Nancy Mullins was working at the Richwood, West Virginia, nursing home on June 23, 2016, when the town began to flood. Her first thought was for her two daughters, who were back at home, a block from the swollen Cherry River. She sped home, got them to safety, then drove back to work in her husband's truck, through roads already submerged in flood water.
When the town flooded in 2003, the nursing home had moved residents to the rear of the building. They planned to do the same today, but Mullins had seen the flood.
"We've got to get these people out of here," said Mullins, 41, who opens her arms to everyone. A school bus driver commandeered two buses to transport 95 residents several blocks to Liberty Baptist Church. As they moved the residents onto the buses, the water was over Mullins' knees, and in the laps of the residents in wheelchairs.
Panic set in. Some co-workers froze. But Mullins became a general in the rescue battalion.
"It was like slow motion," she says. "You got to move, we need teamwork, you hold, you do that. Was happening so fast, no time to react, just had to do. I never saw myself doing this in my whole life."
The mini army carried fragile elderly, with feeding tubes, IVs, and bandaged limbs, out the narrow gap between the back door and retaining wall. Surging waves pushed wheelchairs out from under residents. A torrent of water knocked Mullins down, and she would have drowned had a resident's son not grabbed her and hauled her back onto her feet.
Downtown Richwood at dawn, after hours of heavy rain flooded the town in June of 2016 | (Courtesy Narratively)
After several increasingly dangerous trips back and forth, 12 residents remained in the building, but the buses couldn't wait any longer. The water was rising too fast. The buses left, and Mullins took charge. Using sheets as stretchers, she and the other workers carried the remaining 12 residents through the water to the church.
"Most terrible thing I had to do in my life," she says.
Not once did she think of her home. She would find it filled up to the kitchen counter with Cherry River overflow, a neighbor's deck lodged against the back door.
The likelihood of a storm this powerful was just 0.1 percent. In just a few hours, it dumped nearly nine inches of rain on Richwood. The Cherry River rose over its banks, and this small city's steep streets funneled torrents of water to the city below. Eighty homes were destroyed; 100 were damaged. The high school and middle school were wrecked. Pavement was shredded; water and sewer pipes twisted and erupted. Roads became rivers.
And none of it had to happen.
This was Richwood's seventh major flood since 1932. In 2004, West Virginia issued a Flood Protection Plan — 365 pages of recommendations for preventing future flooding that died in the legislature after funding was denied. In 2008, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study found that floodwalls could be erected in Richwood for $59 million, but that this 2,000-person town was not significant enough to merit the expense. Instead, the federal government will have to spend at least $130 million to repair the damage.
Heavy rains caused the ground to collapse underneath the Main Street Motors office building in Richwood | (Courtesy Narratively)
"That whole thing made me angry then and still does today," said John Ailes, former head of mining regulation. As a regulator, Ailes fought to control flood runoff from coalmines and logging and helped formulate the 2004 flood plan. As a National Guard member he helped clean up many floods. "Richwood is the poster child for sure. And I hope somehow it makes a comeback."
Floods are getting bigger. The 2014 National Climate Assessment found that, since 1958, the very largest rainfalls have increased 71 percent from Maine to West Virginia, and 37 percent in Midwest states, from Minnesota to Missouri. While coastal flooding captures the attention of the media, inland floods tend to do greater damage and claim more lives. Many occur in rural communities or poorer parts of cities with no funds for flood protection, forcing the federal government to pick up the tab. Richwood's year of disaster and recovery tells a common story of despair, confusion, and collateral consequences.
"Why sacrifice poor communities?" says Eric Tate, an associate professor at the University of Iowa who studies the confluence of environmental hazards and society. "What if we made choices not on the value of stuff, but on the vulnerability of people, on cultural values. What would decisions look like then?"
Read the rest of this story at Narratively.