Today marks one year since the skies opened, a storm stalled on the east ridgeline of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Greene County’s waterways flowed with such wrath that two rivers rerouted while others burst through their banks taking down bridges, roads and anything else in their paths.
“I checked in with dispatch at 10 p.m. and it was fine. By midnight, it had gotten crazy. It literally changed that quickly from a normal thunderstorm and turned into something else,” said Melissa Meador, emergency services manager for Greene County. “It really only hit three counties: Albemarle, Greene and Madison. In Greene County, we were fortunate that we didn’t have any injuries or deaths, but we had that infrastructure damage the other two didn’t have.”
Two people died during flooding in Albemarle County when their car was washed away. One woman died in Madison County when rushing waters from the Robinson River picked her up.
At one point on May 31 there were 25 roads closed in Greene with nine mudslides heading west over the mountain on U.S. Route 33, essentially blocking Greene off from Rockingham County. The total damage cost for the Virginia Department of Transportation topped out near $4.5 million. The county qualified for agricultural disaster funding, but there was no federal disaster declaration for individual homeowners who were left on their own.
So, what’s happened in the 365 days since the start of the flooding?
The Conway River
Shawn Hill and his family were among the 15 people, seven dogs and four cats that were rescued from the swift-flowing waters of the Conway River in the Rocky Road neighborhood in Stanardsville.
In the first time since arriving in 2009, Meador realized before the sun rose May 31, 2018, there was a need for swiftwater rescues off Rocky Road. However, Greene County did not have—at that time—the training and equipment to move forward with them and the mudslides were keeping the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Swift Water Rescue Team from getting to those families quickly.
“I called VDOT and told them why we needed to get them here as soon as possible and they cleared a path to get that team to us quickly,” Meador said. “I cannot say enough good things about our VDOT guys.”
Hill moved to his home in 2000 and noted in the past 18 years he’s lost about 50 feet of property due to erosion. The Conway River has now rerouted itself creating a near 90-degree angle along the road leading into the development.
“As I understand it if there is any other catastrophic event, they’ll condemn the property,” Hill said. “We’ve had to purchase flood insurance on the house. Another thing that will eventually affect us is you cannot get a large fire truck around that bend in the road. We expect that to affect our homeowners’ insurance and we also expect flood insurance will double this year.”
At his home, Hill said he saw 86 inches of rain last year. One large section of his yard only just dried up last week, nearly a year after the flooding. He’s also spent the past year “freaking out” every time it rained—and not just him but even his dogs are more nervous now.
“Right after the flood, the first time we left them home alone, they ripped out the basement window seals. We’d never, ever had an issue with them destroying anything in the house but I think they got panicked when we left,” he said. “We want to redo the basement but really until they do something with the river, it’s not worth it. We would sell in a heartbeat if we thought we could.”
Meador said the Conway River is very dynamic and expects with the new dimensions and depths the county will hand down mandatory evacuations more frequently in the future.
“We’re still trying to do something to help those on Rocky Road,” Meador said. “We’re trying to do something with the Army Corps of Engineers, who said no to rerouting the river back. I’m hopeful a feasibility study could be done for that area because we can’t apply for grants without knowing what needs to be done.”
The South River
Flooding on the east side of South River Road is constant, even when there is little rain. That section of road was built in a flood plain. However, this storm tore apart the river’s banks on the western side of South River Road, taking the asphalt with it. Additionally, those off Entry Run Road, a road off South River Road, were stranded when the bridge crossing the South River was badly damaged. It took several days for VDOT to get that fixed.
Meador noted that VDOT recently cleaned out the debris on the east side and hopes to clear the cobble out of there, as well.
Stanardsville Supervisor Bill Martin said two weeks ago he received word from VDOT that it is redesigning the channel realignment and will submit approval for permits for the work for the east side, as well as cobble dredging in hopes of making a bank along the roadside where this about one-foot difference between the current water elevation and South River Road.
VDOT told the board of supervisors late last year the county could consider using portions of the secondary road plan funding to create a survey of the South River to see what fixes could be done.
“It’s exclusive to the South River, but that’s the river that’s probably the most impacted. It’s a good start,” Martin said.
Garth Road is a normally serene gravel road that connects Pea Ridge and Dyke roads in Stanardsville. The road is dotted with farms and Swift Run usually meanders alongside properties and homes. For one family, their custom-built home was condemned after the second flood on June 21.
“The river shifted and it’s not going to go back,” Meador said.
She said she’s working on a grant for the homeowners through FEMA that will allow the acquisition and demolition of the property.
“At the end of the day, the flood and change in the course of the river forced us out of our home and we’re working to move on and rebuild on higher ground,” said Larry Wood. “Our focus has been on the legalities with the bank as to a resolution on our mortgage while we await the outcome of the grants.”
While Wood said the situation has left a void in their hearts, but they will cherish the memories made there forever.
“Life is too short to let the negatives outweigh the positives, of which we still have many to be thankful for,” he said. “Beyond that, my only other comment would be the appreciation we have for everything done for us by Meador and emergency services, our family, friends and community throughout this ordeal. We will always remain very grateful for that. We’ll come out stronger on the other side!”
Homeowners were not the only ones hit hard, said Sarah Weaver Sharpe, agricultural extension agent. A lot of pastures were flooded and fencing was down.
“There was a lot of sand and rock in pastures and bottom fields,” she said. “Fences can be repaired but it’s really hard to try to remove sand and gravel. Some farmers had top soil completely washed off and it’s hard to get top soil replaced and very expensive.”
Large chunks of asphalt ended up in fields when roads were washed away, which could damage equipment or cause cattle to turn a foot while wondering in the pasture.
The federal government did provide relief to farmers in our region with a pot of approximately $1 million and while Sharpe knows some did qualify, she isn’t sure of the total number.
“Unfortunately, with those huge flooding events last year there’s really nothing they could have done to prevent that damage,” she said. “That flooding it’s an act of God and mother nature coming through.”
Sharpe was grateful the region qualified for agricultural disaster relief, too.
“There’s no insurance out there that will cover your pasture fields or bottom fields or even your fences. When you start to think about miles and miles and miles of fencing that were wiped out that adds up really fast. Fencing is incredibly expensive,” she said.
The saturating year made it tough for farmers in other ways, she added.
“Hay was in a huge shortage this year. People were running out and it really was a bad situation during that time period from winter and when grass was able to be grazed again. Hoping this year it’ll be OK,” Sharpe said.
Nothing moves fast
Meador and Martin agree that when it comes to government it doesn’t go as quickly as people hope.
“Trying to figure things out from May 31 on as to who was is responsible for what, who will do what, it has been a regulatory nightmare,” Meador said. “If your homeowners’ insurance didn’t cover it, which 99 percent of what we had didn’t have flood insurance, you’re just on your own. It’s your responsibility. And as an emergency management coordinator that is beyond frustrating that we could not do something for each and every person who contacted us for assistance.”
Meador said the board of supervisors has helped get first responders more prepared for future catastrophic events, moving $17,000 of contingency funds to send people to North Carolina for swiftwater rescue training last fall and to buy equipment.
“That doesn’t mean we won’t have to call Harrisonburg-Rockingham but now we have the tools, the knowledge to go ahead and start doing things instead of being in standby mode waiting for someone else to come help,” she said.
Martin said during a meeting with government agencies and legislators someone said “In the end a river’s going do what a river’s going do.”
“We had the boardroom full and it was all very helpful, but it became clear to me that Greene County has no jurisdiction over state roads and has no jurisdiction over our water ways. That’s frustrating,” Martin said. “When she said that about the river, I can’t tell you how many heads around the table were nodding. I threw up my hands kind of exasperated and said … as elected officials we have citizens who have issues that can’t get kids to schools because the school bus can’t through or they live on a public gravel road that gets washed out when we get 2 inches of rain. They’re frustrated and they look to us for answers.
“A river’s going to do what a river’s going to do,” Martin continued. “We have to hope and pray that last year’s rain will not be repeated in the near future.”
Martin himself lives between the Conway and South rivers with a private road that washes out in heavy rains, causing frustration.
“We had unprecedented rainfall last year. Is that rain going to continue? I don’t know,” he said. “One of the hardest things for me was that any time we saw a flood watch or flood warning or any indication of more than an inch of rain I wouldn’t sleep at night.”
Meador said places that have never seen flooding before were impacted.
“The importance of flood insurance cannot be understated,” she said. “In spring and summer, I always worry about thunderstorms, tornadic activity, but flooding is still on the horizon because we haven’t dried out. Also, this time of year wildfires are still a possibility. Hurricane seasons officially kicks off in June and goes into November.”
While the county cannot force people to evacuate, even mandatory orders, Meador wants people to know that no one will be able to reach them until the event is over, even in an emergency.
“You’re on your own,” she said.
Meador has these suggestions to get prepared now:
• Get a battery or crankpowered weather radio
•Make a kit in case you’re stuck in your home for days
•Make a plan of what to do depending on the type of emergency
•Pack an emergency bag with important information and items for your family and pets in case you need to leave in a hurry
•Do not go out to view the flood waters
• Do not go out to take photos
•Don’t create more problems for first responders
• If you’re in low-lying areas consider leaving earlier rather than later
•Opt-in to weather warnings in our code read system: https://www.onsolve.com/solutions/products/codered/
“It’s been a year and we’re still not dry, the ground is still saturated,” she said. “There are still a lot of issues that need to be resolved and healing that needs to happen, and we’re just not there yet.”