West Virginia floods devastate 1,200 homes, many lives

Story highlights

  • Grandmother died after her home burst into flames
  • Sheriff warns of looting, number of dead may increase

(CNN)This week West Virginians likely will escape any more of the flooding that has wreaked havoc across several counties, taking 23 lives -- a figure authorities warned may rise.

But for the families on Mill House Road in White Sulphur Springs -- many of them kin -- any new flooding could hardly make things worse.
    Eleven houses stood on the road near Howard Creek last Thursday. Three remain.
    And Belinda Scott, a spunky grandmother with a strong will to live, didn't make it. The flood uprooted Scott's house, which exploded after it filled with natural gas. Scott tried to escape the water and flames by climbing a tree. Some nearby houses were floating down the road.
    Scott's house stayed put, but she couldn't get far enough from the fire.
    Her granddaughter, Ashley Scott, was in the attic of her house next door with her husband and two children. They had heard people screaming about children floating down the street. Then they heard the explosion.
    "We heard her screaming for help, and I knew right off it was her," Smith told CNN, her voice breaking. "Honestly, I thought we were going to die ... I thought my children were going to drown."
    At least one burning house floated down the street. One set of neighbors rescued themselves with a rope across the torrent.
    By the time rescuers reached Smith's grandmother last Thursday, the older woman had burns over 60% of her body. She died three days later in the hospital.

    'Flood-watch free'

    West Virginia residents should have little to fear today because the rain is pushing east, allowing the Mountain State to dry out, said CNN meteorologist Matt Daniel.
    While there may be an occasional shower, it shouldn't raise the water significantly, he said.
    "They are flood-watch free," Daniel said.
    Last week's flooding severely damaged or destroyed more than 1,200 homes, including 500 in Roane County. Kanawaha County had 400 homes and 70 businesses destroyed and 200-300 severely damaged, said Brooke Hylbert, a county spokesman, on Tuesday.
    Authorities later reported 111 homes and 14 businesses destroyed in Greenbrier County, home of White Sulphur Springs, where most of the 23 fatalities occurred. That death toll is down from the 25 fatalities initially reported by authorities because two campers presumed dead have been accounted for.
    It's the nation's highest death toll from flash floods since May 2010, when 27 people died in Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi.
    West Virginia's death tally still may climb. Three people are still unaccounted for in Greenbrier County, said Barbara Miller of the West Virginia Office of Emergency Management.

    Children among those killed

    At least two children were killed in the deluge, including a 4-year-old boy who was washed away by floodwaters in Jackson County, officials said. In Wheeling, an 8-year-old child fell into Big Wheeling Creek in the Elm Grove area, and was swept away, according to the Wheeling Intelligencer-News Register.
    Also in White Sulphur Springs, the storms severely impacted the Greenbrier, a luxury resort that was scheduled to host the PGA Tour's Greenbrier Classic July 7-10. The PGA canceled the tournament because of heavy damage to the resort's golf course.

    County sheriff warns of the risks of looting

    Fayette County Sheriff Steve Kessler posted a warning on Facebook about possible looting and said it would not be tolerated.
    "Anyone we catch looting will be arrested and jailed," he said. "If the residents of this area catch you first, you may not make it to jail. If you are not a resident of this area and don't have family members in the area you are trying to help, you need to stay out of this area."
    A chorus of support for vigilante justice --- some of it local, some of it coming from as far away as Washington state -- lit up the comments section of the Fayette County Sheriff's Facebook page.
    Kessler's statement appeared more of a warning than an endorsement of violence against looters. But some Facebook commenters supported more extreme measures.
    Lisa Turner, whose Facebook page carried the cover photo "Pray for West Virginia," said, "Right!!! Or pay the consequences of a fine piece of lead!!! Way to go Fayette Co sheriff!!!
    North Carolinian David Thomas expressed similar sentiments: "These sorry idiots don't need to see the inside of a jail cell, just the wrong end of a 12-gauge shotgun. Praying for all of you."
    Amber Morgan Gibson of Morgantown, West Virginia, posted: "We are Mountaineers!!! We will always stay United and take care of our own. So if that means taking the law into your own hands so be it!! "

    State of emergency

    Getting help

    Preliminary damage assessments for individual assistance will begin Monday, while assessments for public assistance are slated for Tuesday.

    This is the first step in helping the state government gauge the scope of the damage, and determining if additional assistance is needed.

    Individuals and business owners who sustained losses can register at www.disasterassistance.gov or call 1-800-621-3362.

    Residents with speech or hearing disabilities can call 1-800-462-7585. Operators will field calls from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. everyday, until further notice.

    -- West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management

    President Obama has declared West Virginia a disaster area. But some of those residents accepting federal assistance may be forced to relocate, U.S. Senator Joe Manchin told CNN.
    "To get assistance, they're gonna have to move out," Manchin said. "They can't rebuild back or be in the same area where it could happen again."