Ohio Valley Top 10 of 2017: Two Lives Lost in July Flash Floods
EDITOR’S NOTE: Through today, The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register present the Ohio Valley’s top 10 stories of 2017, as voted on by the newspapers’ editors.
By HEATHER ZIEGLER
Associate City Editor
WHEELING — The summer months of 2017 brought a flood of water and tears to several local communities when flash flooding resulted in two deaths and millions of dollars in property damage
On July 23, repeated heavy rainstorms hovered over parts of the local area. The rain brought a deluge of water flowing down Browns Run Road into Peters Run in Ohio County. The floodwater swept Page Gellner, 18, and her boyfriend Michael Grow, 23, off a small bridge on Browns Run into the raging stream.
Officials reportedly found Grow clinging to a guardrail along Peters Run Road later that night. Ohio County Sheriff Tom Howard and Chief Deputy John Schultz pulled Grow from the water and performed CPR on him until he was transported to Wheeling Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
A search for Gellner lasted nearly a week by first responders and volunteers searchers. Her body was found early July 29 by a search dog in the area where the creek and the Ohio River converge behind WesBanco Arena just as a second round of flash flooding was escalating around the area.
The deaths served as a reminder of the power of water and brought a community together to honor and celebrate their lives.
Lou Vargo, director of the Wheeling-Ohio County Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, where he has served as deputy director, said the events that led to the loss of Gellner and Grow are painful lessons of the unseen dangers of flash flooding.
“I don’t know if we could have done anything different. We had a lot of good people trying to save them,” Vargo said.
In the aftermath of the flash floods, Vargo learned the difficulties of getting people the help they needed.
“I understand how FEMA looks at properties after tornadoes and hurricanes where everything is wiped out, but I wish they would understand the need of those they classify in the ‘affected’ category. Many people were impacted with loss or damage to their property that didn’t qualify for federal help because of how FEMA assesses damage,” he said.
Vargo said FEMA mostly assesses structural damage to determine if a building is habitable — but sometimes other damage to property is just as costly to the owner.
“I would like to see FEMA officials relax the standards for assessing affected properties,” Vargo added.
It was that same flooding rain on July 23 that brought destruction to property in the Edgwood area of Wheeling. Homes were flooded, street pavement was uprooted and infrastructure compromised when a reported 3 inches of rain fell in 36 minutes. City Manager Robert Herron said he is not sure how Wheeling could have prepared to deal with such a deluge.
City crews spent days collecting trash and removing debris from yards and the streets, and culverts were overwhelmed with debris, which added to the backup of water.
Mother Nature was not finished with unleashing from the clouds. More heavy rain brought flooding on July 28-29, affecting hundreds of homes throughout Ohio, Marshall and Wetzel counties, with McMechen and Hundred being the worst hit areas from that storm.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency recorded 251 registrations with the agency from Marshall County, with 137 out of 221 referrals approved under their Individuals and Households Program, securing more than $530,000 in grants.
According to McMechen City Clerk Julie Bratton, hundreds of residences in town were damaged in the Friday evening flood, with many homes and businesses receiving several feet of water and a thick layer of mud throughout the area. It would take months to regain a sense of normalcy for many, and city officials are still operating in temporary offices inside the former Bishop Donahue High School.
Hit particularly hard was the city’s fire department, which Assistant Fire Chief Andy Taylor said was left barely functional after the water began to recede. Floodwater damaged many of their power tools and other equipment, as well as knocking out much of their rescue gear — some of which hadn’t had a chance to be used yet. Insurance investigators were contacted to assess the damage.
In Hundred, even the new fire station and emergency equipment were inundated with water and several feet of mud. An estimated 80 percent of Hundred residents impacted by the flooding did not have flood insurance, according to emergency officials.
Lead volunteers and officials in Hundred said so many homes and rental properties were damaged that it left residents without a place to live or work.
When U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., toured the flood-ravaged areas of his state, he heard the frustration from residents over governmental red tape that prevented them from clearing creeks and streams that have areas blocked by fallen trees.
The hard-hit town of Pine Grove saw members of the National Guard come to the area to aid in the massive flood relief efforts. Volunteer centers were set up in all of the affected counties for victims to find some help in restoring some semblance of normalcy to their homes, towns and lives.