BUCHANAN COUNTY, Va. — All Timothy Stiltner worried about was the doghouse flooding when the rain came over the mountains.
By the time he’d hustled Lulu, his border collie, into the utility room, water was gushing into his own home, tucked in a low-lying patch between the Appalachian Mountains and Dismal River in rural Southwest Virginia.
“It sounded like a train,” he said. “It was coming out of the doors and the walls.”
The coal-truck mechanic scooped up his 16-year-old son, Nathaniel — unable to walk or talk due to an illness as a newborn — and carried him to a Chevy sedan, parked a few feet higher on a steep driveway. His 27-year-old stepson, Jake, waited there while Stiltner and his wife, Lisa, rounded up all six of the family dogs. The water was chest-deep by the time Lisa came out with the last of them.
“She had to swim, and the pit bull was paddling,” he said.
Stiltner described their harrowing escape as he returned to the home Friday afternoon, surveying the white structure where floodwaters licked the tin roof before receding into a foot of mud. The rose bush out front was about all that was left in place.
“You worked all your life to get what you got, and in 30 minutes it’s all underwater,” said Stiltner, who rented the house and had no insurance for the contents.
Among the items lost was a stroller for Nathaniel, who sat nearby strapped in his car seat. Lisa Stiltner, feeding him from a baby’s bottle, was grateful that they’d been able to get a few days’ supply of his seizure medication through a flood-relief center set up in a school nearby.
No fatalities have been reported despite devastating floods this week that damaged or destroyed about 400 homes or other structures in Buchanan County. But some residents feel the flood could nudge the tightknit but dwindling coal-mining community, population 20,000, a little closer to extinction.
Buchanan County’s population shrank by a third over the past 30 years, posting Virginia’s most precipitous decline over that period, according to an analysis by the Virginia Public Access Project. Over the past decade alone, the population fell by 15.5 percent as Virginia as a whole grew by nearly 8 percent.
All residents accounted for after southwest Virginia flooding
State emergency management officials were still assessing the damage from the storm Friday. Travis Staton, president of the United Way of Southwest Virginia, said some of the groups that would normally pitch in to help rebuild are already tied up — with the aftermath of a devastating flood that struck another part of the county, Hurley, less than a year ago.
“We’ve easily got two, three years ahead of us,” he said, referring to recovery efforts.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) took a military helicopter to the scene Friday, landing in an athletic field at Twin Valley Elementary/Middle School. Youngkin said he had spent the days since the flooding “praying, on pins and needles” until emergency personnel confirmed that there had been no loss of life.
“That is a hallelujah, amen moment for everybody,” Youngkin said.
Now the state will assess the damage and “aggressively pursue” a federal disaster declaration, he said. “The damage is extensive, it’s extensive, and you can’t help but have your heart sink when you see someone’s home lifted up and moved off its foundation, moved down the road,” he said. “Damage to the rail lines, damage to churches. And so, there’s going to be a ton of cleanup.”
But he was upbeat about the community’s ability to recover.
“We’re going to do everything in our power to make sure that everybody gets their lives fully back,” he said.
Youngkin greeted first responders and flood victims before unloading a case of Spam off a Food City truck and carrying it into the school.
On the way in, he put his hand on the shoulder of an elderly man in a camouflage John Deere cap.
“Bless you,” Youngkin said to the man, Carl Owens, 69, who was filling out paperwork so he could refill prescriptions he’d been missing for the past three days. Owens needed separate drugs for diabetes, blood pressure, vertigo and a heart condition.
He and his grandson had walked through chest-deep water to escape their brick home in a village known as Pilgrim’s Knob, trekking through woods to get to higher ground before reaching the safety of the post office, where they sat outside all night.
“We just sat up and watched the water,” he said.
Donna and John Keen survived the flood by dint of good luck and the whims of rushing water. While their steep driveway turned into a river — “There were waves,” she said — their house hung tight to the side of the mountain. They sat on their sunny front porch Friday morning, feeding treats to their 22-year-old spotted horse, Rocket, who wandered free in the yard. Also unscathed: their flock of 15 chickens.
“Thank God it didn’t hit none of my chickens. It missed them by — what? — two or three foot,” said Donna Keen, 48, a housewife and self-described “chicken mama.”
“God had his hand on us,” she said. “He really did.”
She pointed down to the remains of neighboring homes that did not fare as well. “That family down there, they lost everything,” she said.
Donna Keen grew up in the community and has so many friends and family nearby that she constantly sounds car-horn greetings whenever she drives down the twisting Dismal River Road. She expects the flood will drive some away. A close friend from church who lost her home will likely leave rather than rebuild, she said.
“I don’t look for anything to be back here the way it was,” she said. “It’s going to be lonely.”
Billy and Patricia Sturgill weathered the storm without a problem in a two-story house that dates at least to the 1930s. When they bought and renovated it 14 years ago, one of the old newspapers that had been in the walls as insulation had some really old news: Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inauguration. After the flood, there was nothing amiss. Marigolds bloomed out front alongside a pink flamingo.
“You kind of feel bad about it because everybody’s house is gone,” said Billy Sturgill, 75, a retired coal miner.
Patricia Sturgill, also 75 and a former substitute teacher, would never want to leave the county where they both grew up, not far from where her ancestors, the Hatfields, tussled with the McCoys across the way in West Virginia.
But she expects some elderly residents to move away rather than rebuild, moving in with adult children who left the area long ago to find jobs.
“Most of us is so old, it’s hard to start over,” she said.
Holly Damron, 28, was working the overnight shift as a coal mine security guard when the flood started swallowing houses in the gully below her own. At home, her husband and 4-year-old were safe. So were her parents, who live next door.
But just down the hill, water swelled around the double-wide trailer where her sister had just tucked her children, Aiden, 5, and Gaige, 3, into bed. The family fled up the hill to their relatives, then watched as their trailer and some assorted cars floated by.
“That concrete slab down yonder, that was their porch,” Damron said Friday, pointing to a spot about a football field away. Damron’s home was unharmed, but she had no electricity or water, and was told it might take a month for those services to be restored.
Her sister’s trailer was in shambles — one outer wall ripped away, offering a doll’s-house view of two mud-splattered bedrooms.
Damron’s sister had left the area Friday in search of cell service — spotty in this mountainous region even in the best of times — so she could apply for assistance. Damron, offering a tour, said her sister had been able to save the boys’ baby books and a few pieces of their clothing.
Another find: the Army dress uniform that belongs to Damron’s brother-in-law. Safe above the mud, it hung from a doorway leading to outside. The door itself was long gone. Nearby, a silver truck that had been at the body shop up the road dangled over the river.
Damron was confident that her sister will stay in the area, but she said they will have to move to higher ground.
“We grew up on this hill, she said, “but I doubt they’ll put anything back on the bottom.”