This Agatha Christie title takes on a whole new meaning for me this week as I see so many families in dire circumstances across my beautiful state of West Virginia. I dedicate my blog this Friday to the flood victims in my neighboring counties. So far 26 people have been killed and still others are missing – my heart breaks for them.
To understand the devastation one must first understand the geography of this place. The mountains in West Virginia create these little pockets of narrow valleys where people live. As we were driving along a few days ago, my youngest daughter asked me why so many of us live along the river. I explained to her that when the first settlers came here, it was only reasonable to settle along the rivers to have access to water for crops and the other necessities of life. In other places people are able to spread their communities out from the water sources, but here the mountains are so dense and our valleys so narrow, that there is nowhere else to spread. As we drove along, I pointed out to her that a mountain was climbing up to the right of us just a few feet from the road. To the left was a small row of houses along the river, and beyond that was a steep bank that led up to the railroad tracks running alongside another mountain. She said, “Mommy, we really do live in the woods, don’t we?” Yes, we do.
In the book I am currently working on, which is set in a small West Virginia town, one of my main characters is new to the area. This provides so many opportunities for me to see the lay of the land I am so familiar with through a stranger’s eyes. At one point he is standing in the center of town and notices the walls of green on all four sides of him and the small patch of sky overhead, and likens the feeling to being dropped in a very deep well. I have heard from new comers that they feel claustrophobic here, and I can understand that – outsiders often feel like the walls are closing in on them.
Those who are born and raised here feel quite the opposite. No matter where I go, when I’m on the interstate and see my mountains in the distance I release a breath I didn’t even know I was holding. For those of us that live with this wild place in our blood, nothing makes us feel as safe as that low lying fog that hangs over the trees like grandma’s homemade quilt.
The bad end of our terrain, is that when something like this recent flooding happens, and the water rushes through our little valleys, there is nowhere to go. It is a feeling that is so surreal; it’s almost like an out-of-body experience.
I know that feeling well. I grew up listening to my grandmother tell about the Buffalo Creek disaster of 1972, the worst flood in our state’s history, when the Pittston Coal Company’s coal slurry impoundment dam burst, unleashing approximately 132,000,000 US gallons of black waste water, cresting over 30 ft high, upon the residents of 16 coal towns along Buffalo Creek Hollow. Out of a population of 5,000 people, 125 were killed, 1,121 were injured, and over 4,000 were left homeless. My uncle’s family lived there at the time. When the water started coming he and another man jumped in a car and sped along the narrow hollow shouting warnings to people along the way, but the water was too fast for many to make it out.
In 2001, my own community that sits along the Guyandotte River was flooded in what was dubbed The Hundred Year Flood. My father’s house was destroyed and had to be rebuilt, and my own home had to be torn down two months later due to foundation damage that could not be repaired. The water came so fast that day, the only thing we could do was grab what we could and seek higher ground. The river covered the road on both ends of our community, essentially trapping us in, as we all stood together on the blacktop and hoped for the best. I watched in fear as my husband went into the rushing water time and time again to help a neighbor or rescue a pet.
And now these floods that have left so many devastated…
So why do we stay in this place? I hear that question a lot. The environment is wild, and not always friendly. We have many people living in poverty as the unemployment rate rises. Many communities have been hit hard by the prescription drug epidemic…and yet we remain. It’s hard for someone from the outside to wrap their brain around, but we stay because the mountains are in our blood. Our history – our roots – run so deep that it feels like they have been fused to the mountains. We are often classified as the “South,” but we can’t really breath down there in those lower states, the air is just too thick. The northerners don’t understand our ways or our close nit culture. It seems like once you’ve acclimated yourself to this part of the world, you just don’t fit anywhere else…
We are connected to the earth here in a powerful way. Last week, when the storms started rolling in I stood on my back deck and just turned a circle following the clouds across the sky. The mountains rose all around me as I breathed in the smell of the rain. Some old timers will tell you that there is magic in these mountains, and when you put your bare feet to the ground and feel the force of nature surround you, you start to believe that might be true. I often wonder how people in cities, surrounded by steel and concrete manage to hold on to their connectivity to the earth. Where does their sense of humanity go when they are surrounded by so much that is not alive? Sometimes I feel like all the problems in the world, from war to racism, could be solved by sitting around grandma’s table with the understanding that we are, none of us, disconnected from one another by too many degrees…We seem to have a pretty good grasp of that here.
At the end of the day, the main reason we stay is because of the people. The folks in West Virginia are unlike any others. We are strong. We persevere. We love each other like family. You can be thousands of miles away from home and meet another West Virginian and feel an instant spark of light – we know each other.
When our family was struck by flooding in 2001, regardless of the fact that we were faced with losing everything we had, no one cried, we dug in and helped each other. Just before the water got to my house, a neighbor of mine who lived down the road in a little mobile home came over, and when we asked him how things were at his house and he said, “Oh it’s all gone. I just came to see if I could help you get some of your stuff out before the water gets in.” To this day, tears come to my eyes when I think about that. Another neighbor who lived on the hill up from us, grilled corn dogs and rode around on his four wheeler handing them out to people – that is, to this day, the best corn dog I have ever eaten.
After the water started to recede, and so many in our community were left with nothing. My grandmother went up to our camper we had moved to higher ground and started to make coffee. My dad, whose home had been destroyed, pulled out his grill and started to cook whatever we had that might go bad. I emptied my freezer and took it up, and pretty soon everyone around was bringing food to the camper to be cooked. In the two weeks that followed when no one was able to get to a store, we never ran out of food, and everyone in our community was fed every day from that little camper.
In this recent flooding, I’ve seen one video after another of people working together. When they ask for help, it is not money they request, they simply say, “Bring a shovel and help where you can,” and people do. Not once will you hear one of them ask for government assistance, they will help each other. Not once will you see looting or riots, what can be given is given freely. That is the wonderful nature of these people…it’s just that simple.
Two days ago I was driving through one of our poorest communities, and the volunteer fire department there was standing in the road asking for donations for the flood victims. In the poorest community around, I had to wait in traffic to take my turn at dropping what I had in the donation bucket – they raised over $2600.00 in that one afternoon.
We love each other here. Sometimes we don’t like each other, like any family unit, but we always love our fellow Mountaineers. That is a support system that just doesn’t exist in too many places, and not something I would trade for all the riches in the world.
So the storm clouds will come and we will watch them dance across our patch of sky from deep in the valley. We will smell the rain on the wind. And when the flood waters rise we will stand up and rebuild with the magic of the mountains holding us up when it seems that all our strength has gone.
Montani Semper Liberi – Mountaineers are Always Free