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The Thousand-Year Flood

Voices from the Future | Ronnie Scott

flooded town

The Thousand-Year Flood

The Event: The 2016 West Virginia flood— considered a 1,000-year natural event with a 0.1 percent probability of happening in any given year — ravaged Greenbrier Valley residents on June 23. Torrential rain and thunder, rising 10 to 12 inches in 12 hours, turned quiet creeks into flash floods that ran down steep hills, alleyways and streets washing away roads, houses and entire neighborhoods. Twenty- three people lost their lives, including a 14-year-old girl.

Ronnie Scott returned home from high a school basketball game in White Sulphur Springs, part of Greenbrier Valley, to the house he built by hand for his family.

“I heard the thunder and [saw the] lightning all day,” Scott says.

At home, his wife, Belinda, was cooking supper as he took a cold drink from the fridge and went out to the porch. “In that short time, the creek had risen like 15 feet,” he remembers. “I told Belinda to take her car and leave the house immediately.”

Scott, in the meantime, tried to pull his camper up on the nearby hill to safety.

“The water was full across my street; I could see two inches ahead,” he says. “Fences, trees, walls and other debris were flooding down the creek. I started beating doors, screaming and howling to get neighbors to come out and go up on the hill. I got five of my neighbors out. One neighbor, a dad, refused to leave. Soon the water was going through their windows. The whole family was swept away. The rescuers did not find their 14-year-old girl’s body until two months later.”

Unbeknownst to Scott, Belinda had gone back to the house to rescue their dog and cat while he tried to help their neighbors. She became trapped in the house.

“I told her over the phone to take crowbar and a hammer, break the fence and go to the porch,” Scott says. “I told her, ‘When the rescue comes, I can pull the boat up.’ Last thing she said to me was that she smelled gas.”

The gas line under Scott’s house had broken when another house washed down the creek.

“Our house filled up with gas, the gas explosion blew it up and threw my wife and cat into a tree,” he says. “They ended up hanging in that tree for the next four and half hours.”

That tree still stands tall on Scott’s land, now part of Paisley Park, as a memorial dedicated to Belinda and all the other flood victims. Tragically, Belinda did not survive, dying a week later at the hospital from the explosion burns on her body.

“She was my angel,” Scott says. “I love her, I miss her.”

At first, Scott wanted to give up on White Sulphur Springs, where he was born 65 years ago and where he has lived all his life. Scott got an offer to live in the city’s new flood victim housing, City of Hope. But he hesitated.

“I didn’t want to stay,” he says. “Some people rebuilt by the creek. New coding was set into an effect after the floods. Houses have to be two feet above the water line. If I had to sleep next to a creek again, I could never do that. So, I accepted the offer. I live there now, up on the hill. I feel safe.”

Understandably, considering what Scott and his family went through three years ago, he is still troubled by complicated emotions and terrible memories that haunt him. One memory concerns his son and his family. He was close to losing them, too.

“My son, his wife and their kids were able to escape to the attic, when their house flooded,” he says. “My son was paddling the water away with his hands to keep the family safe.”

Two months after the tragedy, Scott found an answer to his family’s tragedies in God.

“I got baptized. and I knew why God was talking to me and why he sought me out,” Scott explains. He also gains solace from the memorial, where he visits often to be with Belinda, and where the residents can gather to grieve the lost ones and dream for a better future.

After the flood, Scott acquired a farmland property in Monroe county, about 30 miles from West Sulphur Springs. There, he feels like can get away, and he plans to install solar.

Ironically, after the floods, Scott has witnessed drought and rapidly changing temperatures across the farmland.

“Springs and rivers have dried up, wells are dry,” he says. “We have the worst draught in West Virginia since the 1940s. “The governor issued a warning for not using water for personal use. No water for lawns, washing automobiles or filling swimming pools. You are in real trouble there.”

Scott is also worried about the extensive tree-cutting around him.

“They have been cut by the coal mining companies or by the storms,” he says. Scott loves trees. He guards them, and he doesn’t agree with the damage mining has caused to the environment.

For decades now, companies have been cutting down the trees to build quarries.

“Now, it is just dust and dirt, and nothing will grow there,” Scott says. “You can see that every time you go through the coal fields. They cut the trees — the white oak trees and the red oak trees. “I don’t think people use coal like they used to. Our governor is big on coal mining. He thinks that coal can come back, but I have always used wood to heat my house. After every storm, I went out to get dead wood and used it. I never cut a tree.”

In his desire to create a healthier environment and future for all, Scott drives his wife’s old car as little as possible. He also struggles with recent business developments in his area — cutting oak trees for whisky barrel manufacturing.

“I tell everybody that material stuff doesn’t mean anything,” Scott says. “I worked very hard all my life and had anything I wanted. I had more than I needed. Now, if I buy something, it’s something I ‘m really going to use, otherwise I don’t buy it.”

Moreover, Scott has stayed strong in his personal mission to share his family’s story with everyone who is willing to listen.

“I tell everybody, you know? We are going to have to educate people, to change their ways of living, to make a change because of the climate and how we treat each other, “Scott says. “Nature will take its course, and the trees will grow back, but it will take time. That’s why we have to do our part now.”

— Kirsi-M. Hayrinen-Beschloss