Deadly Floods Voted Top News Story of 2016 in West Virginia

Dec 29, 2016

A National Weather Service meteorologist called it a "1-in-1,000-year" storm. By the time it was over, 23 West Virginians were dead.

Flooding that ravaged the state in late June was voted the No. 1 news story in 2016 in West Virginia by Associated Press member newspapers and broadcasters.

The sentencing of former Massey CEO Don Blankenship and his subsequent appeal was voted second, and the state's substance abuse epidemic was third.

The floods destroyed or damaged thousands of homes, businesses, roads and bridges; prompted a massive response from volunteers and organizations; and dominated headlines for months. President Barack Obama issued a disaster declaration for a dozen counties.

"The June 2016 floods were a natural disaster of the magnitude that many West Virginians had never witnessed before," said Lauren McGill, metro editor at The Herald-Dispatch in Huntington. "The number of deaths and the extent of the destruction caused by the flooding shocked the entire state, and will not be soon forgotten."

Leslie Rubin, a reporter at WCHS-TV in Charleston, said the flooding "was something unlike anything I had ever seen. There were countless stories of hope and help that showed what it really means to be a West Virginian. On the other end of that, it is still painful to see the effects of the flood that will forever leave a mark on our state."

West Virginia's ongoing struggles with substance abuse also received votes.

But the story line finished just shy of overtaking Blankenship, who is serving a one-year sentence after being convicted of misdemeanor conspiracy for what prosecutors called a series of willful safety violations before the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine explosion that killed 29 men. Before his appeal was heard in October, Blankenship released a manifesto from prison declaring himself a political prisoner.

Among the substance abuse stories this year included the heroin overdoses of more than two dozen people in a five-hour span in Huntington in August. Two people died. Elected leaders, communities, and health- and faith-based groups are seeking ways to end the scourge of drug addiction.

"The substance abuse issue is one that impacts every state resident, in every county and from every demographic category," said John McCabe, managing editor of The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register. "It's ripping families apart, leaving children to be raised by grandparents, or, worse, in the foster care system. This is one of our defining issues at this time, and as a community, we need to tackle it head-on."

Rounding out West Virginia's top 10 stories were:

— Greenbrier resort owner Jim Justice, a Democrat, is elected governor over Republican Bill Cole.

— West Virginia voters overwhelmingly choose Republican Donald Trump for president over Hillary Clinton. Trump's win nationally gives hope to coal communities that have seen economic downturns in recent decades.

— A January blizzard dumps 42 inches of snow in parts of West Virginia.

— Mylan CEO Heather Bresch, daughter of Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, is grilled on Capitol Hill about the sky-high price of lifesaving EpiPens and the profits for her company.

— After months of stalled negotiations on balancing the state budget, lawmakers in mid-June opt to bank on higher taxes on cigarettes, e-cigarettes and other tobacco products to raise about $98 million a year.

— Buoyed by Trump's popularity, Republicans maintain their control of West Virginia's Legislature, while the GOP wins four of the six statewide offices.

— Coal companies including Alpha Natural Resources and Blackhawk Mining announce the additional layoffs of hundreds of miners in West Virginia as the industry's downtown continues.