Flood tests spirit of survival in Appalachia

For the second time in 10 months, residents of the Appalachian coal towns along the Tug Fork river were digging out from a devastating flood over the weekend and talking about rebuilding their lives and homes and businesses.

"We're tough people up here in the mountains, but we're getting tired of this," says Marvin Cochran. "I'll put things back together again because this has always been home. But my father says he's getting out, if we can get his trailer off the hill."

Near an emergency center where Mr. Cochran had come to collect bottled water, the river still gurgles with high, muddy water. "At least it's started going down," he says. Then he looks at dark clouds overhead and adds, "You can't tell, though. Those clouds let loose and she'll come right back up."

Tug Fork, which separates West Virginia and Kentucky, crested Friday at nearly 20 feet above flood stage after a night of heavy rain. The overflow rushed through the little towns stretched out along Route 52 – just as had happened in July – and left a sense of weariness among people who for generations have entrusted their fate to God, nature, and coal.

"You really admire the resilience of people like this," says Capt. Sandra Mullins of the Salvation Army as she hands out ham-salad sandwiches and lemonade from a mobile canteen. "But you look in their faces and you see the sadness and the tiredness."

After the last one, the state began investigating whether new coal mining practices and the timber industry were to blame for the intensity of the flooding. In the past 10 years, mining firms have been shearing off mountaintops to get to coal and piling the leftover debris into valleys, altering the topography.

Officials say this flood, which also touched parts of Virginia and Kentucky, killed at least five people. Rescue crews were searching for as many as a dozen others unaccounted for. Gov. Bob Wise of West Virginia said at least 875 homes and 30 businesses were damaged.

On Northfork's main street – littered with plastic bags, tree limbs, and debris carried by the flood – the town's funeral director, Mike Widener, had installed a steel door after the last flood to protect a display of 25 caskets in his basement. The contractor had guaranteed not a drop of water would get in. The steel door splintered Friday, and the caskets were destroyed. "If you'd said to me last week I'd be going through another flood today, not in a million years would I have believed you," he says. "But I'll start over. Of course, I will. In Appalachia, it seems we're always doing that."

That's what people tried to do when the big coal companies pulled back from these towns in the 1970s. The scars are evident: empty storefronts, abandoned car dealerships, a vacant shop that sold Royal typewriters.

Sometimes, though, there is a sound that harks back to more prosperous times. It came Saturday, just as Mr. Widener was dusting and mist was descending on Northfork – a lonely wail that fills the valley and reaches up the hollows, then the rumble of three Northfork Southern engines, snaking out of the mountains, with a procession of loaded coal cars. It is a reminder that life goes on.

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