WV 'will get hit'

While the Atlantic coast grabs the hurricane spotlight, West Virginia is worried, too.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | September 17, 2003

"A hurricane is about one of the only disasters you can plan for."

—Tom Burns

While the Atlantic coast grabs the hurricane-preparedness spotlight, West Virginia is worried, too.

Emergency management officials and disaster response groups in that flood-prone state expressed their concern Wednesday that Hurricane Isabel could bring heavy rainfall that will trigger flash floods and mudslides.

"We are absolutely concerned," said David Hogue, who serves on the executive committee of West Virginia's coalition of Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. "There are 10 counties in the eastern panhandle, and with the size of this hurricane, they could easily be affected, especially given that the eastern part of the state has a history of flooding.

"Hurricane Isabel is wider than the entire state of West Virginia," he added.

West Virginia was set to declare a state of emergency Thursday as of 6 a.m., when shelters will be set up.

Forecasters said the eastern portion of the state can expect up to 8 inches of rain, and other areas could see up to 5 inches.

"We are going to get hit," said Tom Burns, director of operations for the West Virginia Office of Emergency Services. "But we'd like to think we won't have power outages because the winds will weaken."

Being able to prepare for Hurricane Isabel makes it different from flash flooding earlier this year, he added. "A hurricane is about one of the only disasters you can plan for."

Hurricane Agnes stands as one historical example that West Virginia is vulnerable to hurricanes. After Agnes made landfall in 1972 in Florida, then traveled north, severe flooding occurred at most locations in West Virginia and Virginia from just west of Winchester, Va., and Martinsburg, W.V., to Alexandria and Quantico, Va.

Peak flows in some of the larger streams ranged from two to six times greater than the previous known maximum, and Agnes caused nearly $8 million in damage in West Virginia.

And environmental damage caused by coal mining operations will worsen floods in Appalachia, according to faith-based and community activists.

"My belief is that the issue of coal has contributed to the continuing saga of disasters," explained Sister Robbie Pentecost, director of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia, a 35-year-old organization based in eastern Kentucky. "When you strip a mountain or remove the top of a mountain you've got problems."

Mountaintop removal strip mining is the practice of blasting off the tops of mountains so large machines called draglines can mine coal deposits. Coal mining companies dump the mountaintops into nearby valleys and streams to create "valley fills."

Pentecost and other activists believe that denuded mountainsides worsen flash flooding in the Appalachian Mountains.

"But the coal companies don't want to own up to that," she said. "The coal companies say 'we can refurbish the mountains.'

"Disasters continue to happen because large entities have too much power. I firmly believe a major piece is the coal."

It's the effects on people that keep Pentecost on the activist's path. "There is a family where the wife committed suicide because she just couldn't take any more flood damage."

Pentecost also tells about two Catholic nuns whose home was unfortunately in the path of a collapsed coal sludge impoundment. Sludge, or slurry, is a thick, black waste product coal companies store, or impound, in vats or tanks. If coal slurry storage areas collapse or give way during a heavy rain, the cascade of waste can bury houses, cars and people.

"These two women watched black sludge ooze out of their cupboards. It was demoralizing. But they were lucky to be alive."

Coal sludge accidents are so common in West Virginia that it's a fear children often have, said Vivian Stockman, an organizer with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.

"People wonder is the coal sludge impoundment going to fail? Children are scared and going to bed with their clothes and shoes on because they're scared they'll have to evacuate fast."

In the mountains of this region, pushing for change can be tiring work. "You try to tell people that democracy matters and you should be an active participant. But they're getting frustrated when they do speak out," said Stockman. "It's a bitter lesson to become an activist. The injustice wears some people down. But we do get some small victories now and then."

"There are many, many people living in fear of the next disaster. It's not 'if' but 'when.' "

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