5 p.m. on Thursday.
“The average runs about 2 feet,” he said, “so that’s about 12.5 feet above normal.”
That level puts it in the moderate flood stage, he said, which starts at 13 feet, with minor flooding at 10 feet. A major flood is 16 feet.
Roakes said the record for the Clinch River in Richlands was 21.3 feet, set on June 22, 1901.
In 1977, it did hit the major category at 16.06 feet, he said, and in 2003 hit 14.65 feet, slightly above Thursday’s total.
“We do have more rain coming in the forecast for next week,” he said. “We may get 1 to 3 inches over two days.”
Roakes said they are also keeping an eye on New River, but as of now no flooding is expected in Giles County.
— Contact Charles Boothe at firstname.lastname@example.org